So even as we directed our strappy little sandals up the charmingly landscaped sidewalk leading to Christopher's Aurora Bistro, we had our doubts. After all, the countryside is littered with the corpses of sassy young chefs taken down a professional peg or three by the demands of a staid, silver-haired clientele, not to mention the plethora of cute-as-a-button dining rooms that turn out to be all sizzle and no substance, nor the undercapitalized family ventures that cut every corner just to stay afloat.
But if our heads were filled with fears of dumbed-down cuisine and flimsy xeroxed menus, we needn't have been concerned. So far, at least, what chef Christopher Shydlowski and his clan (including his twin sister/hostess/head server Jennifer Brickley and his brother-in-law/wine-expert Sean Brickley) have going here is a top-notch dining experience, fueled by well-executed classics, guest-friendly amenities, and service that makes everyone feel like part of the family.
This is accomplished in a spot that holds no more than 30 guests at a time, and at prices that make a meal in this intimate, Western-Reserve-style dining room that much more remarkable. And if the small kitchen often seems to be out of something (one night the coconut shrimp, say, and another night the lamb satay) and the pacing is still a tad too leisurely, we like to think that it simply contributes to the unpretentious ambiance, where shorts and t-shirts are just as welcome as sports coats and sun dresses. (If, however, you have a pressing after-dinner engagement, you would still be wise to alert Jennifer to your schedule and plan on skipping dessert.)
Start-up snags aside, though, a visit to the three-month-old bistro is a fine use of one's dinner hour, especially in light of Chef Chris's well-crafted menu of classic, upscale faves. Like the shrimp cocktails and the mussels, the racks of lamb and the duck breasts, nothing here is outré or overly trendy. Dishes are accessible, ingredients are recognizable, and no one seems to be trying too hard to impress. True, there is pan-seared ostrich and grilled ahi tuna, but don't let such relative exotica get your napkins in a knot: Side dishes are still more likely to be a perfect risotto or buttery couscous than wasabi-flavored mashed potatoes, say; and venerable demi-glaces and au jus hold the floor against modish espumas and foams.
But if his techniques and ingredients are rooted in the past, Shydlowski's fearless use of seasonings ensures that the food is never boring or routine. From the rack of succulent lamb, peeking out from inside its basil-pesto crust, to the pearly halibut filet, shimmering beneath a cloak of spicy-sweet mango chutney, flavors seemed exceptionally pure, fresh, and imaginative. As a result, even when the main event was slightly overcooked (as in the case of the halibut), or reached the table barely lukewarm (the lamb), the tastes were still so intriguing and well orchestrated that we could scarcely muster cause for complaint.
(This would be in sharp contrast, by the way, to the bistro's background music, which is clichéd enough to embarrass even Liberace, bless his soul. For God's sake, kids, put on some cool jazz, light classical, or even Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- wouldn't that shake up the Walden crowd! -- and ditch the "beautiful music." Okay, end of rant.)
Our dinnertime visit began with a half-loaf of warm herbed bread (one of the few items not made in-house), served with a saucer of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar for dipping, and a ramble through the well-structured wine list, smartly compiled by Sean Brickley in consultation with Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia.
With only about 60 wines by the bottle and 15 by the glass, the wine list obviously doesn't aim to impress by sheer size. Rather, it's the user-friendly organization that distinguishes the menu, with every wine listed first by the type of food it best complements (seafood, pasta, wild game, and the like) and second by grape type (Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and so on). In addition, the list is punctuated with insights into food-and-wine pairings. It's almost like having a sommelier at your side, and it removes the intimidation in ordering a satisfactory bottle, even for a novice. (Most restaurants' wine lists could be written in Farsi, for all the help they provide.) Better still, most of the well-chosen alternatives check in at less than $40. (Beer is also available; cocktails are not.)
The 32-year-old Shydlowski graduated from Aurora High School, earned his chef's whites at the Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts, and put together a résumé that includes Sammy's, the original Classics, and the award-winning Leopard in the Bertram Inn and Conference Center. Here, in his own digs at last, he is given to frequent menu changes, and chances are that some of the items we rave about will no longer be available by the time you make your own reservations. Still, there are several dishes we can't help but bring to your attention.
Among the starters, these include the à la carte side salads, ample portions of pristine greens piqued with tasty add-ons like nuts, cheeses, and fruits; lightly stroked with mellow housemade emulsions; and tossed onto well-chilled plates. Some -- like the baby lettuces punctuated by toasted cashews, mandarin oranges, and fresh strawberries in a whisper of honey-lime vinaigrette -- were sweet and dainty; others -- like the manly mélange of mixed greens, apple slices marinated in vanilla-scented orange juice, candied walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, and a tangy Dijon-shallot dressing -- were savory and substantial. But all were perfectly harmonious, especially in light of their price (a mere $3.25), they made a vivacious introduction to our meals.
Soups, too, seem a sure bet, with one night's du jour offering a zesty variation on southwestern black-bean soup, with bits of ahi tuna, salmon, and mahi-mahi standing in for the more typical chorizo; and a classic version of New England clam chowder, chock full of clam, potato, and carrot, yet still refreshingly delicate, with a texture as silken as cream.
After an intermezzo of homemade sorbet to cleanse the palate, it was on to the main events. Shydlowski's oven-roasted rack of lamb, succulent and rosy inside its zesty pesto crust, ringed with a scant amount of lamb demi-glace, seems destined for a permanent menu berth, and rightly so. Also, a worthy entrée of grilled filet of beef, topped with shelled lobster claw and redolent of tarragon and garlic, somehow melted on the tongue while dancing on the taste buds. (The bistro is also open for lunch, with a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, and wraps, all priced at or below $10.)
Like most of the chef's other creations, such time-honored desserts as crème brûlée, cheesecake, and bread pudding didn't strike us as novel -- until we tasted them. Then, Shydlowski's talent for upping the flavor ante turned them into memorable events. Take his Hawaiian bread pudding, for example, with an almost evaporative texture that belied the big flavors of cherries, pineapple, coconut, and dried apricots; a final flourish of spiced rum and a pouf of whipped cream, and the sweet was sexy enough to bring an entire dinner party to its knees. The same goes for the homemade cherry pie, in a shortening crust so rich yet delicate that we would have sworn it was made with lard, and a topping of finely crumbled Oreos that added irresistible counterpoint.
While the bistro is still a relative newbie, plans are already under discussion for expanding the space. This is a good thing. As we meandered back to our car, amid the loosestrife, lobelia, and daylilies that line the still-rural property, one thing seemed as clear as a well-prepared demi-glace: Christopher's Aurora Bistro is a spot that deserves to be packed.
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