text by Michael Berch
The night after our visit to African Restaurant, Maggie and I headed over to the other new restaurant we’d wanted to try. It was brand-new on my previous trip in August (so new that employment ads for waiter and kitchen staff were still on job sites), so we thought it might be best to let them get settled a bit.
Aura is in the equally-new Holiday Inn on S. 27th Street, adjacent to LifePointe Spa and Fitness and not far from the Southpointe Shopping Center. It has its own entrance, next to which is an outdoor seating area which is shadowed by the building from the setting sun and looks like a nice area to sit on a summer evening.
On first impression the Aura dining room is, well, pretty odd. It’s made up of two small rooms plus a bar area, with a full-height wall between them, awkwardly cutting up the space. The wall itself had a large white metal and plastic attachment that I thought might be an artwork, but was later explained to be a lighting fixture (which was not turned on). We were seated at opposing ends of an oblong 2-top, which prompted Maggie to break into dialogue from Citizen Kane, imagining Charles Foster Kane and his wife dining formally at Xanadu. The table itself was beyond mere oddity and well into the bizarre: a clear polished plastic resin under which was a metal surface with a pattern of shiny burnished circles. The chairs had chrome tubular arms and frame, and the overall effect was 1970s Italian-disco-modern, or maybe a retro-styled American burger joint. The plates and flatware, alas, carried on the theme of overreaching design, with asymmetrical tilted large plates, and a table knife that featured a handle rotated 90° cylindrically, making it impossible to rest on the edge of a plate. And the small, acoustically-bright space, plus the distance across the table, made conversation difficult.
Normally I don’t go on at this length about decor and flatware and so forth, but it was particularly strking for two reasons — first, it was in sharp contradiction to the excellent quality of the food and service, and second because I would have thought that being the first tenant in a purpose-built restaurant space, Aura would have been free of all the weird compromises and retrofits that a lot of restaurants in older spaces often have. (In fairness, the hotel likely had a number of requirements such as the number of seats, the ability to close off a portion for private parties, and devoting extra real estate to the bar, which is the biggest moneymaker in any hotel service.)
But: to the food. We started by sharing two appetizers. First was the seared ahi, which was served with a small garnish of kalamata olives and red peppers. The ahi was a good portion, and had a good chargrilled seared taste with the center nicely raw and red. The “surf and turf” was six crostini, three topped with a grilled shrimp each with some pink aioli and three topped with thinly-sliced grilled beef flank steak. All were tasty. We had glasses of the 2009 Ferrari-Carano fume blanc from Dry Creek, Sonoma, which was crisp, citrus-like, grassy, and dry.
Our main courses were equally delicious — a roasted duck breast, medium rare, with an understated black cherry reduction sauce, wild rice, and fresh string beans. It was a simple, well-executed entree, and went well with a 2008 King Estate pinot noir from Oregon.
Dessert was a chocolate mascarpone cake that we polished off with a digestif of Sambuca, and the perfect capstone for the meal was diminished only slightly by overhearing an older diner from a nearby table remonstrating loudly with the waiter regarding the decor and noise level, which apparently did not compart with his native Texan sensibilities. To be frank, they didn’t quite comport with my California-Nebraska-global sensibilities either, but the food was so good and the service friendly and gracious, so no complaints from here, and I strongly suspect the management will be making adjustments to the room on an ongoing basis.