WHEN Charles Palmer set out to open up his own New York restaurant, he knew exactly what he wanted. The location would be a brownstone between 50th and 70th Streets, and between Fifth and Park Avenues. The interior would be "timeless," as opposed to trendy. The food would be the signature French-American cuisine that he had developed after years of cooking at some of New York's finest restaurants: La Cote Basque, Le Cirque, Lutece, and the River Cafe.
Today Palmer sits at a table inside Aureole - his restaurant, realized - on 61st Street between Madison and Park. He has taken time out to talk about what makes a restaurant successful, especially in New York.
Aureole opened four years ago, on Oct. 14, setting a precedent for success: They had to turn away 200 people that day. Aureole is now considered one of the best eating establishments in this highly competitive city. The Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey gushes: "If our surveyors had their way, they'd elevate chef Charles Palmer to sainthood ... ; his `exquisite' food and `dreamlike' desserts are complemented by `splendid' service and a `gorgeous' flower-filled townhouse...."
But a great location, gorgeous interior, exquisite food, impeccable service, and loyal following are not enough, Palmer says. "Our whole philosophy is to make people feel comfortable."
Palmer considers "comfort" a step beyond. "A lot of restaurants are good restaurants and they are really `luxe,' but if you're in a place that's so pretentious, it's uncomfortable." Here, Palmer figures, if you can get customers to relax and feel comfortable, then you serve really good food - and the mechanics of the service are perfect - you hit the mark.
Certainly a lot of a restaurant's "feel" is tied to its construction. Aureole's facade is a huge, two-story window. Inside, its eggshell-colored walls are graced with bas-reliefs: a bounty of wildlife, food, and farm animals. Flowers fill the place, grace the tables. Says Palmer, "I wanted a restaurant that would transcend time.... Classic, but not pretentious, not making any kind of statement."
The name "Aureole" was chosen to signify an "aura" of glory or prestige. It means "halo," in French. "Since I was never really an angel when I was a kid, I thought it would be great," says Palmer, with a laugh.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Palmer started at La Cote Basque in 1978, then did stints at other prestigious French restaurants in Manhattan.
When he realized "that if I wanted to establish my own style or my own perception of food, that I had to go away," Palmer signed on at a "very elite" country club in Westchester. He spent almost two years on his own doing "basically anything I wanted. It was kind of a playground." He took over New York's River Cafe in 1983, where he stayed for four years before starting on his own.
Palmer isn't what some might expect a young superstar chef to be. He exhibits the same lack of pretension he underlines for Aureole. He even hints at a mischievous side when a grin turns up under his mustache. "One thing about here [is], we have a good time. It's not this temple of serious cuisine. We have a good time. I'm the biggest joker."
Asked about the recession, he declares candidly: "There's no recession on East 61st Street."
Things are different than in the '80s when "there was so much money, anybody could do a garbage restaurant and still make money," he says. "People were taken advantage of.... That's not true anymore. People are more educated about food.... The same people eat in all the restaurants. They know. I think when [restaurateurs] say `I don't know why our restaurant's not doing well,' it's because they're not doing what they're supposed to do."
Does he view food as art? "Yeah. I view it as my perception of how things should be, what I like to eat. I don't expect everybody to fully accept it, as I think it is with any kind of art. At the same time, I'm lucky 95 percent of the people who come here love what I do - obviously a great satisfaction to me."
He says that, while having a loyal clientele is wonderful, it is double-edged sword: If a person has come here 50 times, he may be numb to the beautiful flowers and the aura, he explains. "That's when everything has to be really perfect and the food has to be great."
PALMER seems to have mastered food greatness, judging by his adoring critics and the reservations tangle - one of his biggest problems.
Dinner for a fixed price of $59 (the menu changes constantly) includes a first course: perhaps Terrine of Provencal Vegetables and Tomato Confit, Sugar Snap Pea Soup with Poached Lobster, Summer Salad of Fresh Saute Foie Gras, or Oak Smoked Salmon with Cucumber Salad. Main-course choices might be Sauteed Chesapeake Soft Shell Crabs, Charcoal Grilled Tuna Steak with Crisp Pesto Wontons, or Peppered Quail with Corn and Sweetbread Pudding.
For dessert, dream about Double Lemon Tartlet with Citrus Pudding (see photo), Frozen Fig Nougat with Toasted Nougatine, or Bittersweet Chocolate and Mocha Torte with Roasted Almond.
Next up, Palmer, who also owns the CC Club on East 22nd (a place to "hang out," he calls it), is working on another restaurant with his partner. The revitalized La Gauloise is scheduled to open next month on Sixth Avenue as a luxurious French bistro.