- Walter Novak
- Worth the wait: Hot-and-sour soup and pork tenderloin with black beans and raisins.
Never doubt the power of gracious service to hone the ragged edges of an evening at the table. Consider a few recent reconnaissance trips to Aura Global Cuisine, Jihad Hachicho's new dining room in Broadview Heights.
The food ranged from marvy to mundane, and the pacing was positively dreadful. But thanks to a corps of conscientious, sincere, even coddling staffers -- including Hachicho himself, who eventually sneaked out of the kitchen long enough to deliver a round of charmingly accented bon mots to his stranded diners -- we departed the suburban eatery with smiles on our faces and, if not exactly a song in our hearts, then at least a surprising measure of goodwill.
Of course, back pats, kind words, and a round of free drinks notwithstanding, 45 minutes is a very long time to languish at a restaurant table without sustenance. That's how long it took to score even a dinner roll at Aura on a recent Saturday night, when the small, 68-seat dining room was filled almost to capacity and the kitchen seemed to be moving in slow-mo. Even at that, the bread arrived only when we put in a special request for it. But after two very potent Tanqueray and tonics (one on the house), we were afraid we'd start snoozing unless we got some carbs, pronto. (In a later telephone conversation, Hachicho explained that a new menu had just been launched that week, and kitchen staffers were still working out the details; thus the delays -- which, he promises, have since been rectified.)
A well-seasoned culinary professional and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Hachicho boasts a résumé highlighted by his stint as the last chef at Sammy's landmark restaurant in the Flats, as well as work for Wyndham International Hotels, Shula's Steak 2 in Independence, and Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in Beachwood. His dream come true, however, is Aura, which he opened in the Broadview Center strip plaza on his birthday, March 14.
The concise dinner menu is a mostly tasty compendium of international flavors, with offerings that borrow from Asian, Cajun, Latino, and Mediterranean pantries. During our recent visits, dishes ranged from a taste-bud-tugging hot-and-sour "Korean chili" soup to organic chicken breast with tomatillo sauce, polenta, and a chipotle drizzle. At midday, the global theme persists in a slightly toned-down version, with items like grilled flank steak salad with chipotle ranch dressing and an open-faced crab melt sandwich with wasabi mayo.
Gold- and burgundy-painted walls, a small fireplace, and bare wooden tabletops with heavy cloth napkins and tiny oil lamps help the restaurant channel a sort of casually elegant Wine Country vibe. Lending support to that feeling is a substantial, West Coast-slanted wine list, with 35 selections by the glass and nearly 100 by the bottle. Consisting primarily of value-priced wines from such producers as Covey Run and Ravenswood, many of the bottles check in at $30 or less.
What with hunger being the best appetizer and all, probably any form of nourishment would have thrilled us after a 60-minute wait. (That's how long it took for the first course to finally reach us on that ill-fated Saturday night.) But the hot-and-sour soup would have been a hit even if we hadn't been on the verge of starvation. A dark, fragrant, homemade beef broth, infused with green chile paste and rife with mushrooms, strips of tender flank steak, and a few strands of soba noodles, this beautiful soup-for-two arrived in a small cast-iron pot. Bright, bracing, but not a bit heavy, it made a perfect starter, sharpening our palates for the dishes still to come.
On a Thursday night, an appetizer sampler platter with a petite crab cake, a pair of melt-in-the-mouth blackened scallops, and two crisp, succulent shrimp encased in lacy tempura batter also made an impressive dinner intro. Each colorful tidbit featured its own distinctive accompaniment. For the crab cake, it was a little whoosh of avocado aioli; for the shrimp, a tangle of Japanese noodles in garlic-chile sauce; and for the scallops, a bed of carrot threads washed with a hauntingly complex sweet-and-sour sauce, so delicious that we swiped up the final droplets with our fingertips. (On this weeknight visit, incidentally, the pre-appetizer wait had been "only" 40 minutes. In the meantime, the kitchen provided a complimentary amuse- bouche -- another gracious touch -- that helped tide us over: a sliver of roasted pork and a crescent of caramelized onion, settled on a tiny nest of soba noodles, in a thick, savory, sweet-soy reduction.)
Despite entrée prices that range from $17 to $25, Aura's basic salads are offered à la carte. Hearts of romaine, for instance, with a garnish of cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, and feta, in a scant amount of sheer vinaigrette, proved a no-nonsense way to score our daily vitamins. Likewise, a toss of leafy greens with two translucent slices of Asian pear and a scattering of blue cheese was almost Zen-like in its simplicity and purity of taste. Still, a plate of sliced, marinated tomatoes and mixed greens was less satisfying: Even at the height of the season, the toms seemed flavorless, and two disks of black-and-white-sesame-seeded goat cheese would have added more luxe if they hadn't been ice-cold.
It is among the main course offerings, though, that Hachicho really cuts loose. Some, like the lush, organic pork tenderloin slices, fanned on a bed of soba noodles along with slabs of grilled summer squash, then buried beneath an avalanche of black beans and golden raisins, initially seemed a little goofy -- at least until the first bite. Then, the medley of flavors -- fruity, peppery, smoky, and with a hint of tarragon -- struck us as downright inspired. So supple that it practically dissolved beneath a stern glance, an amply sized veal steak, served with a tomato-barley risotto, grilled summer squash, and a handful of tender-crisp yellow beans, also set off rounds of appreciative oohing and ahhing. The "also-ran," however, was a thick, slightly dry beef filet, sided with a few stalks of overcooked asparagus and a "twice-baked" potato filled with a dollop of herbed goat cheese; blandly ho-hum, it left its target diner mired in envy of his better-fed companions.
The kitchen gets kudos, though, for actively accommodating vegetarians with a meatless plat du jour that, according to our waiter, can be created to a diner's specifications. An easy-going veggiephile companion asked for "something with a Mediterranean twist" and was satisfied (if not delighted) with what she received: a large portion of daikon-radish-piqued couscous, with a sweet, garlicky aroma, topped with grilled eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash. A little pool of oil on the bottom of the bowl, however, supported her contention that the preparation could have been less greasy.
Among sweet endings, the half-dozen options included crème brûlée, cheesecake, and Cleveland's own Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream. Profound sweetness was the signature of a wedge of dense flourless chocolate cake from Zoss the Swiss Baker; a cup of bracing espresso or cappuccino would have made a perfect counterpoint, but Aura doesn't yet have an espresso maker. Pineapples Foster -- bits of fresh pineapple in a dark, buttery burnt-sugar sauce, along with scoops of lemongrass ice cream -- was a satisfying, sweet-tart take on the standard. And for our final choice, the walnut-apple spring roll with coconut ice cream sounded intriguing; unfortunately, the menu made no mention of the fact that the spring roll required a 15- to 20-minute prep time. Of course, our server warned us of the upcoming delay when we placed the order; frankly, at that point in the evening, another 15-minute wait didn't seem all that daunting. Too bad, though, that the final product didn't exactly rock our world. While the phyllo wrapper was almost preposterously crisp and delicate, the Granny Smith filling was both underseasoned and a little too undercooked to have been worth the additional wait.
But here's the thing. After all the delays and minor slip-ups, we still really enjoyed our evenings at Aura. And that surprising bit of news can be credited to the gracious attitude displayed by Hachicho and his front-of-the-house staff.
In that light, the reminder we spied written on a chalkboard near the kitchen's door makes perfect sense. "Make this the most gracious restaurant in all of Broadview Hts.," it read; and though the kitchen was not at its best during our two visits, staffers have obviously gone the distance toward meeting that handwritten challenge. No, their efforts didn't entirely save the day; but together with the interesting, creative, and generally well-prepared food, they did help us tolerate the flaws with surprising good humor. At that rate, once pacing and preparation concerns are behind it, amiable Aura may very well become a shimmering success.