We began with the Aura Salad, a straightforward plate of impeccably fresh mixed greens topped with candied Marcona almonds, julienned Granny Smith apples, and Roquefort cheese, with a simple vinaigrette of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice. When he was growing up, Chef Perrier said, his mom always made salads similar to this. "A salad was never just a salad. She always added pears or apples, and always a bit of cheese - the French, there's cheese on everything."
Next up was the Sandwich de St. Jacques, a clever "hamburger" of diver scallops & boneless beef short ribs, finished with a Burgundy reduction. Alison Cook raved about this dish, and rightly so; the meaty, dense scallops combine beautifully with the smooth, long-braised beef. I asked Chef Perrier how he had come up with this surprising combination, which has been on the Aura menu since the restaurant opened. He said he'd been inspired by a similar dish he'd tried near his hometown in France five or six years ago. "It's very unlikely in France to put seafood and meat together, but the chef was young and very creative. When I was doing the menu here, I thought we should do it as a little sandwich. It's fairly big for an appetizer because we put three scallops on the plate; some people actually make a main course out of it."
"It's a good thing you went to that restaurant," I noted. "I know," replied Chef Perrier. "But that's how it is. I don't think anyone invents anything in the food industry. Everybody evolves something. Aside from molecular gastronomy, everything's been done. It's just a question of flavors and the quality of what you're serving."
"I was with Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud this winter at the French show this winter," he continued, "and we were hanging out for a couple days and Thomas said, 'I need to go to this place, that place, and that place to get some ideas.' You might wonder, the guy's got three of the finest restaurants in America, and he needs to go somewhere to get ideas? But yeah, he does. Because you see something or eat something and say, 'oh, I never would have thought of doing that,' and then you tweak it to make it your version. That's what cooking is all about. I could never work somewhere like Chili's where I had to follow a recipe."
We then moved on to the oven-roasted, double-cut Berkshire pork chop with a horseradish crust, served with roasted vegetables and truffled macaroni and cheese. Chef Perrier described the dish as one of his grandfather's specialties: "He'd always rub the pork loin with Dijon mustard, fresh herbs, a little bread crumbs, put it in a pan with some sliced onions, celery root, carrots, and other root vegetables and then put it in the oven. I remember coming inside the house and smelling the pork. This is exactly how I remember eating this dish, and exactly the way I'd want to eat it."
Perhaps primed by his description, I almost had a Ratatouille moment with my first bite. The dish captures the essence of a perfect home-cooked meal: a generous portion, hearty vegetables, and perfect, uncomplicated preparation. The truffled mac and cheese, with both Gruyère and Parmesan, adds a nice bit of richness.
I could have stopped there, but Chef Perrier next brought out a Provençal-style pan-roasted Gulf snapper filet with peppers, spinach, and oven-roasted tomatoes, topped with jumbled crab meat and a squash blossom. (As an added bonus, the tomatoes and the squash blossom come from Perrier's home garden.) The snapper was moist and delicate, with a gentle flavor immensely enhanced by the warm, saffron-infused sauce. "We always cook fish with the skin on," said Chef Perrier, "because when I serve snapper I want people to know it's snapper. I think that at many restaurants in Houston, when you order snapper, you get tilapia."
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We finished with a trio of small desserts--white chocolate bread pudding, crème brûlée, and profiterole-- for people who say they don't know what they want. Chef Perrier, who doesn't have a pastry chef, calls these "cook's desserts." He's being too modest: they may not be feats of culinary architecture, but they taste like dessert ought to. Which is reportedly the same thing that Alison Cook told him, shortly after Aura opened.