July 13, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
New Life for Aureole 

These amazing papas fritas and a burger would be perfect before theater.  Photo: Steven Richter 
These amazing papas fritas and a burger would be perfect before theater.  Photo: Steven Richter

        They didn’t have to drive me kicking and screaming to the new Aureole but I confess I arrived in a cocoon of resistance. It’s always a wrench to change zip codes but the voyage from a cozy little townhouse in establishment country to this lofty automobile showroom space boldly looking out at the flotsam of 42nd Street is disorienting.  So I’m a snob and I resist change.

Casual and less expensive, the bar room is a comfort for the times. Photo: Steven Richter 

        Shouldn’t there be a scrim or some beaded curtains to filter the view?  The “Bye, Bye Birdie” poster somewhere out there looks like it’s hanging over the bar.  I see scaffolding, green neon, a brigand selling fake bags across the street and the passing mélange of scruff and innocent citizenry drawn and ejected from Times Square.  You can say the address is One Bryant Park but Bryant Park is a block away.  It’s almost like one of those recurring movies where you wake up and the city as you know it is gone and you need a pit bull or a gun to feel safe in the rubble.  Just kidding.  I’m not that bad.  The Road Food Warrior and I actually took the subway to get here.  Just don’t get lost near Bryant Park. Look for 135 West 42nd Street east of Broadway.

Christopher Lee shows off his happening tuna tartare.  Photo: Steven Richter

        This is just to confess that I didn’t expect to be as quickly seduced as I am by the new 21st century Aureole.  When chef-owner-mogul Charlie Palmer moved his family to California, the uptown kitchen seemed to grow partly too stodgy and partly too vulnerable to fashions like foam.  Now he’s entrusted Christopher Lee to re-launch a name and brand that’s been around for twenty years.  I gave high marks to Lee’s food at Gilt even though it was fussier than it needed to be.  But very quickly on this evening in week one Lee’s intense play of flavors in our starters is winning me over.  Miso-sake dressing makes it not just another tuna tartare and the lineup of mix-ins is engaging – shredded daikon, red onion brunoise, shiso, dashi gelée, a little anthill of grated lemon and lime zest.  And the house-baked nori bread looks like slices of cinnamon roll. That’s fuss but brilliant fuss.

We loved this pasta till it cooled and the cheese got rubbery. Photo: Steven Richter

        An island of mayo-bound lobster-avocado salad is surrounded by his tangy heirloom tomato gazpacho.  Octopus with cannelloni beans and tomato confit from the “Bar Snacks” menu bursts with flavor after cooking slowly for six hours “with garlic and a ton of herbs and spices.” And indeed there are sprigs of baby basil everywhere.  Garganelli pasta is not very Italian in its striking broth but it’s very tasty – with cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, prosciutto and mozzarella that alas gets clumpy and ugly as it cools a bit.  Indeed, the least exciting starter is that Aureole classic sea scallop sandwich that Lee has napped with passion fruit and cuts of sugar snap peas. (For an extra $5, you can have seared foie gras on top. Not me please.)

Chef-mogul Charlie Palmer, in the posh dining salon, stakes a claim on 42nd Street. Photo: Steven Richter

        There’s none of the huff and puff strain you often feel in new startups tonight. In the secluded, glassed-in dining room beyond us, Charlie Palmer schmoozes guests feasting on the $84 three-course tasting before making the rounds of the bar tables where we are eating à la carte at prices that cater to victims of economic calamity.  And since Palmer has said the house is in previews with a 15% discount until its official opening September 15, you might want to come now.  Is it casual?  It is t-shirt casual.

Halibut gets toasted gnocchi and a mosaic of flavors. Photo: Steven Richter

        For my taste, the halibut, with wonderful toasted potato gnocchi and corn in basil pesto is too cooked (though I admit we didn’t say how we wanted it).  Restaurants everywhere are comforting the battered and financially shell-shocked with burgers.  Aureole’s is a real contender, properly respected, with aged cheddar, bacon and pickled ramp aioli (pretentious, but you’ll scarcely notice) and possibly the best battered onion rings I’ve encountered.  Unlike most, they stay battered (although on a second visit, they did need some salt).  My fussy friend Cassandra insists on having the whole roasted branzini (sic) with its artichoke, caper, black olive, piquillo pepper, anchovy accessories served on the side. She is thrilled, thrilled, thrilled (do I doubt it?), but for me the bland and basically boring fish comes alive only with that salty yard sale of ingredients.

Big spenders are sealed away in the serenity of the dining room. Photo: Steven Richter

        How many times have I heard – and said – how wonderful New York is when it empties on summer weekends?  But Aureole is bustling this past Saturday.  We’d be back soon if just for the pastrami belly sliders at the bar and another chance at this huge cone of  papas fritas the chef has sent – sensational fries scattered with aged manchego and bits of chorizo to drag through saffron aioli (a little too cautious with the garlic).  Fluke sashimi with yuzu eggplant puree from the “snack” list is fine as is a starter of deep fried soft-shell blue crabs with endive and Granny Smith apple.  The pork chop is full of flavor but we forgot to say “rare.”  And the chicken is overcooked too.

The dark chocolate torta comes with ricotta sorbet on butterscotch swirls. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s too soon to judge desserts I suppose.  I haven’t tasted enough.  But I’d like to say that sorbets should be made with fruit, not yogurt and ricotta this time of year.  And I am not impressed by a deconstructed and pan-fried carrot cake with walnut powder or very pedestrian donut holes that come as a giveaway.  Palmer sends out the finale of sweets that ends the $88 dinner in the back room and the $115 side by side dual tastings Lee has dreamed up as “the best deal in town.”  The chocolate-covered toffee alone and the lemony asparagus ravioli Palmer dispatched earlier made me determined to find a Daddy Warbucks to finance my next visit.  Maybe even Adam Tihany’s exercise in glass and reflections will grow on me.

        I have to concede that Conde Nast headquarters right next door has already embroidered a little je ne sais quois on 42nd Street.  When I see Anna Wintour inhaling the papas fritas (I am sure she would only inhale).  I’ll know Aureole is in the right place.

135 West 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. 212 319 1660. Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, dinner Monday to Friday 5:30 to 11 pm, Saturday 5 to 11 pm. 


Compass Finds Its Way

Lobster and avocado with heirloom radish on the $35 prix fixe. Photo: Steven Richter

        Compass has survived three design makeovers and half a dozen chefs rotating through the kitchen since it opened in 2002.  I’ve been back again and again out of curiosity and duty, but mostly because when the two of us are not reviewing and photographing, we want to walk to dinner.  I loved the big two-level room red and I don’t mind it a sedated blue.  I was especially grateful for the $30 three-course prix fixe and was not a good sport at all when it hit $33.  It’s $35 now and Chef Milton Enriquez has just revised it for the summer “Restaurant Week” that runs through July 31.  I’ve been twice recently for the lobster festival they advertise every Wednesday in the Times and Post.  It must be working – the ad or the lobster or both – profits are up over last year (I can’t recall any other restaurant making that claim this summer).  I always admired the grit, but now I’m mostly loving dinner too.

There will almost always be huge diver scallops a la carte. Photo: Steven Richter

        They still offer a 3 lb. grilled lobster for $39, and there is butter-poached lobster on pea risotto and a tail in the surf and turf, but in January the menu was wonderfully, wildly fixated on lobster.  I miss that.  Still there is a daily whole branzino, and at $32, down from $35, it’s a deal compared to fish by the pound.  Perhaps Enriquez got distracted now that he’s calling the shots.  Still, he has a lively flavor palette and resists fashion frippery.

I’ll be back for chopped salad and this honey-glazed cod as an entrée. Photo: Steven Richter

        Compass is not hot.  It is not sexy.  It is not on foodie lists or foodie lips.  But there it is, still playing like a three-star wannabe.  The crew is proper and professional, clearly trained.  Yes, there will be an amuse – seviche on a crisp tonight.  And a theatrical burst of flowers.  The breads are made in house – cheddar-and-chive biscuit and a crumbly corn bread.  There may be gels with the check or chocolates or small triangles of rich cake.  And as always, the waiter delivers muffins to take home for breakfast in the house’s elegant little shopping bag.  That’s what three star restaurants do.  I’m not saying give the guys three stars already – the kitchen is uneven – I’m just appreciating the starry extras.

        Tonight the Road Food Warrior and I are both impressed with our prix fixe openers.  A thick and savory chilled tomato porridge is poured at the table on top of an island: chopped shrimp and cucumber bound with citrus yogurt.  A neat round of lobster and heirloom radish salad with chunks of ripe avocado and edamame sits on three large dots of miso vinaigrette.  Both are a chorus of tingling flavors.  Is the time dragging a little between courses?  Suddenly two dishes arrive that we haven’t ordered…gifts of the house.  I wonder if my chicken is taking long to cook.  “No,” says the manager.  “It’s just that you haven’t been in a while and we consider you family.”

This was a huge organic chicken worth taking the leftovers home. Photo: Steven Richter

        Inside, I’m groaning.  This was supposed to be a light meal and an early night.  And these dishes, listed as starters, are ample as entrees.  The honey-cured black cod is a revelation, picture perfect, sitting on “Basquaise peppers” with mizuna, daikon relish and torrid strands of fresh ginger.  The wild boar with baby romaine and cauliflower that is slightly undercooked is fine too, better than the strozzapreti pasta we ordered – a favorite rolled noodle, slightly too cooked and totally defeated by too many ingredients: Serrano ham, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, house cured salmon, black olive puree, a clean-out-the-fridge hodge-podge if there ever was one.  But the Bobo Farms organic chicken is another story: a big juicy bird nesting on chickpea puree with bitter greens, an odd black rectangle of eggplant, and two barely cooked carrots.  No way could I finish even the thigh, so I’m taking the breast home for my lunchtime salad.

        It does not feel like a perfect moment for flourless chocolate cake or pineapple tres leche cake with caramelized pineapple and Pedro Jimenez-spiked ice cream in coconut soup.  No reason why we can’t have sorbet instead, our waitress agrees.  Alas, both the blueberry and the strawberry are too sweet.  And if I had $5 for every time our otherwise prodigious server or the clearly skilled manager asked, “How did you like your…whatever?”  I’d be back tonight for the $39 lobster.  I suppose some restaurant goers-find that flattering and solicitous.  I find it interruptive and annoying.  The Warrior is pleased that Compass stocks Clausthaler, one of his favorite non-alcoholic beers (a token for the man who has already drunk his lifetime supply of booze).  Elsewhere imported alcohol-free brews are $6 or $7, maybe $7.50.  Here it’s $10 the bottle.  But points for the server who knows how to pour beer.  I suspect from the three inches of foam at Aureole Saturday, the assistant sommelier may never have poured a beer before.

208 West 70th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. 212 875 8600. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday from 5 pm to midnight, Sunday 5 to 10 pm; Sunday brunch 11:30 to 2:30 pm.
Cafe Fiorello