On Thursday, Jay and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. For two weeks beforehand, he and our elder son, Jack, were at our ranch in Kansas, working fifteen plus hour days to plant soybeans, cut and bale alfalfa and work cattle. My husband must really love me. To make our anniversary special, he rushed through this work, then made the eleven hour drive home. Once home, as he cut and arranged a splendid bouquet of Hydrangea and Protea (reminiscent of our Hawaiian honeymoon), Jay offered me a choice of dinner at Mark’s, a pricey Houston paragon, or Aura, an unknown strip center restaurant specializing in French inspired American cuisine in Missouri City, an ubiquitous suburb of Houston.
I’m a foodie. What’s more, I’m a hopeless romantic. Mark’s is often voted the most romantic restaurant in Houston. The restaurant makes its home in a 1920’s church. With stunning art deco architectural detail, the arch of the former apse frames the main dining room while the vaulted ceilings are cobalt blue and dusted with hand painted golden stars. At first blush, when you combine the atmosphere with an innovative menu and talented chef, the choice seemed a no brainer. But as I started thinking about the coming week – this Thursday’s trip to Napa for Auction Napa Valley, and the exhausting two weeks that Jay had just spent in Kansas, I was surprised when I felt my heart stirring in a different direction. It’s unusual for me, but I began to realize that while I was excited about a great meal, that I wanted something easy, casual and relaxed. I didn’t want crowds. Rather I wanted some peace and a quiet evening with the man who won my heart those many years ago. I decided to go to my computer and check out Aura.
The Aura website describes Lyonniase Chef Frédéric Perrier’s vision as “innovative American, within an ‘inch’ of French”. Perrier, I learned, is the former chef and co-owner of one of my former Houston favorites, Grille 5115 and Aura’s reviews from Zagat and Open Table were generally very high, with only a few complaints about value and/or service (If you poll enough people you will invariably find someone that is less than fully satisfied. I find it difficult to worry about isolated negative comments). However, when I looked at the menu online, I was a bit discouraged. The menu was full of some of my Bistro style favorites, but no single choice really resonated with me. I wasn’t sure that Aura was a restaurant where I wanted to celebrate a special occasion with a special meal. And then I saw a string of words at the bottom of the page that almost literally made my heart sing: “Five Course Tasting Menu – $50 per person – Allow Chef to ‘Do His Thing’ or guide him along ‘your’ lines! – Wine Pairings are Optional/Additional.” Instantaneously, I was sold.
I love tasting menus. As a budding sommelier and vineyard owner, I especially love tasting menus with wine pairings. Yet I find that from a cost perspective, tasting menus are often intimidating. It makes sense. A lot of labor and ingredients go into the preparation and service of five or more courses. An example was the absolutely stunning meal that Jay and I shared last year for our 25th anniversary at one of America’s most acclaimed restaurants, The French Laundry. While that meal was, perhaps, the most amazing that I have ever experienced, at $295/person, without any special selection supplements or wine (service is included), my personal value system views that level of expense, for a single meal, as an almost once in a lifetime splurge. With that as my point of comparison, I was giddy to try a $50/person five course tasting menu from a well-reviewed chef.
Aura, as it turned out, deserved every ounce of my giddy anticipation. In all my years of dining, in almost forty countries around the world, I have rarely been so delightfully surprised; rarely walked away feeling that I have received so much value for my dollar. The meal was so exciting that I forgot to wear my blogger’s hat for the first two courses, so there are no pictures of those courses, and my descriptions lack a bit of my normal precision. We drove nearly 45 minutes to arrive at the restaurant from our home not far from downtown Houston. Despite the prejudices that came to my mind regarding the strip center location, once inside, I found it comfortable and inviting: two intimately sized dining rooms accented with attractive art glass collage and cork mosaic artwork. The restaurant was pleasantly full on a Thursday night and we were offered our choice of the remaining tables. John, our server, was friendly and so accommodating in his effort to make sure that our meal was very special. We spent only a few minutes with the menu and specials before confirming our choice for the tasting menu. We were also excited to add the $25/person wine pairings. After we told John that we’d like the tasting menu, he asked about not only food allergies, but also general dining styles (Adventurous? Tentative?) and specific food preferences (Beef? Game? Seafood?). I’ve never experienced another tasting menu that was customized to my tastes. Indeed, John confirmed that, generally, each table that requests the tasting menu receives at least some variety in what is served.
The first two courses were wonderful. First, Heirloom Tomatoes, Prosciutto, Burrata and Basil in a very tasty balsamic vinaigrette served with a lovely fresh and bubbly Prosecco. I was amazed, but we were actually offered refills of the Prosecco. The second was a personal favorite: Foie Gras and sautéed Texas peaches with a balsamic reduction and toasted brioche. As to the second wine, all I can say for sure is that it paired beautifully with the Foie Gras. It was white, and a touch off dry, from an Alsatian flute shaped bottle. When I asked John what it was, he read from the back label that it was, unless I heard incorrectly, Monastrell. I learned enough from my sommelier class to know that Monastrell is Spanish. Research this morning reminds me that Monastrell is the Catalonian name for the black skinned French Mourvedre grape. The Aura wine list changes frequently, as Chef Perrier wants to provide his clientele with the opportunity to try new wines (the wine list, is also, in my opinion, attractively priced). I was in no way concerned that John was lacking familiarity with the wine. But I find it unusual that Spanish wine would be bottled in an Alsatian flute and also that Monastrell would be vinified off dry and white. I did not ask to see the label and wonder if I misunderstood. But regardless of the wine’s identity, the second course was simply outstanding.
The third course was a beautiful flaky white fish (please forgive that I was celebrating and some details are vague) and a grilled shrimp on a bed of mushroom and truffle risotto, accented, on the side with a bell pepper sauce. The dish was nicely seasoned and served with a ripe, fruit forward Pinot Noir from Monterrey Bay. The risotto was some of the best I’ve tasted and it paired beautifully with the bold styled Pinot.
Course number four was stuffed quail and perfectly cooked beef tenderloin with asparagus and haricots verts, paired with a deeply colored and full bodied Spanish Tempranillo.
For dessert, we were offered our choice from the menu. As we had already had a full meal, we opted to share a trio of desserts: vanilla bean crème brulee, white chocolate bread pudding and a profiterole. Each was mouth wateringly yummy. We then took our second dessert home for our sons to enjoy. As John knew we were celebrating an anniversary, dessert was served with a martini glass filed with cotton candy and a sparkler. As we sampled each dessert, we sipped the delicious fifth wine – a Lungarotti Vin Santo.
It was an absolutely beautiful meal – creative, delicious and well prepared. The wines were very good, well valued and thoughtfully paired. The service was excellent. The atmosphere was casually elegant – we weren’t crowded and could really enjoy each other’s conversation. On the way home, I remarked to Jay, without casting any undeserved aspersions on Mark’s, that rarely did I derive twice the pleasure for half the cost. Aura is a find, and I intend to return soon.