Aura and Zander Café

By Ellen Shaffer

Hiding in plain sight, amidst the splashy buzz of Uptown, Aura is a tiny, tentative contradiction. You could walk past it a dozen times and miss it entirely, which never could be said about nearby Figlio or the Independent or Sushi Tango or Chiang Mai Thai. Love them or loathe them, Uptown’s better-known eateries have their own distinct personalities. Aura isn’t quite there yet.

The décor is coolly minimal, with a color scheme of blue and black. This is more attractive than it sounds, however, and a refreshing alternative to the golden yellow, faux-Tuscan hues that everyone else is using these days. The room has just enough space for a single row of high-backed booths. Once you’re tucked in to your table, the rest of the place is obscured; it’s a little like having a private dining room.

In an era when diners have become accustomed to hospitality that is almost accommodating to a fault, Aura falls short of creating a user-friendly experience. For example, the restaurant’s website features a listing of quirky cocktails—but we would have needed a laptop to consult it, as we didn’t receive a printed cocktail menu, and our server blanched when asked about the bar’s specialties.

This made for a slightly off-putting first impression, one that was reinforced when we were instructed to hang on to our forks between courses. Flatware conservation is perfectly forgivable if you’re dining in the first apartment of a graduate student. But it’s disconcerting in a restaurant.

Our table began with the Tabasco-dipped calamari and the Maryland crab cakes with avocado and béarnaise. The Tabasco in the calamari was undetectable, as was the habanero in the habanero-lemon aioli. We had no quibbles with the crab cakes, which were light, tender, and tasty.

Our sampling of entreés included one worth-the-trip winner: the carnita-stuffed pear, poached and wrapped in puff pastry and filled with tender, smoky pulled pork. Served with a mushroom demi-glace and crumbles of Gorgonzola, it was the envy of our table. Aura’s menu includes several culinary-school classics, such as the filet mignon, which was nicely done. But the coq au vin—traditionally a saucy, slow-simmered stew—was parched and chewy, with nary a whiff of vin. The oddest dish of the evening was the strawberry-chipotle-marinated pork with apricot mole. What could have been a nervy juxtaposition of sweetness and heat arrived as a plate of dry meat with a gooey, fruity sauce.

We ordered two desserts but received only one, a respectably sinful molten chocolate cake. This happens. Servers are only human. But a lapse like this calls for some kind of response—an apology or an explanation. Our server (otherwise pleasant and agreeably chatty) didn’t react at all. When we inquired about the missing dessert, she gave us an uncomprehending look and walked away.

Big changes are on the drawing board for Calhoun Square. The development is slated to undergo a major renovation, expanding to encompass the entire block, complete with condos and an open-air courtyard. Perhaps this explains the provisional quality of Aura’s aura.

3001 Hennepin Ave. S.

Eric Moore

Zander Café: Suddenly, old flavors are new again.

By Dennis Cass

Zander Café debuted in 1998, when chef-driven restaurants were just starting to take off in the Twin Cities. Like his peers Doug Flicker, of Auriga, and Brock Obee, of 128 Cafe, Alexander Dixon struck out on his own to create something intimate, creative, and personal. Since then, the restaurants that spawned these chefs—the Loring Café, Table of Contents, and the New French, respectively—have all closed, and the start-ups have become places for the next generation to train. The Young Turks are becoming the Old Guard.

“At 47, I’m getting too old to play the young man’s game of production cooking,” Dixon says, “but I still love to cook. I still love to come up with recipes and write menus.” He now focuses on the front of the house, but his eclectic creative influence—not to mention love of French preparations and techniques—is still felt in the kitchen, now in the hands of Damian Tittle. (Interim chef Michael Hart went on to help open Duplex.)

On a recent visit we found mini oyster poboys alongside crispy duck confit wontons, and a grilled New York strip sauced with a dried cherry gastrique sharing the menu with a pan-seared halibut “Amèricaine.” There were simple dishes such as the baked calamarata pomodoro, a hearty, cheesy, pasta dish, and more showy items, such as the tamale con camarones, a deconstructed appetizer with cascabel-pepper lobster sauce and a jumbo prawn with the head intact.

“We’ve always been more about the food than presentation,” Dixon says, and while the plates were far from artless, it’s true that the soul of the restaurant is devoted to the palate. Just when you think that restaurants have lost their ability to surprise, little touches, like the tart, crystalline, candied lemon zest on the Asian pear and Boston Bibb salad, or the hint of cinnamon in the chocolate chihuahua cake, fill your mouth with wonder—suddenly old flavors are new again.

Zander Café is larger now, with the addition of a beer and wine bar, but it has retained its comfortable, neighborhood feel. Prices vary only by category—all appetizers are $8, all entrées are $19—so you don’t have to stew over cost. The menu has maintained its sense of humor, such as the escargots that are baked until “ridiculously” hot. It’s also nice to see Dixon continue to share the spotlight with the rest of the staff, who receive credit on the menu, bringing to mind a place that not only appreciates the present but is making room for the future.

“Thinking about food and cooking in small quantities for friends or to test a new recipe is still my labor of love,” says Dixon. “I also get excited when people like Damian come along and they get excited about food again. It’s weird to think about it, but I feel like I’m passing it to the next generation.”

Zander Café
525 Selby Ave.
St. Paul