135 West 42nd Street, New York NY 10036 (map); 212-319-1660;
Setting: A sleek, modern room, and a respite from the bustle of Times Square
Cost: 3-course prix fixe, $34
I learned how to box at the Times Square Gym, which used to be located above a dry cleaners in a condemned building a few doors down from where Aureole now stands. The gym was run by Jimmy Glenn, who also owns Jimmy's Corner—a dive bar on 44th Street which is one of the last places you can still get an honest drink in Midtown. The gym is long gone, losing a battle with developers back in the 1990's who imagined (and then actualized) the towering edifices that replaced it.
Times Square is a lot tamer these days, with Charlie Palmer's Aureole replacing Tad's Steaks as the most expensive meal on the block. Surprisingly, despite enduring some grueling sparring sessions in the ring, by far my toughest opponent in Times Square to date was the piece of pork I ate at Aureole for lunch today.
Things started off well enough. The dining room is modern and sleek, the service effusive, bordering on the doting. It is a relaxing place to dine, away from the hustle and bustle of 42nd Street. Bread service offers a wealth of options in seemingly limitless quantities—though that didn't really make up for the postage stamp-sized portion of Spanish Mackerel escabeche. It was admittedly delicious—the "fishiness" of the oily Mackerel kept in check by the preparation, the sweetness and spice of the accompanying piquillo peppers and a sourness from the celery confit adding balance to the dish. But the portioning was more amuse than appetizer-sized; I worried about the size of the main and wondered if I shouldn't order a cheeseburger on the side. (Aureole reportedly has a very good one, that I have been meaning to try for A Hamburger Today)
And then came the pork strip loin. The serving size was decent enough, obscuring the dollop of Swiss chard beneath. The huge slab of potato gratin that came on the side was more than generous and expertly prepared—creamy and tender. The cinnamon-infused apple cider jus added a spicy, autumnal evocation to the dish, whose flavors were well balanced.
But the pork itself was mercilessly tough. Not dried out, as you might imagine, but tough nonetheless. Which was too bad, considering that I liked the flavors on the plate—the dish was well conceived but poorly executed.
To finish things off, I had the rather dense and sticky steamed chocolate gingerbread which was elevated by the tart port-poached figs and the genius inclusion of clotted cream—the best use of a dairy product, in my estimation.
The extras—a generous (and limitless) selection of breads and some after-dessert cookies add some value, but not quite enough.
Had the pork been the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth experience I had hoped for, I still think that I would be hard-pressed to recommend Aureole for lunch when one can get do better for less money.