Erraticism is underrated. Pathological restlessness isn't a character flaw; it's a gift, maybe even a mark of genius. Take the late Seymour Cray, the legendary supercomputer architect. Cray devoted his life to spinning miracles. Though his canvas was silicon and his medium sheer number-crunching fury, his supercomputers were nonetheless sculpted into curvaceous works of sensuous precision. His early multimillion-dollar machines were formed into giant "C's" with extended benches coated in stretched vinyl for seating. (Imagine eating a hoagie while seated on a supercomputer blazing through ballistics data.) Because the Cray-2 generated enormous heat, it was completely immersed in liquid fluorocarbon, which Cray crafted into a dazzling fountain fed by the coolant circulation system.
But Cray was erratic. One story has it that he fought tunnel vision by digging tunnels beneath his hillside home. Another tale says that each year Cray built a sailboat by hand only to torch it at the end of the summer so as not to become a prisoner of his old boat designs and stifle his capacity for innovation.
Perhaps a phobia of creative mustiness is what drives Avner Samuel, the chef who 20 years ago etched his name in Dallas culinary concrete as one of the fathers of Southwestern cuisine. Samuel has shuttled through, birthed and driven a stake into a lengthy string of restaurants including The Mansion, Avner's, Da Spot, Yellow, Avner at Preston, The Joint, Okeanos, Bistro A, Bistro K, Ethniko and Lombardi Mare. Is this caused by an attention deficit, or has Samuel been instinctively feeding his genius all along with nutritive jolts of chaos?
Oysters with salmon roe and caviar $16
Lobster soup $12
Garden salad with beets $12
Lamb rib and saddle $39
Pan-seared turbot $32
Beef tenderloin Rossini $39
After a couple of visits to Aurora, which Samuel coyly refers to as "a 50-seat eatery...with the finest, most original cuisine of any restaurant in America" on his Web site, it's clear he has been fortifying--rather than squandering--his creative juices during his seemingly aimless whiz through kitchens.
It's also clear that, just like the trajectory of his résumé, Samuel's creativity is impossible to predict. He is, as he modestly suggests, the most fiercely creative cook in Dallas, maybe in America. And the most savagely meticulous.
What Samuel has done with Aurora, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, is take typical Dallas elegance and boil away the sticky pretension, slippery artifice and pointless fusions, leaving an essence of crisp manners, polish and imaginative potency. Bottled water (fizzed or flat) is complimentary. Tables are set with Limoges china, creased linens folded into the shape of rectangular boxes and Christofle silver that includes sauce spoons. Sauce spoons! Almost no one sets tables with these outside of New York or Paris. It must take a kitchen ego the size of a supertanker for it to occur to a chef to equip tables with the necessary implements to scoop up every last precious drop of sauce after the thing it is bathing has been offed. How else to explain this frustrating absence elsewhere?
As with most tables in America before the cholesterol scare and after the Atkins diet rage set in, eating at Aurora begins with eggs. A complimentary brown "farm egg" (they come from other places?) rests upright, with its top sawed off. The egg is filled with a warm savory custard truffle topped with a cool, delicately sweet maple chantilly. It's earthy and smooth, with the luxurious tension of those contrasts easily driving its allure.
But this allure is nothing compared with the oysters. They arrive on a plate pooled in cool cucumber cream with yellow pepper acidulee: little grayish-bronze hooks resembling bass clefs drawn into the surface. The oysters, pepper hooks and small bundles of steely gray sturgeon caviar form links in a loose ring surrounding an isle of salmon roe in the center hoisting a tiny daikon radish sprout. You almost hate to eat it, but eat it you do, down to the final drop of green sauce alarmed by neither acids nor creams nor debased brininess--such was the balance.
Yet balance is in the eye of the beholder. My companion complained halfway through one visit that the richness of the menu was disturbingly unrelenting, a syndrome I rejected (though richness also is in the eye of the beholder, or the gullet of the gourmand). Richness indeed has a cogent footprint here, with creams and custards everywhere. But these were more than offset by emulsions and wine and vinegar sauces.
Sure the velouté of creamy lobster soup is aggressively weighty, but it doesn't slap with the force of old-fashioned gluey sauces or fatty renderings. It comes from a highly extracted, unrelenting shellfish essence left largely to its own forces. Tasting this soup was like licking the sweat from a lobster's carapace. Such singularity takes guts to pull off.
One thing Samuel doesn't mince is words. (Though he won't throw many my way, demanding I never again write another word about him or his work. He also barred the Dallas Observer photographer from the Aurora premises; such is the sting that apparently still festers from a profile of Samuel I wrote in 1998). Despite the floral (but brief, thank God) menu verbiage, the flavors are clear and unfrilly. Pan-roasted Colorado lamb rib and saddle fillet is richly laced with sweet meat flavors and firm silkiness sown with clean but coarse grain.
Still, richness dominates. Beef tenderloin "Rossini style," drooling from a crown of pale gold foie gras parfait, sits in a pool of shallot red wine sauce. The foie gras infused the meat with an almost caramel-like richness that is tempered by acids in the sauce.
This blunting pattern is everywhere. Every assertive move is modulated by another, but not so much so that the expression is muffled. This dynamic drops the volume, yet the statements are actually clearer. Pan-seared turbot is a choir of moving whispers. Gently coated fish pieces behave like clouds in the mouth, floating over it instead of plunging through it. The meat arrives as a small tower in a pool of tomato-vanilla emulsion, the vanilla consorting with tomato acids to quietly draw out natural fish flavors.
Visuals stimulate with equal vigor. Aurora is little more than an imposing kitchen, which hovers over the dining room like a surreal throne. It flickers with tracts of polished stainless steel striped with rows of copper saucepots hung from hooks. Samuel behaves like an admiral in his black frock, leaning on his palms on the counter in front of him, scanning the dining room through the 9-foot wall of floor-to-ceiling etched glass that separates the kitchen from the dining room as his crew works through an intuitive choreography behind him. He is at ease, with none of his legendary explosiveness apparent. On occasion he huddles with servers, turns to direct his chefs or pauses to taste a sauce. Like the plates, the room is rich--walls mossed in ultrasuede or veneered in exotic wood, chairs crisply nipped in dark leather--but clean.
This same compelling aesthetic stain seeps onto the plate again and again. The bouquet garden salad is an eye-popping still life with a sheaf of billowing leaves in various green shades loosely tethered. In another quadrant rest tiny beets, white and red, next to a shallot. All bathe in vanilla bean-red wine vinaigrette.
This is the kind of work that a long wake of seemingly errant restaurant stints inseminates, demonstrating that discipline dominates Samuel's craft. Where in the past his work could be inconsistent and disappointing (Ethniko, Bibendum and Bistro A as it wound down), here he never slips into a riot of "fusion" anarchy. Aurora is a dazzling recalibration of the influences and techniques that have always dominated Samuel's cooking. There's no need to travel to a precious tasting list in Chicago or a three-star specter in Paris. As long as Samuel is cooking like this, you can save your frequent-flier miles and hotel points for big game hunts or flashy poker tournaments.
4216 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-528-9400. Open 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$$$
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