Ever been in a purpose-built shiny glass and aluminium restaurant that looks from the outside like it ought to be a car showroom topped with Bedouin tents? Neither had I before yesterday. Aurora Bar & Grill, situated gloriously on Orwell Quay in the Ipswich waterfront, clearly aims to make itself stand out from the crowd.
Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the parking system, which is expensive and threatening but free for Aurora diners who enter their registration number on a tablet device proffered by a waiter, the Downstairs the bar has been set up to provide high quality liquors, beers and cocktails in a comfortable environment, replete with comfy chairs, many overlooking the harbour.
All very nice but the dining room involves a short trek around the showroom and up the stairs, where we were placed in an otherwise deserted space (probably 100 covers) overlooking the waterfront. An open kitchen is bustling with staff, presumably engaged on prepping a packed evening session. No complaints about our waitress either – friendly and efficient, but then she was not exactly under stress at this serving.
The lunchtime set dinner is charged at £12 for one course, £14 for two, £16 for three, plus various nibbles and £3 sides, three choices for each course. The style is modern, broadly British, and with a few nods to current culinary fashions – albeit retro 90s if you consider parsnip velouté with parsnip crisp and curry oil.
My companion started with mackerel rillettes, which arrived looking like a tiny tin of flaked fish turned out on the plate. Unaccountably it arrived without any bread, which you would consider essential accompaniment to anything that can be spread or spooned. She said it was “alright” – not bad but not spectacular.
My starter of veal carpaccio was another dish reduced to its barest minimal essentials: a few anonymous wafer thin slices of raw veal, accompanied by a few dots of horseradish cream, a few strands of pea shoot and some rather tasty if minute nuggets of crisp and lightly pickled cauliflower and oyster mushroom. In fact the garnishes totally dominated what should have been the showcased ingredient such that the delicate veal might not have existed. A great shame indeed.
Meanwhile, my companion got stuck into rather superior Long Island Iced Tea, which looked a picture and evidently delivered more than her food, since she indulged in a second cocktail. Since I was driving it was lime and soda for me, though a later black Americano was almost the highlight of the day, being properly strong, aromatic and delicious.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The mains arrived without an undue delay: a pumpkin risotto in an authentic shade of saffron yellow, plus a tranch of salmon on tasty greens, but without new potatoes (as ordered by my companion.) We could also have had rabbit leg pie, which item is rarely seen on menus outside the likes of Rules. In hindsight, maybe I should have ordered it.
I won’t say the salmon was overdone, since that implies a slight miscalculation on the continuum between not enough, just right and too much. No, this salmon was cremated: the skin was burned to a crisp, the flesh had lost all pretence of lustre, and moisture thoroughly extracted. Given that we were the only patrons in the dining room and the kitchen packed with staff, this massacre was unforgivable. But for not wishing to ruin the atmosphere I would have sent it back. Sod that, I should have sent it back. Damn me for not doing so!
What of the risotto? At least it was authentically moist and not shrivelled and bore evidence of some freshly grated parmigiana, but was tepid. Not “kitchen hot”, as the euphemism has it, but verging on cool. My mother, who likes her food piping hot at all times, would unquestionably have sent it back. It also lacked the al dente bite of a perfect risotto, though that is the norm for most restaurant risotti – unlike my homemade version. I’ve given up hope of finding a properly cooked restaurant risotto outside Italy.
In summary, Aurora flattered to deceive. It clearly regards itself as a fine dining establishment, but really did not deliver the goods to any degree. Even for a lunchtime set menu, standards and attention to detail should have been higher. For the salmon alone I would reduce my rating to 2 stars out of 5 “must do better.”