Note: This is a review under chef Chris Lee, who left the restaurant in December 2010. Chrisophe Belanca, the former chef of Le Cirque, replaced him for five months, then departed in April 2011. The current head man is Marcus Ware, a sous chef who had been with Aureole for four years, dating back to its Upper East Side townhouse days.
If you want to time the stock market, don’t ask Charlie Palmer. In 1988, he opened Aureole on the Upper East Side just in time for a recession. This summer, he moved the restaurant to Bryant Park—again, right in the middle of a recession.
Palmer seems to be recession-proof. He has at least sixteen restaurants to his name—opening, it seems, about one per year, in a career long enough to have weathered the economy’s ups and downs. He hasn’t actually run the kitchen at Aureole since 2001. The list of chefs who’ve worked for him is like a Who’s Who of the restaurant industry.
His relationship with the critics has been up and down. At River Café, he got two stars from Marian Burros in 1984, then three from Bryan Miller in 1986. At Aureole, Miller gave him two stars in 1989 and upgraded him to three in 1991.
The tony Upper East Side townhouse on East 61st Street, for which Palmer paid $3 million in 1987, got a facelift in 1999, prompting a re-visit by William Grimes, who promptly knocked the restaurant back down to two stars. My only visit was perhaps a year or two later. What sticks in my mind is not the utterly forgettable food, but an irritating electronic wine list that resembled an Amazon Kindle (before such things existed). I’m a gadget guy, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Last year, Palmer decided to move to the Bank of America building at Bryant Park. He hopes that his loyal Upper East Side regulars will folow him there, while he picks up business clients and theatergoers who wouldn’t venture to the old location. He’s on an ugly block, but the space has an $8 million makeover by Adam Tihany, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the last half-dozen projects Tihany has done.
If Tihany’s work is unoriginal, at least it’s effective. The new Aureole, like so many luxury restaurants these days, is a bifurcated space, with a spacious, bustling bar room and a quiet dining room. As there’s nothing to see on 42nd Street, Tihany gave dining room patrons a view of the bar room, dominated by a towering wine wall that puts most others to shame. Soft fabric wallpaper absorbs sound, even when the room is nearly full, as it was last Saturday evening
I have my doubts about the bar room, where most of the dinner entrées are above $30, and a burger is $19. At those prices, Aureole won’t be my first choice for a bar dinner.
The dining room offers an $84 prix fixe and a rather odd $115 parallel tasting menu (eight courses served in pairs). The prix fixe is comparable to other restaurants in Aureole’s league, assuming the food lives up to it.
Chef Christopher Lee, who won two Michelin stars at Gilt, has been running the kitchen since earlier this year. The menu is a mixture of his own ideas and Palmer’s own classics. If he can ace every meal the way he aced ours, he should win back the third star that William Grimes took away.
The amuse-bouche was a plate-cleansing raw scallop (above left).
The “Scallop Sandwich” (above left) has been on Aureole’s menu from the beginning. Bryan Miller found “a brittle lid of sauteed potatoes…atop the meltingly tender scallops glossed with a citric-edged shellfish stock,” but Grimes it “a very oily eating experience.” As of today, the dish is a winner again, with a delicate nugget of seared foie gras as a bonus.
Another Foie Gras appetizer (above right) is an appealing marriage of unlikely ingredients: blueberries, corn bread, pickled jalapenos, and macadamia nuts.
Crispy Black Sea Bass (above left) was flawless, and an extremely generous portion too.
Another dish, styled “Canadian Lobster Tail vs. Berkshire Pork Belly” (above right) was an example of the side-by-side entrées that the new Aureole seems to favor. Oddly enough, it carried no supplement—the only entrée that did was King Salmon ($10). Anyhow, we thought the lobster won this duel by a narrow margin.
I don’t recall what was in the pre-dessert (shown left), but the desserts themselves were terrific. I adored a sweet corn soufflé (below left), a preparation I do not recall seeing on any other menu. (No doubt someone will write in that Ducasse did it 20 years ago, but in any case it was new to me.)
Cheeses (below right), sourced from Austria and Germany, were wonderful too.
A selection of petits-fours followed, of which we chose three from a larger selection, along with warm brown sugar beignets.
The large wine list (in a printed book this time) took a while to digest, but it was well worth it. Focused on France, with cameos from other nations, there are choices ranging from $40 to four figures. A $66 Volnay, near but not at the bottom of the list, was terrific.
I assume that Palmer brought his service team over from 61st Street. Their work was polished, their choreography a pleasure to watch. We started dinner with a cocktail, and we appreciated that we were not rushed into ordering. They wisely understood that we wanted time to relax.
Many upscale restaurants are re-tooling these days, including Bouley, Café Boulud, Chanterelle, and Oceana. It’s a little too facile to say that they’re all going downscale. Bouley actually got fancier, and while Aureole has added a more casual bar room, the dining room is very much in the spirit of the former location. Except it’s better.
Aureole (One Bryant Park [42nd Street W. of Sixth Avenue], West Midtown)