by Jesse Stirling
As a big red sun sets in the hazy western horizon, we arrive at the restaurant: Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, California. Mall parking is ample, despite the Orange County Performing Arts Center being practically adjacent. We enter the establishment, and are struck by the joyous din of a thriving happy hour. Casual professionals aged 25 to 65 mingle seamlessly. Sounds of laughter and clinking wine glasses bounce around the room.
The vibe is “big city.” High ceilings and low lighting create an air of modern romance. We saunter to our table, marveling at the abundance of glass, wood, and sculpted metals. Our senses are alive. Snuggling into a comfortable leather booth, our sommelier Michael pops a bottle of champagne and encourages us to “Have fun and try everything.” We don’t have to be told twice.
Back in 1988, Charlie Palmer made a landmark commitment to creating dishes featuring regional American ingredients at his sublime Aureole, situated in a brownstone off Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Over the years he has established an impressive collection of restaurants across the country. Coast- to-coast locations now encompass a wide range of chef-driven restaurants and luxury hotel properties, each designed with distinctive personalities to provide unique experiences. Palmer is the author of four cookbooks and recently launched his own line of cutlery sets and wine accessories.
Mr. Charlie Palmer himself comes out and greets our party, discussing his evolving style of cooking, utilizing local cheeses and meats, steeped in French tradition, resulting in something Palmer calls Progressive American cuisine. “We’re going beyond free range. We’re into free will.” Palmer continues, “I think of it as component cuisine. This is how Americans want to eat today.”
No doubt, people eat with their eyes as well as their mouths. Presentation is an integral part of cooking, and the dishes we enjoy are as beautiful as tasty: wild mushroom truffle macaroni, sumptuous bone marrow served right on the bone, red wine braised octopus with celery puree, duck meatballs with orange supremes and pomegranate, grilled shrimp with lime juice and salsa, white wine poached mussels with citrus cream sauce, duck breast and figs, foie gras with strawberry and black pepper gastrique, watermelon and basil soup, heirloom tomatoes, beet salad, and fresh crab with avocado, lychee and lime.
Like dueling banjos, the food and wine pairings each “one up” each other with sublime perfection. Our journey of the grape takes us from the floral overtones of a delicate central California Riesling to the citrus notes of a bold Spanish pinot noir. In this spirit of friendly one-upsmanship, Michael glances at our table and quips: “Good, these dishes are big enough to hold up to the wine.”
Two final comments on the food. First, a warning – the pomme frites might cause you to die and go to heaven. Second, to finish, the smoked cinnamon beignets served with espresso hot chocolate cannot be missed. Indeed, save room for dessert.
Celebrated chef Charlie Palmer has received critical acclaim for his signature Progressive American cuisine, a style built on rambunctious, intense flavors and unexpected combinations, with a deep and lasting infusion of classical French cuisine. Palmer sums it up nicely when he leans over our table, cracks a wry smile, and exclaims, “It’s not magic. If you cook well, people appreciate it!” With frequent celebrity guests like Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, it’s hard to argue with his logic.