Charlie Palmer occupies a special place in the first generation of boom-era superstar chefs (Larry Forgione, Charlie Trotter, David Bouley) who began migrating from their kitchens into the popular consciousness during the eighties and early nineties. Like them, he’s authored several glossy cookbooks. Like them, he’s run his share of seminal “New American cuisine” kitchens, including the River Café (where he followed Forgione) and his first restaurant, Aureole, which opened in 1988, in an ornate townhouse on East 61st Street, to rave reviews. But his pioneering skill over the years has been in the realm of branding and marketing. Palmer was a TV regular before the Food Network ever existed. He was among the first chefs to strike it rich in Vegas (Aureole Las Vegas opened in 1999), and to cash in on the upmarket-steakhouse craze (he has chophouses in Washington, D.C., Reno, and Vegas). Today, his sprawling, surprisingly durable empire encompasses thirteen restaurants (including a fish restaurant in Reno and a wine boutique in Napa), and if you can scrape together enough cash to dine on a luxury cruise line, he’s a consultant to one of those.
So it’s no surprise that Palmer’s newly relaunched Aureole flagship restaurant in midtown (the original, overly ornate townhouse quietly closed in May) appears to have been designed, to an almost depressing degree, with today’s profit-strapped restaurant market in mind. The boxy, double-height room occupies the shank end of the Bank of America tower on 42nd Street, just beyond the blinking, fluorescent glow of Times Square. To take advantage of business lunchers, haphazard tourist traffic, and the profitable cocktail hour, the perpetually clamorous bar area is twice the size of the main dining room, which is glassed off in a curiously stunted railroad-car-size space toward the back. Both rooms are appointed in featureless hotel-lobby style, with white and brown paneled walls and unobtrusive dun-colored banquettes. The most striking decorations are a twirling chandelier that hovers over the barroom and a series of tall, eighties-era twig-and-flower arrangements, which loom above the jammed-together little tables and block out the sun.
“I feel like I’m onboard the Norwegian Star,” said my friend the Food Aristocrat, as we peered out over our menus at the roiling bar scene beyond the glass and the coterie of old Aureole regulars sitting down to dinner in their pastel-colored outfits and formal gray suits. Palmer has chosen Christopher Lee to captain his new ship, and the talented, much-decorated chef (Lee won two Michelin stars last year at Gilt) has dutifully churned out two different menus, including one for the barroom that features a variety of trendy populist treats. Gimmicky, compulsively tasty pastrami pork-belly sliders are available on the bar-snacks menu ($15), and a Momofuku-style egg-noodle soup entrée ($25) was filled with soggy overcooked noodles when I ordered it for lunch one day. There’s a signature hamburger on the menu ($19), too, which Lee dresses in posh Greenmarket fashion with smoked bacon, artisanal Cheddar, and a relish made with pickled ramps.
But the more ambitious food at Aureole seems to be frozen stubbornly in the Charlie Palmer heyday of fruit-flavored entrées and too much foie gras. Lee is known for his facility with classical gourmet ingredients, including an elegant foie gras torchon that he served, at his last restaurant, encased in a thin, beet-flavored gelée. But the foie gras appetizer here is tepidly cooked and served with a barrage of pickled jalapeños, smoked corn bread, and blueberry purée. That aged warhorse tuna tartare is made to look vaguely new with a topping of yellow-miso dressing shaped like an egg yolk, but the consensus among the Food Aristocrat and her friends was that the showy sea scallop–and–foie gras “sandwich” could have done without its infusion of passion fruit. All the soups I sampled were very good (try the creamed corn in the dining room, and the gazpacho at the bar), but my “crispy soft shell” blue-crab appetizer was dank instead of crispy, and dressed with viscous dollops of rémoulade that looked like they’d been squirted, in great haste, from an old mayonnaise tube.
The situation did not improve much when our entrées appeared, almost exactly fifteen minutes late. The veal tenderloin was paired, somewhat tragically, with sweet peaches and sweetbreads crusted in granola. My neighbors described their lamb and strip-loin entrées (one dressed with lima beans, among many other things, the other with Champagne grapes) as “uneventful,” and my ordinary “farm-raised” chicken failed to achieve liftoff despite a battery of antic Mexican-style flavors. The components of a nouvelle surf-and-turf combination (lobster tail plus pork belly, flavored with gooseberries and Jura wine) tasted better separately than together, the “crispy” black sea bass (served in a basil vinaigrette with misplaced chunks of watermelon) wasn’t very crispy, and even Lee’s famous yellowfin-tuna Wellington had a flat, preprocessed feel.
In addition to the two busy dining rooms, there’s also a large private dining space at Aureole, which may be why many aspects of the operation seem overwhelmed and even a little confused. “This is worse than a bar in Penn Station,” groused one of my guests, as we cooled our heels for almost an hour one evening waiting for our table to clear. Dessert doesn’t do much to improve this dark mood. I have dim memories of an irradiated-looking strawberry soup, and the kind of aggressively themed cheese plate (“Austrian and Bavarian”) you might see roll by your table on a European cruise. My milk-chocolate “pudding pie” appeared to be more of a biscuit than a pie, and came with a bizarre scattering of apricots. The dark-chocolate torte is probably your safest bet. But it won’t alleviate the nagging sense, as dishes are cleared away and the hefty bill presented, that Mr. Palmer’s empire is an increasingly formulaic, impersonal place, and you’re just another body passing through.