Growing up in New Jersey, I always wanted to eat at Aureole for my birthday. In high school, Charlie Palmer’s flagship Manhattan restaurant was entrenched at the top of the Zagat ratings, back when Zagat still mattered. Regardless, I never had the chance to eat there. Luckily, Charlie Palmer has expanded beyond Manhattan. The celebrity chef now has restaurants in D.C., Vegas, Sonoma County, Dallas, and now Orange County. Charlie Palmer opened his first SoCal outpost in May next to Bloomingdale’s at ritzy South Coast Plaza. This meant I finally had a chance to eat Charlie Palmer’s food. Well, technically disciple Amar Santana’s food. Still, I was looking forward to the meal.
The space was sleeker than any mall-based restaurant has a right to be, with glass-fronted wine racks, a classy outdoors-indoors vibe and some strange horse imagery that didn’t fit at this location. Maybe at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. We sat at the contemporary lounge, which was absolutely packed for ladies’ night, a cross-promotion for Bloomingdale’s shoppers. From our seats we had a clear view of the glass-fronted Next Vintage wine shop, which sells bottles of wine at retail prices. If you bring them into the restaurant, it’s retail plus $25 corkage, which ends up being a bargain on higher-priced bottles. Maybe next time. This time, I was more focused on cocktails.
Any serious restaurant has market-driven cocktails at this point. Charlie Palmer is no exception. Their Blood Orange Mojito ($12) was terrific, Bacardi rum with soda and fresh muddled lime, blood orange and mint.
We primarily ordered from the lounge menu, which featured plenty of pork. First up: Grilled Pizza ($14), which was really a rich Alsatian tart, layered with fromage blanc, bacon, caramelized onions and arugula, showered with Parmesan shavings. The crust was nice and supple, and the flavor was good, but this was clearly no pizza.
Artisan Salumi Santana ($15) was Chef Santana’s take on charcuterie. It was an impressive array of house-made meat products, some better than others. The top row featured bresaola (air-dried beef), hard salami, classic salami and kielbasa (which was a little too soft). The middle row contained accompaniments: rich balsamic & red wine shallots, whole grain Dijon mustard and sliced pickles (also made in house). The bottom row: lomo (silky sheets of pork loin), prosciutto (feather-light), pork rillette (spreadable pork) and pate (the texture was a little too waxy for my taste). The meats came with slices of country bread.
I also sampled a couple dishes from the dinner menu. The
Roasted Butternut Squash Banana Soup ($14) was a novel take on a ubiquitous soup, with a real depth of flavor, especially with the ham hock and apple ravioli and crisp pumpkin seeds.
My initial taste of Charlie Palmer’s food might not have been the meal of my dreams, but it certainly warrants a return trip to South Coast Plaza for a larger dinner.