Strip icon Aureole takes a chance on a new direction. Here are tasting notes from a journey that’s just begun
Last year, the Charlie Palmer Group revamped its restaurants with new chefs, new menus and new concepts, and Las Vegas was no exception. In a city that celebrates change, this shouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But Charlie Palmer’s Vegas flagship Aureole was just that — an iconic standard-bearer that always seemed to abide amid a restlessly simmering Strip dining scene. That’s changed. In its new incarnation, the only things left of the old Aureole are the name and its celebrated wine tower framed in giant brutalist concrete.
The biggest change: The new executive chef, Johnny Church, a man whose fingerprints are all over the new menu. But he’s only new to Aureole; Church’s career is rooted in Vegas. Anyone familiar with Church’s work at RM Seafood, MTO Cafe, or the late, great Artisanal Foods Cafe will see some familiar favorites peppering the menu here and there. Church’s new, casual menu includes more shareable items, by-the-glass wine pairings, and even dishes that aim to be on the healthier side (with plenty on the indulgent side, of course). But to dismiss the new menu as a mere transplant would overlook the promise of what seems to be a work in playful progress.
The main dining room’s menu might be considered the face of the restaurant. This is where you’ll find many of Church’s greatest hits. Of the three sections — Root, Ranch and Surf — the vegetable category boasts some of the most novel tastes. The standout is a roasted spaghetti squash dish, dressed with small roasted beets, a house-made truffle “cheese,” grated black truffle, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. The dish is entirely vegan, but nothing feels substituted — not even the cheese. It’s simply a satisfying, delicious dish.
The fried chicken “oysters” are also satisfying, but also thrillingly modern. (Chicken oysters are the tender rounds of dark meat near the thighs.) These are fried until crispy and served with lemon butter, covered in a little veil of lardo and a cloud of spinach foam — to call it a three-star chef’s version of a chicken nugget comes close to doing it justice. On the Surf menu, the Veta la Palma sea bass and lionfish ceviche stand out for their eco-cred as much as their culinary virtues. The sea bass comes from a sustainable, cutting-edge aquaculture farm in Spain; the lionfish is a fast-breeding invasive species whose place on the menu is a part of an attempt to curb its seemingly unstoppable takeover of sensitive coastal waters. The Veta la Palma is dressed simply with chimichurri to highlight the tender, delicate flesh of the sea bass. The lionfish ceviche is prepared in a lively Peru-meets-Thailand style, with ginger, coconut milk, aji amarillo pepper paste and lime, served with tempura shiso leaves. This was a dish too well loved to let die with Artisanal Foods Cafe and fits well in Aureole’s new menu. Artisanal’s other signature dish, a burger with truffle gouda, foie gras, and a fried egg, finds its second act in the bar-bites menu, along with a few other Church classics.
Naturally, there are a few steak dishes, but they’re hardly standard. The 16-ounce rib eye is seared four times, employing a technique of searing and cooling pioneered by modernist Japanese chefs. There is also a 48-ounce Creekstone Farms porterhouse swimming in Bordelaise — the size, of course, intended for an entire table to share. Another worthy inclusion: roast lamb loin wrapped in spicy Merguez Spanish sausage — strong, meaty, screaming for a glass of big Spanish red — served with a root vegetable gratin.
But the most promising part of the new Aureole is the easiest to miss: The tasting menu available in the Fountain Terrace Room in the back main dining room. (You have to ask for it, and sometimes you have to insist.) Some dishes on the six-course menu are smaller versions of the regular dinner menu, but they’re no less meticulous and thought-provoking. Take the sheep ricotta tortellini with duck confit and black truffle cream, which manages to be both superbly rich but also complex, or the sense-dazzling seared Sonoma foie gras and churros with huckleberries. For dessert, there’s intrigue: They combined the after-dinner cheese course with the dessert menu in offering savory cheesecake slices, which mix either blue cheese, brie, or aged cheddar into the batter, with a topping of a fruit compote or ice cream on each.
Local dining critics are split on Aureole’s new direction. Some call it a misfired attempt at a something-for-everyone restaurant, and others laud it as a modern take with honest, farm-to-table ingredients, bringing dishes with more soul to the previously imposing room. I’d say it’s neither of those. Rather, it’s on a different axis altogether. Based on my several visits, the menu strikes me as the first eager steps of something perhaps not quite yet sure of itself — but something destined to be strong and bold. It was the same impression I had of the first menu from Wilfried Bergerhausen of Le Cirque. Granted, Aureole isn’t Le Cirque, nor is it trying to be. But, far from trying to merely strike a balance between crowd-pleasing and culinary refinement, Church is trying to set a new course of Aureole, a journey whose destination Church himself might not even know. I’ll be watching closely as what might just be a new Strip icon finds its footing.