Words Can't Do Auriga Justice

Mark Wojahn

1934 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 871-0777.

Leo Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the observation that all happy families are happy in the same ways, but all unhappy families are uniquely unhappy. With this line he neatly summarized the central paradox in restaurant reviewing: Bad restaurants are fascinating places full of malicious characters enacting evil, tragic, or comical scenes, but good restaurants are very, very dull--they're merely pleasant spots where good food is discreetly served. It's easy enough to fill pages with tales of unhappy families (or crappy restaurants), but how many adjectives for pleasant can you pile up before the readers flee the building? If I told you that Auriga is thoroughly congenial! charming! and very, very nice!, would you read any further?

About the juiciest thing I can dig up on Auriga is that the menu they debuted with in September was impossibly academic and ambitious, full of mind-bendingly complex combinations of intimidating flavors. To hear the four young chef-owners tell it, that menu lasted only until customers started howling, and they quickly remade the menu into its current incarnation, a happy blend of the bold (haddock on a bed of celeriac in a leek sauce finished with blue cheese) and the comfortingly bland (grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and a truffle gravy).

Mark Reinholtz, Scott Davis, Doug Flicker, and Melinda Goodin are the chef-owners behind Auriga. They're the ones that pulled the carpets out of the old Lowry's, the ones who painted the azure walls in the bar, the ones who accept midnight deliveries of river-fresh watercress from their secret sources, and they're also the ones who prepare and plate each and every dish that leaves their kitchen, which assures an extraordinary level of quality control.

This commitment to quality was borne out in each of the half a dozen meals I've had at Auriga in recent weeks. I particularly appreciate it when restaurants take pains with the little things, like plain green salads. Auriga makes one of the best I've had, made of painstakingly fresh and well-cleaned greens (I hate, hate, hate it when you get a mixed salad filled with old, yellowing leaves; it just always says to me that there are several layers--chef, waiter, management--that are all either too chaotic or too uncaring to pay attention to what's being served), strewn with fresh sprigs of thyme or other herbs, dressed with a first-class fruity olive oil, and sparkling with a just-ground glitter of sea salt. The salad, $4.50 at lunch or $4.75 at dinner, is big enough to share as an appetizer but makes a good-sized entrée--as is the Caesar-like romaine salad ($5) topped with real tangy parmesan and addictive homemade fried-bread croutons.

I appreciate the way that the waitstaff always gives the patrons a few moments to try their dishes before they offer the fresh-ground pepper--how many times have you been asked to decide whether your dish needs pepper before you've even tasted it? Every time I've been to Auriga the waitstaff has been smart, unobtrusive, aware, and very in-the-moment--they pace the meal perfectly, they offer suggestions for sharing, they know quite a bit about their wines, and they often offer to allow you to taste things you might be unsure of, a refreshing change from those cynical servers who always seem to be trying to up their check average purely for their own benefit.

Lunch at Auriga is thoroughly pleasant and surprisingly inexpensive. $4 gets you a generous bowl of soup, like a recent delicious potato-leek, and a big bread basket; $6.25 buys a delicious grilled gouda sandwich and a cup of tomato soup. And for $6.50 (which is really not much more than you'd pay at Burger King), you can get a succulent burger cooked to your specification, covered with sweet grilled onions, springy-fresh mozzarella, and served alongside a pile of exquisite just-made fries and a cute little relish tray holding ketchup, Dijon mustard, and fresh béarnaise loaded with bright shreds of tarragon.

More sophisticated offerings, like a rich, smoky pork stew with roasted-vegetable ragout served around a mound of soft polenta ($6.50), or one of the daily specials like a salmon risotto in which each grain is as creamy and distinct as could be, are entirely delicious, and are also such good values that they almost make you feel guilty. Because the chefs are also the owners, they have complete latitude in the kitchen to accommodate special requests--e.g., if you're allergic to wheat and don't like sage--and they go out of their way at any meal to please the most finicky kids. The fact that tykes can order plain pizzas, grilled cheese sandwiches, or burgers sets Auriga ahead of the fine-dining pack.

The chefs here have worked at almost every haute restaurant in town, and say that one of the biggest attractions to opening their own place was the possibility of working with the highest-quality ingredients. They pride themselves on their ingredients' quality, from fine olives to special cheeses, many of which can be found in the nightly antipasti plate, like the one now that features two kinds of goat cheese, a piquant, full-flavored Semper Virens, and a fresh, buttery, and tangy chèvre. This giant antipasti ($8), served with salty pitted olives, a few roasted chestnuts, and the rather silly addition of a tablespoon of diced green beans, is a loving display of high-quality ingredients. The trend continues with other appetizers, such as the transcendent grilled bread and vegetable soup with Prince Edward Island mussels ($6). This succulent broth is surrounded by tasty chunks of long-braised organic celery (you can tell it's organic because it tastes like something after it's cooked), which seems to me to be a perfect realization of these mussels from the eastern Canada coast. Nothing makes me sadder than a food that's traveled halfway around the world to turn to cardboard in Minnesota.

All the entrées I had at Auriga were nearly perfect. The sliced grilled sirloin with prunes, chestnuts, and grappa, served with those lovely french fries ($17.25), was wonderful, and proof that you don't need a 24-ounce portion of beef to get that vivid steak flavor. Vegetarian entrées like the lusciously simple pumpkin-and-ricotta ravioli ($13.50) served on wilted spinach and topped with a lacey net of fried leeks are a perfect example of how understated preparation can make individual flavors sing: These ravioli were exceptionally light, sweet, and fine. The haddock mentioned above was melt-in-your-mouth perfect, the edges crisp as though they had been fried, the interior as tender as custard. Fish specials change nightly, and with the careful attention that each and every plate gets, Auriga is quickly turning into one of the best fish restaurants in town.

My only disappointments at Auriga had to do with the bread basket, which could be warmer and better, and with the number of items it serves flavored with Guinness: The Guinness-flavored baked beans under a perfect piece of sautéed salmon were too hard and undercooked one night, and I think the slightly sour Guinness ice cream that accompanies the flourless chocolate torte is more weird than tasty, though I overheard another table exclaiming about how much they loved it. Desserts, though few, have impressed me. I particularly liked the southern apple pie ($5), a tender pie crust packed to the gills with apples and served next to an absolutely delectable scoop of green-apple sorbet. The flourless chocolate torte ($5.50) fits any chocolate lover's criteria: It's made with a fine grade of chocolate, comes in a giant wedge, and melds with a cup of Auriga's fine, thick java to create that knee-weakening chocolate high we're always chasing.

Auriga's bar is making it particularly beloved to its neighbors: Not only are the wine and beer lists impressive and wide-ranging, but the space is entirely pretty, and it serves drinks 'til 1 a.m. Food is often served that late too, though the bar has been known to close early when no one's there. In fact, if Auriga gets the liquor license it's applying for (and summer ever comes to allow use of the outdoor patio), Lowry Hill might finally get the non-Liquor Lyle's hot spot it so deserves.

But maybe that wouldn't be such a good thing after all. Then they'd all be happy in the same way, and they'd be deadly, deadly dull.

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