If you are like me, then you have the perception that Charlie Palmer is a spot usually set aside for special occasions. The restaurant is trendy and dining room comfortable without being stuffy. The happy hour atmosphere is bustling and probably one of the best in town, but I rarely step foot into the dining room area for a meal.
Why you might ask? Well, it isn’t cheap for one and my previous experiences have been hit and misses. I wanted to try the 3-course lunch prix fixe for $20.11 — it was $20.10 last year — a bargain when you figure what an a la carte meal costs at Charlie Palmer.
Holly, Austin, Priscilla and I arrived on this particular day for a leisurely lunch. It was late and the restaurant was dying down, and just as well because I really dislike un-attentive service, which is generally what I am faced with when a restaurant is busy.
I was starving, but happy that a bread tray was being brought around. Olive roll and baguette were the two choices and I asked for both. They were both decent — nothing terribly mindblowing — but enough to stave off my hunger for the time being.
Our meal began with spring asparagus salad featuring white asparagus, which are only in season for a few weeks out of the year. I like asparagus, both green and white and the salad included both, as well as hearts of palm and pea tendrils. It is a luxury to be able to enjoy white asparagus while in season — especially as part of a prix fixe — as not many restaurants offer this hard-to-source item even as an a la carte offering.
The salad was light and just as I’d expected. The dressing was subtle so as not to overpower the delicate white asparagus and the eggless Hollandaise on the plate was unnecessary.
Carrot ginger soup with cumin creme fraiche definitely is suited to those who prefer subtle flavors. It was too bland for me with neither the ginger and cumin coming through.
I could taste the freshness of the carrots and the drizzle of creme fraiche added a little richness to the soup, but other than that, it was just okay.
The first of our second course was a pan seared blackened shrimp. Plating was very pretty with creamy grits lining the bottom and shrimp artfully sitting on top. Blacked seasoning was milder than I would like but the poultry au jus helped bring the dish up a notch.
We were very disappointed with sweet English pea risotto. It was wet and mushy and the granules of rice seemed broken. When our server returned to ask how everything was we were frank and he took the risotto back.
Shortly after, the chef returns with freshly made risotto, this time perfect in both texture and consistency.
The pickled onion garnish is great aesthetically and tastes great on its own, but does not go well with the risotto, overpowering the fresh peas with its tartness. I push them aside and continue to enjoy the risotto on its own. The chopped up shiitake mushrooms were a nice addition as opposed to the giant whole one the first time around.
Luckily the desserts fared far better. Coconut key lime tart has a lovely tart creamy filling with just a hint of coconut. We all agreed a graham cracker crust would probably be a better alternative to the pastry crust, but we devoured it anyway.
I was surprised to find the buttermilk sponge cake moist and light. It was very pleasing although I did not care much for the Riesling poached pear slivers on top. Orange vanilla creme anglaise was aromatic and presented an unctuousness to this already delicious dessert.
For $20, I’m definitely not complaining. It’s a great deal with fresh ingredients you are unlikely to find elsewhere for that price. Keep in mind though menu changes weekly so you probably won’t see these exact same items on your visit. What you can expect though are fresh seasonal sustainable ingredients on your very affordable prix fixe menu.
Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale’s South Coast Plaza
3333 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626