Daily Herald

Set menu gives Aurora eatery
a unique twist

Posted Thursday, September 28, 2006

"Awesome!" Chef Amaury Rosado is nothing if not enthusiastic. Bustling around the small dining room of his Aurora restaurant, Chef Amaury's Epicurean Affair, he's a constantly awed presence, fired up over his food, his wines, his diners and more. Everything's "awesome!"

I can't quite say that his eponymous eatery reaches the heights of that accolade, but it's fun, fresh and flavorful. Rosado, a career changer who morphed from urban social worker to suburban chef and opened his eatery four years ago, offers a unique dining experience. Open only on Friday and Saturday nights, Chef Amaury's serves only fixed-price set menus, which change weekly. The choices are three courses or five courses. On holidays or special occasions, there may be more.

Dominating the 42-seat storefront's simple but attractive decor, a bookcase stuffed with cookbooks offers clues into the chef's inspirations.

Taking advantage of organic and local products whenever possible, Rosado's menu might encompass a salad, such as baby spinach greens with blueberry vinaigrette, Point Reyes blue cheese and Traverse City cherries or mixed greens dressed in black mission fig vinaigrette with marcona almonds and Humboldt Fog goat cheese; and a soup, like asparagus with Plapp Farm ham and lemongrass oil or organic baby blue potatoes and Walla Walla leeks.

A fish course might be wild Alaskan halibut poached in olive oil and served with quinoa and sauteed garlic with pinot beurre rouge, or wild Alaskan ling cod with roast tomato-piquillo pepper sauce, wild rice and zucchini. Prime filet mignon typically figures as the meat course, perhaps set atop a red wine reduction, accompanied by roast garlic truffled potatoes or dolloped with truffle-herbed butter and accompanied by fingerling potatoes. Dessert often comes with several choices, such as Venezuelan bittersweet chocolate molten cake with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream or classic creme brulee.

Three-course options tend to be a subset, with a few extra main-course choices (like a New York strip steak with the same truffle butter and fingerlings or nut-crusted rack of Australian lamb, served with saffron Israeli couscous) and dessert options, but there is overlap. Three courses or five courses, everybody's going to get the same salad, for example. Optional add-ons include foie gras and a cheese course.

The kitchen will let you make swaps here and there. For example, one person in our party substituted lamb from the three-course choices for the fish in his five-course dinner.

Rosado mostly gets flavors right on. The spinach salad offered a fine mix of crunch and squish, sweet and savory. The blue potato and leek soup, which sounded muddy when Rosado described it, turned out to be a smooth, rich and deeply flavorful ecru-colored potage dotted with herb oil and garnished with a thin slice of serrano ham.

Crispy outside with a moist center, the perfectly cooked ling cod, a thick chunk dressed in zingy red sauce sat on nutty wild rice with a little sauteed zucchini. The steak, with its swirl of truffle butter, came perfectly prepared as well.

And the lamb really was awesome: a meaty little rack, cooked just past rare — not what I would have ordered but in fact just right — with a slather of sharp mustard, a nutty crust and a pool of faintly sweet raspberry-infused demi-glace. BB-sized spheres of Israeli couscous accompanied.

In an optional course, an interesting preparation of foie gras gave the liver a coating of cornmeal and a sweet corn-mustard sauce. Though creative, I don't think this dish quite succeeded. The rich, creamy sauce paired with the foie gras surprisingly well — conventionally, chefs counter the unctuousness of foie gras with fruity acid flavors — but the gritty coating robbed this luxury item of the melt-in-your-mouth quality that's one of foie gras' chief pleasures. The coating also perhaps interfered somewhat with the cooking process, since the foie gras tasted unpleasantly raw. However, this was the sole false step as far as flavor went.

If Rosado's cooking has a flaw, it's that the garnishes and flourishes one expects in this level of restaurant seem a little lacking. For example, one dessert was a big, dense rich slice of passion-fruit guava cheesecake, deliciously fruity, but where another restaurant might have garnished the cheesecake with a drizzle of sauce or a dollop of whipped cream, here it was just a hunk of cake on a plate. Another dessert, a deconstructed caramel apple faired better, with a pink-fleshed rose apple, quartered, sprinkled with macadamia nuts and lovely gooey caramel sauce.

More significantly, service is casual to a fault. We were often missing tableware, and when I asked for a knife for the lamb, the one I got wasn't sharp enough to separate it easily from the bone. (Yet a steak knife came with the beef, so it isn't that they lack such utensils.)

When one of us left the dining room, a server brought a course and left it to cool on the table rather than covering the plate or keeping it warm in the kitchen till the absent diner returned.

The wine list has some brilliant offerings, but our bottle came to the table already opened and we were left to pour our own refills most of the time. I was also disappointed that they didn't offer set pairing selections to go with the set menus.

Chef Amaury's is a family operation, with the chef, his wife and his sister-in-law all waiting tables and his father-in-law cutting meat in the back. Rosado personally describes the dishes to each diner, a nice touch, and I can see that the money's mainly going into the food. Yet our dinner, with an extra course, wine and tip ran over $100 a head, and at those prices I don't expect to have to keep asking for a fork.

Further, though it may make me sound stuffy to say it, a restaurant with Chef Amaury's aspirations ought to demand higher sartorial standards than "shoes and shirts required." I don't ask for a dress code mandating jackets or even banning jeans — but you lose all sophistication if you allow diners in shorts.

With a little more attention to elegancies of presentation and service, Chef Amaury's could be truly awesome.

Chef Amaury's Epicurean Affair

481 N. Commons Drive, Aurora, (630) 375-0426, www.chefamaury.com

Cuisine: Contemporary American set menus

Setting: Casual storefront in a strip mall

Price range: Three-course menu $40-$42; five-course menu $55; wine $8 to $12 by the glass, $27 to $160 by the bottle

Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays only

Accepts: Major credit cards; reservations required

Also: BYOB ($10 corkage fee); free parking; no smoking

Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.