I’m selling my kitchen. I’ll keep the rest of the condo—I still need a place to work and sleep—but the stove can go. The fridge. The dishes. Now that I’ve discovered Aura, I won’t require them anymore.
The sweet little (really little) restaurant in Calhoun Square is where you’ll find me, making it my mission to work my way through its intriguing, urbane menu, the happy hour specials that just don’t end, and one of the most intelligent wine lists in the zip code. The staff is very pleasant, too—and I trust that I met all of them: the bartender, the waitress and the chef. (I told you it was tiny.)
It’s also out-and-out romantic: dark, cavernous booths that several couples had mistaken for a boudoir; a couple of black-clad, candlelit tables beside a mirrored wall; and a few more alfresco for catching the breeze and the buzz of Uptown.
But I betcha you’re really reading this to learn about the food. OK, here goes: We started with the beer-battered asparagus (among the small plates, $8-11). The antithesis of bar snacks, they’re crisp-tender stalks wearing a light tempura batter, served with roasted sweet red pepper strings atop a silky lemon cream. If anyone fails to swoon over these, bring out your pocket mirror to see if they’re still breathing.
Loved the carnitas “tacos,” too—actually, more like a husky tortilla wrap, stuffed to bursting with pulled pork and caramelized onions, along with sweet, ripe pineapple and tomatoes playing up to creamy avocado bits—and if that weren’t heaven in a mouthful, factor in the lemony aioli with its sexy hint of habanero peppers on the side.
The chef’s specialty seems to be absolutely elegant sauces like those, just sort of sneaked in under the radar rather than a big hot-dog tour de force, but I bet it’s a passion with this guy. Or a religion, maybe.
He does it again with the crab cakes. They rest upon a satin pool of béarnaise. (Next time, I’m gonna blow out the candles so I can lick my plate.) The cakes themselves, however, are—sorry—pretty bland: more cakey filler than crab, but they’re sautéed ever so gently and lushly topped with avocado. (Why didn’t anyone think of this before? One taste and the partnering seems as ordained as ham and eggs.)
Caesar or Lemon Fields salad? Our waitress voted for the field greens ($5), tossed with a light, creamy lemon dressing, along with toasted walnuts, blue cheese and grapes: sweet, salty, savory, piquant, all in one bite if you mingle all the players.
Then just try to choose—I dare you—between pastas (five at $11-13) or more substantial entrees (seven at $12-21). Partaking of this food-writing profession for more years than I care to count, you’d think my spine would stiffen and I’d recollect that grown-ups are routinely called on to make tough decisions with stoic calm. Yet, just show me a list as sweet as this one and I’ll break down and weep.
Well, the pasta we snared was wonderful—little, rice-like grains of orzo tossed with earthy mushrooms, artichoke hunks in generous proportion, and more of that lovely asparagus in a supple cream sauce freely spiked with Parmesan. And with truffle oil! I could wear the dish as perfume. Runner-ups include a tequila chicken number; shrimp on fettucine with red-chili cream; and tenderloin tips tossed with Gorgonzola cream. And I’ll bet the risotto mined with shrimp and mushrooms was terrific, too. Next time.
Instead, we tucked into the Parmesan-crusted grouper, moist and flaky, served with roasted-banana mashed potatoes (which leaves you thinking, “What’s that flavor?’ and also, maybe, “Why?”). The same signature mash accompanies the strawberry-chipotle marinated pork tenderloin, accompanied also by an apricot mole sauce (untasted, but not for long) and the mustard-thyme-glazed salmon (ditto). There’s also a coq au vin—how long since you’ve spotted that classic on a menu?—actually, a chicken breast in a Chianti-thyme reduction.
When the chef isn’t busy creating an exotic-sounding Wellington composed of poached pear stuffed with pulled pork wild mushrooms and Gorgonzola, you can spot him in his whites, there in the kitchen, slapping out his pizza dough. These pies are a giveaway at $5, as part of Aura’s user-friendly happy-hour list, which includes his mini-sandwiches ($4) and small plates ($5) from—get this!—from 4 p.m. until effin’ midnight every single day. That’s along with $3 house wine, two-for-one tap beers and rail drinks. And that dynamite wine list—long on luscious reds—is half-price with food orders Sunday through Wednesday from 4 to 10 p.m.
Some deals! Is this place run by St. Teresa, or what? (Actually, it’s operated by a fellow named Fabrizio, who also owns Nochee (downtown) and Arezzo (50th & France). Certainly he’s the patron saint of penny-pinching gourmands.