Avner Samuel is back. And how.
Aurora, his latest restaurant, sits in an Oak Lawn strip center across the street from Al Biernat's, just off the southern lip of Highland Park. Once you step in, you realize that the small space is a jewel box. The color palate is neutral--taupe walls accented with richly striated veneers, black and ivory calfskin chairs (less than fifty, all told), and dark chestnut carpeting. A semi-circular drape forms a small vestibule between the body of the restaurant and the entrance, shutting out light and the prosaic view. The open kitchen--a brightly lit showpiece glimmering with dangling copper pots--sits at the rear of the restaurant behind an offset glass wall with an etching of Aurora (the Roman personification of the dawn), while a bar rests against the side. Tables are set with white Limoges china and Christofle flatware. Dishes arrive at the tables on silver trays and (for entrees) under silver domes. Salt and pepper shakers (provided without request) are silver. Even the sculpted crumb sweepers and accompanying receptacles are silver. Despite the opulent appointments, the restaurant doesn't feel stilted or stuffy. The majority of customers on both visits wore business casual. While some dressed up more, a few even wore jeans.
Service was excellent. No mistakes (even when the restaurant was full, on the second visit). While the service style is formal, it is never imposing. The revealing of silver-lidded plates, for instance, comes off as fun rather than pretentious. (The diners at one table even burst into laughter and applause as their eight plates were simultaneously uncovered.) The maître d' dropped by to check on parties periodically. When there were lulls in the kitchen, the chef ventured into the front to shake hands and chat with guests. Drinks are filled, plates cleared, and bread replenished promptly by whomever happens to first see the need.
A special note on service. One service element that I've appreciated in several Chicago restaurants (including Trotter's and Tru), but have not seen elsewhere, is the complimentary offering of a house bottled water. Aurora is the first restaurant in Dallas, to my knowledge, to do this. Diners are given a choice of sparkling or still waters (i.e., San Pellegrino or Evian) at no charge. Nice.
The food equals or surpasses the service and décor. On the first visit, the waiter presented an amuse bouche of white truffle-infused custard served in a scalped brown eggshell, topped with a wild mushroom ragout and chives. The second visits starter was a wild mushroom pot au crème topped with a sweet truffle-infused whipped cream and a garnish of white gold foil. Though in different formats, each offered a pleasing balance of sweet and earthy flavors. Both were auspicious starts for the respective meals.
The restaurant served two breads on both evenings: a whole grained cranberry-pistachio loaf and individual fingerling baguettes. The breads were good. But they were upstaged by the addictively sweet and creamy butter made from English goats milk. (Where can I get this stuff?)
On the first visit, I took the waiters recommendations on two appetizers. The first was warm Malpeque oysters on a spinach puree bed, topped with a champagne sabayon (lightly scorched) and Sevruga caviar (served on a large half shell). The creamy spinach balanced out the natural saltiness of the caviar and oysters. And the sabayons citrus and champagne acidity added dimension to the otherwise simple presentation. In all, it was a fine appetizer. Next came a garden salad with roasted heirloom baby beets and sweet red onions. The lettuce was tied together with a scallion and set upright, like a fountain or floret, on one side of the plate. A fan of beet divided the halved baby beets (yellow and red) from the small, whole onions, all of which lay in a pool of delicious vanilla-bean red wine vinaigrette. Completing the plate was a warm, creamy, truffled goat cheese dumpling wrapped in filo dough. The flavors came together beautifully. While the dressing and onions tended towards sweetness, the lettuce, beets, and dumpling reined them back in. On my second visit, I had an excellent foie gras preparation. Slices of caramelized apple were topped with a pan-seared slab of green peppercorn-encrusted foie and plated with a quenelle of fig confiture. The green peppercorns elevated the dish, giving it an unexpected complexity--a fresh but subtle bite that went remarkably well with both the foie gras and fruit. With ten appetizers on the menu and a meaningful rotation even between these two visits, these early experiences are promising.
On each visit, the restaurant provided a complimentary palate cleanser. The first time, it was a blood red pomegranate sorbet of eye-opening intensity. The second, a pink currant sorbet. Sorbets are presented in glass cones (the bottoms filled with frozen pomegranate seeds to keep the sorbet near the top), suspended from star-shaped holders made of silver (of course). Both were bright and effective, but the pomegranate sorbet left me wanting more.
My entrée on the first visit was a trilogy of milk-fed lamb with truffled potato galette and summer bean cassoulet. The trilogy consisted of slices of leg and shoulder and one rib chop. The chop stood upright in a sweeping curve of bone. The slices of leg and shoulder were arranged over and around the cassoulet. The high column of galette completed the triangle. The lamb was cooked to medium rare, as requested. Each cut was tender and (especially for the leg) surprisingly mild. The cassoulet consisted of white beans, black-eyed peas, English peas, and fava beans--all firm and flavorful. The galette stacked thin layers of Yukon Gold and Peruvian purple potatoes, without becoming dense or heavy. While the dish wasnt innovative, the execution was flawless. Flavors and textures meshed satisfyingly. On my second visit, I ordered beef tenderloin with a Syrah glaze, English pea puree, and steamed baby vegetables. As before, execution was spot on. While I enjoyed the tenderloin (topped with a dollop of a buttery foie gras mousse), the most interesting feature of the plate was an assortment of baby heirloom carrots--white, yellow, and orange--amounting to an enjoyable carrot tasting. On both nights, the menu offered eight entrée selections (half sea, half land), and several had changed between the visits.
On my first visit, I had two desserts. First up was a truffled risotto rice pudding. The pudding was served in two demitasses, lightly scorched on top, with candied orange swizzle sticks protruding from the tops. Fat grains of carnaroli rice and the faint hint of truffle added an interesting spin to rice pudding, a dessert that is unfortunately rare in restaurants. (Sure, you can get kheer; but thats a very different animal.) Next came a molten chocolate torte topped with pistachio ice cream. The cake, with a light milk chocolate liquid center, was good, but not stellar. (Theres enough competition in that bracket to make distinction elusive.) The pistachio ice cream was good, but served too cold. Once it started melting, the flavors emerged. And, once it started melting, you could take bites of it without flattening the soft torte beneath. On the second visit, I followed the waiters recommendation and ordered a berry soup. A large bowl was filled with a thin, blueberry puree, with a variety of whole berries (i.e., strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, and raspberries) surrounding a center scoop of ricotta sorbet. It was a striking-looking dish. But it didnt speak to me. The blueberry puree was intense, but not sweet. It overwhelmed everything in the bowl, except the sorbet. (To reference an earlier discussion, I think a ricotta ice cream would have been preferable. As it melted, that creaminess would have taken the edge off the blueberries, rounding the dish out better than water could.) And blueberries being blueberries, the dessert left my lips, tongue, and teeth temporarily discolored, despite valiant countermeasures with napkin and water. (The night a waiter drops a bowl of that stuff on the carpet--or, heaven forbid, a customer--will be its last night on the menu.) Overall, I found the desserts good, but not quite at the same level as the appetizers and entrees.
Along with the check, the waiter delivered a small (silver) tray of mignardises. (Speaking of mignardises, I havent had any in my last couple of visits at Abacus. And Nana is now handing out boxed manufactured truffles, rather than house-made ones. Is the economy really that tight?) On the first visit, there were six--almost all of them as interesting as Ive found in Dallas: (i) a vanilla and raspberry tuile corkscrew; (ii) a whole gooseberry, with its husk pulled back and left attached as a handle, dipped in white chocolate; (iii) a buttery, divinity-tasting ball rolled in nuts; (iv) an exceedingly dark chocolate truffle; (v) an airy, almost meringue-like, macaroon topped with pine nuts; and (vi) a thimble-sized chocolate cup filled with pastry cream and topped with a raspberry. On the second visit, I received another of the pine nut macaroons along with a nearly golf-ball-sized, perfectly ripe, chocolate dipped strawberry. Aurora finishes like it starts--in style.
With this opening, Avner Samuel is gunning for the big boys in Dallas haute cuisine. And, from what Ive seen, hes getting off on the right foot. Those aspirations do come at a cost to the customer, however. Auroras prices are right up there with the Mobil four-star players. With appetizers in the low to mid teens, entrees in the upper twenties to upper thirties, and desserts at nine bucks each, it ends up being a little more than Abacus and a little less than The Mansion or French Room. (Nana is a close call.) While theres no nightly tasting menu offered at this time, the chef has indicated that hes willing to devise tasting menus for parties, given a little advanced notice. (If anyone would be interested, perhaps we could get a group of Chowhounders together for a blow-out tasting menu.)
In summary, I recommend Aurora and wish them every success.