With Crimson & Rye, Charlie Palmer Delivers Liquid Lunch to Midtown
All photos by Bradley Hawks
New York has been kind to Charlie Palmer. Not many chefs could sustain a 26-year career in this town, as he has at Aureole. Nor could they survive 24 restaurant openings nationwide over the course of that career, a relocation of their first restaurant, or a current roster of 14 venues across four states. The 55-year-old culinary icon has embraced the city, and midtown in particular, moving his crown jewel (Aureole) from its Upper East Side townhouse to larger, showier 42nd Street digs in 2009. Since then, he has opened (and subsequently closed) a wood-fired pizzeria in Denver and an outpost of his steakhouse, Charlie Palmer Steak, in Dallas. This year he's spearheading a quartet of New York dining establishments within a 20-block radius of one another, including a catering-and-events space, several restaurants planned for the Knickerbocker Hotel, and a Charlie Palmer Steak NY.
The development push also includes a Palmer-branded watering hole. Plugged into the lobby of the Lipstick Building and open since early July, Palmer's Crimson & Rye (198 East 54th Street, 212-687-6692) is a cocktail bar with a competent selection of 68 whiskeys and a menu fit for rescuing empty stomachs. It is, in fact, the rare restaurant with more to offer during lunch than at dinner.
Though he's a patriarch of old-guard American fine dining, Palmer's no stranger to casual concepts. (The man owns a burger joint inside a Bloomingdale's in California.) Crimson & Rye's menu achieves a happy medium between fast-casual and upscale. The closest things here to entrées are the carved-meat platters -- roast beef and turkey, either of which you could order stuffed into a sandwich at lunch.
Those, like Crimson & Rye's $18 Cobb and $20 niçoise salads, feel like country-club fare. The raw bar and the bulk of the "Bites" section prove more compelling. Look past innocuous sliders to find warm, fragrant corn pancakes ($13), nearly as supple as the smoked salmon draped over their browned tops. (For an extra $8, the kitchen will crown them with generous spoonfuls of American sturgeon caviar.) Japanese eggplant caponata is refreshing and clean; the same can be said for the raw bar's king salmon tartare, tossed with tart green apple in a Meyer lemon dressing.
Having been shown, mid-phone conversation, to the lone empty barstool in a row of suits and blouses, a dapper, gray-haired man swirled his glass of white wine, gazed out the lobby's panoramic windows, and sighed to his cellular interlocutor, "I have a board meeting on Thursday. Why don't you meet me here? I love their tuna tacos." Sadly, these missed the mark at our table, with muddled flavors and brittle shells that disintegrated on first bite, sending innards everywhere. Available only at dinner, a pulled-pork version of the tacos suffered a similar fate. That pork, though, does find salty balance at lunchtime in Palmer's Cuban sandwich, alongside Berkshire ham, local pickles, and Gruyère.
Crimson & Rye neuters itself at dinner. Crowds die down as the neighborhood empties, making it impossible to ignore the restaurant's sterilized, corporate surroundings, which seem particularly dispiriting after a full workday (or -week). And I can't imagine a more inconvenient restaurant bathroom in all of New York, requiring an elevator ride (with security escort at night) to an industrial service area -- I was just thankful no photo ID or sign-in sheet was required.
If Crimson & Rye looks its best by daylight, it looks even better when you have a drink in your hand.
A massive circular bar commands the airy space, an imposing booze beacon that summons you with a slatted roof fanned out suggestively like the ribs of a cocktail umbrella. Down a few cocktails and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids hallucinations are all but inevitable.* The short but varied cocktail list is designed to please novice drinkers and the rosy-cheeked alike. Classic cocktails receive bespoke upgrades, as with the house-made grenadine that turns an applejack-fueled Jack Rose ruby-red. And kudos to the bar team for including a Seelbach: For a sweeter sip, its effervescent mingling of bourbon, bitters, and sparkling wine drops Cointreau in favor of curaçao.
Crimson & Rye mixes up twice as many "house" cocktails as it does classics -- normally a telltale warning sign of mixologists with too much to prove. Instead, the bartenders use historical cocktails as reference points, adding their own spin without spilling the bottle. Rye swirls with vermouth and two kinds of amari for the "Man About Town," while a signature "Lipstick Fizz" incorporates grenadine to lend the gin concoction a rosy blush and candy sweetness. Most drinks are priced around $15. An exception, the $12 "Gentleman's Jacket," wasn't so much a bargain as a welcome reprieve from the watered-down and unbalanced drinks I've sloshed through in this neck of the woods. A riff on the Dark 'n' Stormy, the Jacket adds ginger syrup to the equation for spice.
Mad men and women take note: This is your new midtown wet-lunch destination.
*Correction published 10/7/14: Owing to a reporting error, the original version of this review identified Crimson & Rye's bartender as Luis Mendez. Mendez is no longer with the restaurant. The current bar manager is Rocco Dilillo. The above version reflects the corrected text.
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