Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Aureole Review

Charlie Palmer's Aureole moved this summer from the Upper East Side to the new Bank of America tower near Bryant Park. Such a move - from a rich, stuffy neighborhood to a touristy area likely to attract a more mixed demographic - seems to also reflect the changes the restaurant looked to make. I never ate at the original restaurant, but recently took a friend out to a birthday dinner at the new, remixed version. Aureole has opened with a formal dining room, serving a pre-fixe menu, along with a more casual high-ceilinged bar room, where you can order a la carte while listening to the pop sounds of Coldplay and Jason Mraz. With the bar room, Aureole follows in the footsteps of so many restaurants these days, catering to the recession, trying to attract a younger crowd and those looking to spend a little less.

Our first interaction with the waiter began when we ordered wine. I asked the waiter to tell me what a Spanish white wine on the menu was like. He responded "I haven't had it." Silence. No other suggestions about anything he HAD had or any offer to find out. And so the meal would go with our not-so-knowledgeable, standoffish waiter.

Because appetizers so often outshine the main courses and offer more variety, we chose to share a combination of dishes from the bar snacks and appetizers with just one main course.

Bar Snacks

The papas fritas, fluke sashimi and octopus a la plancha were served first.

The french fries - let's call them what they are - were served in a tall paper-lined cone-shaped container, topped with shaved aged manchego cheese and chorizo bits with saffron aioli on the side. These were excellent and without a doubt one of the best things we ate that night. Take that for what you will. These crispy, thin fries were perfectly salted and the chorizo bits, like bacon bits, but with chorizo instead, really made these fries sing. For me, the aioli added little, except it worked well to help vacuum up the last bits of chorizo. My dining companion loved the aioli and was already plotting to make her own.

The fluke came with chopped edamame, yuzu eggplant puree, shallot ginger dressing (and a small ring of fried shallot). Fluke is often the fish of choice for sashimi and can be done really well, dressed up in all sorts of flavors and zing. It is not a fish that does well with subtlety. This fluke was dull. It was missing a strong citrus flavor or for that matter, any flavor. The texture of the crunchy edamame also didn't help its case.

The octopus was dressed with cannellini beans, tomato confit, red peppers and pickled red pearl onions in a red chili sauce. Charred on the outside and wondrously tender. But this wouldn't win a style contest; the elements didn't merge to produce an impressive outfit.

First and Second Course

Crispy Soft Shell Blue Crab sat atop a pile of shredded Belgian endive and Granny Smith apple. It was accompanied by a rémoulade aka tartar sauce. The crab was sweet and meaty, but tucked in too much oily breading. My Tennessean dining companion said it reminded her of Captain D's. What is Captain D's, I asked? Apparently, a southern fast food chain. I'm sure Aureole would be happy to hear they were producing food just THAT good.

The West Coast Halibut was served with creamed corn, potato gnocchi, sugar snap peas, and basil pesto. Our see-sawing meal leveled off with this well-composed dish. It was not until this point that we finally saw a true glimmer of what the big deal with this place might be. The halibut was soft and paired nicely with the sweet corn and pesto. I wished for more of both sides. The gnocchi were gently browned as though they had been pan fried. The sugar snap peas didn't have a strong presence, but no matter, the basil in the pesto made up for it. The arrival of this delicious dish was like the hot weather this summer - anticipated from the start, but late in arriving.


For dessert, my dining companion actually took the waiter's suggestion despite his unhelpfulness up to this point. He got lucky - we loved it. Pan-fried carrot cake with goat cheese cream, red grape sorbet, maple walnut and balsamic. We questioned the waiter about the piles of white shavings surrounding the elements on the plate and he told us it was goat cheese. When my friend asked if it was dehydrated, he said no, it's just goat cheese. This seemed like a curious answer given that goat cheese is usually a soft, creamy cheese that wouldn't lend itself to being shaved in this manner.

We were also served a complimentary plate of mini doughnuts. They tasted mostly of sugar with a gingery aftertaste.

Until the restaurant's "official" opening on September 15, a little more than two months after it has had time to work out the kinks, it is giving customers a 15 percent discount. While the meal wasn't bad - my friend rated it three out of five stars - customers who eat here during this period may find that they'll be glad to have received that deal.

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