Three visits and several months later, I find myself at a loss for how best to describe Aura Global Cuisine. It is located in a town with an amazingly high concentration of Italian restaurants and a brand new wine bar that features a tragically gauche interior that I can only call: Caesar's Palace - The '70s.
Through no particular fault of its own, Aura lies 45 minutes from the end of my driveway, which, in the dead of winter, does not help my opinion of it. As far as food and drinks go, Aura's wine list, while very fairly priced, seems a little limited or slightly too replete with retail selections; and the culinary offerings, though excellent, have a vaguely outmoded feel. It's in a strip mall, seems a little too dead on weekdays and occasionally suffers from slower-than-usual meal pacing. And yet, Aura is probably one of the most enjoyable places to eat that I've visited in years. And, once you go, I am certain that you'll agree.
The reason can be summed up in one word: hospitality (which should be, but rarely is, a restaurant's most important quality). The wonderfully accommodating, sincere service staff aren't going out of their way to prove that they are younger or more hip than you. Jihad Hachicho, the chef and proprietor, is one of the most gracious people I've ever met. On our first visit, he followed us out the door, chatting as though we were old friends and, two visits later, I find it hard not to think of him thusly.
We've even found that the guests at Aura seem to pick up something of the place's open, convivial vibe. Upon arriving late to a wine dinner (delayed by the weather, of course), my girlfriend and I were seated with another couple at a four-top table. Generally speaking, restaurants, unlike golf courses, don't take it upon themselves to set up foursomes, so this seemed a slightly awkward arrangement. True to the spirit of Aura, however, the four of us closed the place, exchanged phone numbers and are planning to all go out again soon. On the strength of good-natured, honest and kind hospitality, Aura seems to offer its guests something more valuable than a night of eating and drinking, which, I'm afraid, very few places can do or care to do anymore.
As is often the case in our little culinary community, I first heard of Hachicho through his reputation, which, generally speaking, is not a good thing. I, for instance, am known as a snobbish smart-aleck who spends too much time in bars. (Clearly, this is slander.) Aura's kindly proprietor, however, is usually painted with phrases such as "gentleman chef" and "the nicest man in the business."
A product of war-torn Lebanon, Hachicho came to this country more than 20 years ago to attend engineering school, but never forgot his love of cooking and his time working at the InterContinental Hotel in Beirut. Eventually, his desire to be a chef won out, and he enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
After graduation, he worked at a couple fancy joints in New York City before finding his way to Northeast Ohio. Here, he quickly earned two Silver Spoons from Cleveland Magazine for his work at Ward's Inn and garnered acclaim as the last chef at Sammy's before that operation converted to catering.
I hope Aura will serve as a more permanent home for his food, spirit and hospitality.
Hachicho's cooking merges French continental, American and Asian techniques and flavors. And, even where it fails to surprise, it rarely fails to impress. Recent visits featured some very good menu items that showcased Aura's global sensibilities and, in general, left us happy to make a return trip.
For a knockout starter, the Korean chili soup ($7.25) with flank steak, soba noodles, Asian vegetables and a zesty broth is meant for two and served in a unique cast iron pot. Other great appetizers included braised boneless short ribs ($9.95) with creamy potatoes and a slightly spicy pasilla chili-Cabernet reduction; a simple yet flavorful spinach gnocchi ($7.95) with sage butter, crumbled bleu cheese and toasted walnuts; and the blackened scallops ($8.95) with grilled zucchini and a tasty sweet-and-sour sauce.
A dish of grilled venison and chicken sausages ($7.25) featured wonderful charcuterie but was unimaginatively sided with Creole mustard and Asian barbecue sauce in ramekins.
Also on the topic of appetizers, I have to send special kudos to Hachicho and his kitchen staff. On a Monday visit, my special girl asked if the mussels were purchased that day. The kitchen informed us that they were not. This admission takes guts and inspired greater trust in the culinary ethos of the people preparing our food.
Salads at Aura are quite good, though somewhat run-of-the-mill (Caesar, $6.45, Greek-like, $5.95). The exception is a mixed green salad ($6.95) topped with mozzarella, fresh strawberries, balsamic glaze and kalamata ice cream, which shows a refined understanding of flavor composition, advanced culinary technique and the sort of creativity of which I'm certain Hachicho is always capable.
It has occurred to me that perhaps the chef is purposely cooking for a Broadview Heights audience and is trying to please his clientele while slowly and subtly educating them as well ? let's hope it's a lesson learned.
In many ways, Aura's entres remind me of the food that I, too, have forged out of the merger of French and American flavors, and I was anxious to try someone else's renditions.
Venison au poivre ($22.45) with sweet-and-sour red cabbage, potato pancake and cassis reduction is a perfect example of this style, blending Midwestern and Alsatian elements deftly.
Elsewhere, though, Hachicho fuses an Asian element to his classical sensibilities, borrowing flavors more than styles or preparations. This is evidenced in dishes such as the sautÃ©ed sea scallops ($18.45) with creamy polenta and ginger-wasabi cream sauce and the grilled bone-in strip steak ($24.45) with delicious scalloped potatoes and sweet soy-Merlot reduction. In both instances, the flavors of East and West complement rather than compete with each other.
Hachicho's personal favorite, the organic pork tenderloin ($19.95) is all Asian and exotic flavoring. Here, perfectly cooked pork is served with Japanese buckwheat soba noodles and a creative golden raisin-black bean sauce.
Overall, the menu and Aura itself display the interests and refinements of a man who has spent years in the kitchen and in the hospitality business. It appears that more than anything, Jihad Hachicho wants to share both his culinary discoveries and his infectious charm with the greater public, who will become his customers and, before they know it, his friends.
Aura Global Cuisine, 9200 Broadview Road, Broadview Heights, (440) 546-9940. Hours: Mon-Sat: 5 - 10 p.m. Completely non-smoking. All major credit cards accepted.