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Charlie Palmer has no interest in repeating himself.
The newest incarnation of Aureole, his flagship restaurant on East 61st Street, is far from the original both in location and spirit. Housed on the ground floor of the futuristic-looking Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park, the eatery promises to bring in a new clientele from the nearby Condé Nast building and soon-to-open Henry Miller Theater.
“I’m not one to dwell on the past,” Palmer says. “We just celebrated our 20th anniversary. [East 61st Street] has always been a great location, but it’s a brownstone with space limitations. It’s time to shake it up.”
When Aureole opened in 1988, it was a perfect embodiment of the times. Small tables arranged closely together held vases of lush flowers. Decorated in browns, beiges and brick red tones, the restaurant, most often described as “cozy,” was like being in a Vermeer painting tucked inside a charming townhouse.
Dishes like braised lobster with lobster ravioli and foie gras set atop slices of gingerbread exemplified the high-end ingredients popular at the time. “I’m a firm believer that we have to progress,” Palmer says. “I still get people who come in and ask for this or that dish. If we can do that, we will. It’s dangerous, because then cooking becomes mechanical.”
Before opening Aureole, Palmer was the chef at Brooklyn’s River Cafe, which earned three stars from The New York Times. Aureole received three stars from the Times in 1991, but lost a star in 1999. While his talent has never been called into question, Palmer has been accused of spreading himself as thin as a sheet of phyllo dough.
This time around, he is keeping the menu simple and priced within reason with “more risottos, long, slow braises and gnocchi.” There’s even a grilled burger with smoked bacon, white cheddar and pickled ramps. A prix fixe three-course tasting menu is $84.
“Everybody thinks I’m crazy, building a $10 million restaurant when the stock market is crashing,” says Palmer, who hired uberinterior architect Adam Tihany to design the restaurant, which has 1,000 wines on offer.
But his hope is that Aureole’s loyal customers — including Ron Perelman, Robert Tisch, Mort Zuckerman and Tommy Hilfiger — will follow the aroma to the new location.
One group Palmer isn’t eager to see return is the “socials. They don’t drink and they don’t spend any money,” he says.