At the risk of devolving into wordplay and metaphor, let's examine the title of Matthew Igwonobe's latest venture, located in the quirky angular peninsula of Division Street where Slice of Life and Virago previously perched. Consider this definition of the word aura: a distinctive but intangible quality that seems to surround a person or thing.
A few such qualities come to mind when thinking about Igwonobe's so-called world fusion eatery — some flattering, others less so. Let's start with a positive intangible: creativity.
There is indeed an aura of creativity about the menu, which blends the Louisiana-laced culinary perspective of executive sous chef Kevin Marron with the Asian-African-Mediterranean preferences of managing partner Igwonobe, a veteran of Mère Bulles and Merchants and founder of the bygone Quails in Brentwood. With items such as edamame hummus with ginger-garlic oil; goat cheese fondue with lavender and garlic-shallot confit; and a trio of fruit- and herb-infused crème brûlées, the menu is a fun read. Even when dishes sounded run-of-the mill, the ingredients embedded in the descriptions piqued our curiosity: blue cheese ginger essence, fried lentils, green curry horseradish vinaigrette.
The majority of dishes we sampled at lunch and dinner lived up to their titillating promise. Alligator ribs — yes, ribs of an alligator — were a delicate and intriguing spin on classic pork barbecue. Dusted with ancho chili rub and grilled with housemade mango barbecue sauce, the tiny pliable bones were laden with tender white meat that recalled a surf-and-turf marriage of fish and chicken.
Crawfish potato skins made an excellent shared appetizer, with a half-dozen bite-sized boats constructed from the hollowed halves of fingerling potatoes loaded with a plump mudbug, bacon and goat cheese.
Beer barbecue shrimp in a cast-iron skillet recalled the classic New Orleans treatment with Worcestershire sauce, but was toned down by a creamy bed of garlic cheese grits and a crisp warm tangle of jicama-celery root slaw.
Southern shrimp cloaked in a light tempura were plump and greaseless, though the accompanying thinly cut sweet potato fries were cooked until brittle and slightly burned.
The standout entrée in our experience was the duo of grouper and diver scallops plated with edamame basmati rice and Thai vinaigrette. With two plump buttery disks the size of cupcake bottoms and a cut of golden seared fish, the $26 entrée delivered uncommon value and quality.
The theme of high-quality-and-quantity seafood also weaved through the nest of pasta with lobster, shrimp, peppers, onions, zucchini and green beans tossed with a light blend of spices including thyme, Worcestershire and a subtle hint of honey.
Yet for all the creativity among our meals, there were also missteps of concept and execution. Chicken tacos fell apart — literally and figuratively — and were so uninspiring that we didn't bother to pick up the pieces. Salmon with coconut red miso broth was cooked into a tight fist of a pale fish roulade and served with only a bath of miso broth and garnish of pickled carrots.
Veal short ribs with purple potatoes and juniper morello cherry reduction were an overwhelming stack of four short ribs, with little of the promised flavors to enliven the oily meat. (Portion sizes have been adjusted since our visit. Here's hoping some flavor worked its way in there as well.)
That said, while we left a significant portion of veal on the plate, we gleaned every last shred of the topping — a crisp medley of sage, basil, thyme and oregano. Marron & Co. flash-fry generous bouquets of herbs — stems and all — until the foliage is glassy. The leaves crackle and dissolve on the tongue, with a whisper of salt and a potpourri of springtime.
This signature flourish of flash-fried herbs also garnishes Aura's Delight, a meatless medley of roasted potatoes and parsnips layered with rainbow kale and topped with citrus yogurt sauce. Uncommonly balanced with texture, color and temperatures, Aura's Delight moves to the top ranks of our favorite vegetarian dishes.
Herbs make a memorable appearance on the dessert menu in the form of rosemary shortbread with Devonshire cream and roasted lemon. Three crisp buttery wafers studded with rosemary quills are mortared together with fluffy clouds of mascarpone and finished with tart lemon curd. Pretty in presentation and sophisticated in restraint, the dessert left us with a lingering fondness for Aura.
Even so, there's something about the place — its aura, if you will — that doesn't match up with the obvious energy and attention going into the food and drink rosters, which include artisanal cocktails, dozens of wines by the glass and twice as many by the bottle.
For starters, there's the service. Cocktails arrived slowly and in inexplicable shifts, since we were among a small handful of diners on Saturday night. (Jack Daniel's Honey with scotch, lemon and ginger was worth the wait. Bourbon with ginger liqueur, lemon and egg white was not.) Our server seemed much more knowledgeable about (and interested in) other restaurants in town than about the menu in question and even made a slight dig or two at the kitchen team. The conversation didn't exactly fill us with confidence about our dining choice.
But even more than eccentric service, the ambiance in the dining room had a dampening effect on our experience. The Aura team undertook a major overhaul of the building, reshaping the entrance, creating a private dining area and leveling the floors to create a continuous series of rooms at one altitude. Even without all the stairs and ramps of the former establishment, however, the effect is cavernous, confusing and — thanks to so much dark paint — somber. I got lost on the way to the bathroom. When I navigated back to the table, I noticed my dining partners slumping, listless in their seats. They blamed the hypnotic spa music.
After a lunch visit, I felt like I was exiting a theater after a subtitled matinee.
With such a creative — dare I say fun? — menu, the dining experience at Aura should be fun too. And it can be. Some creative reworking of music, artwork, plants, lighting, paint and other tangible details could go a long way toward improving Aura's aura.
Aura serves lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly and brunch on Sunday.