Restaurant Reviews

Dazed and Infused

As a food writer, my best moment this millennium came during an interview with chef Andrea Curto last month, when I asked for the usual sound-bite definition of her dishes at SoBe's Wish. "Fusion," she declared immediately, "because that way I can cook whatever the heck I want to." Honesty at last!

No nation has a greater natural right to claim fusion food as its authentic native cuisine than the genetic and cultural melting pot that is the United States, or goes to greater lengths to call what is undeniably fusion something else: World, New World, whatever. But the impulse to deny the fusion label is understandable. Fusion food has been as often about confusing as about fusing multicultural influences. The most crucial differentiating element has not necessarily been what cuisines combine well, but rather how gifted various individual chefs are. Curto's odd fusion at Wish (of Italian, Asian, Caribbean, and Southwestern elements, for example) almost invariably works.

At Aura on Lincoln Road, which opened last December to major national media hoopla, the more geographically logical "modern Mediterranean" cuisine -- a nouvelle take on the foods of coastal France, Italy, and, especially, the Middle East -- is more problematic.

An appetizer of foie gras with polenta and truffle sauce is a case in point. Aura's hefty polenta would be fine with something as substantial as fegato alla veneziana (slow-sautéed onions with flash-fried calf's liver, a traditional Venetian dish), which is what I suspect the restaurant's "modern" preparation is supposed to upgrade. But the upgrade doesn't work. It needs a much lighter polenta so as not to overwhelm the delicate, rare-sautéed foie gras, and while a truffle sauce could conceivably complement duck or goose liver, it would have to taste like truffles rather than acidic meat stock.

Corn pancake with smoked salmon and scallion sour cream sounded appealing, if not in any way Mediterranean, and it was fine if one expected a coarse-texture cornmeal pancake rather than a light corn blini. For $12 I also expected some sort of unique house-cured salmon, like that at Nemo, instead of something that tasted as though it were Pinney's from the package. Also not in the least Mediterranean is the most intriguing of Aura's half-dozen pastas, shiitake and goat cheese ravioli with carrot ginger nage. This is a regular menu item that was listed as a blackboard special as well. Unfortunately, though we dined early, this dish was not available. But the "tricolor potatoes gnocchi" ($10) our waitress recommended as a substitute was fine. In fact since the white, green, and orange potato dumplings are not merely colored but sauced differently (with cheesy cream sauce, pesto, and tomato), the dish is more interesting than it sounds on the menu.

"Pistachio-crusted sea bass" ($23) actually turned out to be crusted in Middle Eastern-tasting spices, with a sprinkling of nuts on top. The mild fish would have been moister cooked a few minutes less, but it was tasty, and the accompanying lemon-garlic spinach was terrific -- barely sautéed, studded with major garlic chunks. It's too bad some of that garlic didn't make it into the dollop of aioli on top of the fish: What was supposed to be potent Provençal garlic mayo was blander than Hellmann's. Red pepper coulis also was pedestrian. And a creamy classic risotto would have been a far more fittingly subtle starch choice than a sticky Spanish rice substance, tasting mainly of tomato.

"Tuna mignon," ($20) in a preparation involving sun-dried tomatoes, olives, basil oil, and "bouillabaisse juice" sounded, frankly, misconceived; the preparation seemed far more fitting for a firm white-flesh fish that might actually be combined with such ingredients in any Mediterranean country than for filet mignonlike rare tuna. Because much fusion cooking involves atypical combinations that can work well, however, we ordered the dish. The tuna, a sizable piece cooked perfectly blue, would have been great with a steak au poivre treatment. What this tuna came with would have been equally nice on sea bass, red snapper, or halibut. The accompanying couscous would have been better with half the salt, and should have been, in a serious Mediterranean eatery, hand-rolled.

Service was sloppy, even with a seventeen percent gratuity added to the check. Since drink orders were taken immediately and served promptly, though, it's likely most timing problems (i.e., no food for 50 minutes, at dinner, then appetizers and entrées appearing simultaneously) were the fault of the cooks, not the servers.

On a return visit, for breakfast (what a potential thrill -- a stylish spot for breakfast on Lincoln Road!), both food and service seemed vastly better, for me anyway. My poached eggs with fluffy, flavorful "tropical" hollandaise ($6.50), came within ten minutes of ordering, and were perfect except for their stale French-bread bed (obviously left over from the previous night). Two companions, though, waited more than 40 minutes for their Brie omelets, which finally arrived overcooked, with cold, congealed bacon. And coffee, though priced like continental cappuccino ($2.50), was weak American stuff.

Of course neither food nor service is the reason why Aura opened with such buzz (including a New York Times piece and an upcoming Condé Nast Traveler pick as one of the year's hottest new eateries). The media mania is owing to Morris Lapidus, Miami's architecture legend, who designed Aura's interior. Which made it seem particularly odd that not a single interior table was occupied on either of our visits. Arriving diners looked inside, and then, without exception, opted to sit in Aura's extensive outdoor dining area. Why? Well, I'll leave that critique to the architecture professionals. But to a professional diner, only two areas inside Aura seemed truly inviting; probably not coincidentally they are the room's most typically Lapidusesque curvilinear structures: the sleek lacquer-look bar, and a semiprivate, semicircular banquette (which looks to seat six or so) tucked into a nook just beyond the bar. Otherwise Aura's front tables, some of which face a dizzying row of what appears to be playful undersea giant amoebas (if amoebas came in eye-popping purples, oranges, and blues) are just not appealing; and the back tables are actually sort of appalling, set in a grungy narrow back corridor Siberia within spitting distance of the restrooms -- which are beyond appalling.

On my first visit, the single-seat ladies' room was filthier than any outhouse I've used in third-world countries, with wet toilet paper wads all over the floor. On a return visit ten days later, the floor was still covered with used tissue. In addition the door lock was completely broken. This kind of maintenance is an insult to Aura's designer, and, more crucially, an insult to Aura's diners.

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Pamela Robin Brandt