Aurelia, Cork Street, London, W1
The exterior of the “contemporary Mediterranean” Mayfair restaurant, Aurelia, gives a good indication of the top quality food that awaits one within. The establishment is situated on quiet Cork Street behind the Royal Academy and a first glance reveals a discreet but sophisticated frontage radiating a sense of elegance, exclusivity and understated refinement. The newly refurbished restaurant is named after the Via Aurelia, a road leading from Rome which was constructed by censor Gaius Aurelius Cotta in 241 AD with the aim of facilitating mobilisation of troops and aiding communication with Roman colonies. The route was, over the years, gradually expanded so that eventually it effectively stretched from northern Gaul to Gades (Cadiz), in Spain. The restaurant’s focus is on food offered by these three Mediterranean countries thus once covered by the Via Aurelia.
A step through the door to the just slightly cramped bookings desk finds an altogether different atmosphere to the implication offered by the exterior – more recognisably Italian, perhaps, with its bustling, vibrant air and customers colliding chaotically as they try to squeeze in or out accordingly. Apart from some inviting-looking sofa seats, most tables are cafe-style (with slightly uncomfortable seating, it has to be said) – no origami-style napkins or polished best silver here. The furnishings and decoration my husband and I found a little puzzling – and slightly at odds with the graceful beauty of the food.
Earthy colours predominate, with beige floor tiles, and some walls mud-coloured (and mud-textured), while others are clay-white. Pillars aim to lend a Mediterranean air, yet rather than the Doric, Ionian or even Corinthian pillars that one might expect these are, untraditionally, square, and are liberally decorated with images of maps, photographs of statues, postcard-size reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci drawings and likewise. The pictures on the walls are of a similarly odd assortment – a photograph of the Pantheon that has been heavily Photoshopped to make it look like a model rather than an actual building, and some rather psychedelic pictures I confess I found slightly disturbing. The back of the room sports a smart bar with an excellent and wide section of wines, spirits, fortified wines, aperitifs and digestifs. Always a good mark of an establishment, the lavatories were clean and smart – with marble floors, hand-cream, and nicely tiled walls (I actually preferred the decor in these to the restaurant!). On the other hand, we were mildly perturbed by the popular music playing in the background, expecting and desiring, and certainly in a restaurant of this quality, either classical, light jazz or traditional Italian music. At least it wasn’t too loud.
Although we had arrived at a fairly busy time, the service was nevertheless excellent – food was served at decent intervals; neither rushed, nor forcing the customer to wait overly long periods before being served. The members of staff were all extremely attentive, friendly, knowledgeable, polite and smartly dressed, and we hadn’t been long settled in our seats before we were brought, un-requested and very welcome, a traditional Italian prosecco-based aperitif to sip while we browsed the menu. We visited on a Sunday, when a “brunch” menu is served from midday to 5pm. Perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the largest possible variety of customers, the range is surprisingly wide and makes for a rather odd mixture of offerings (and certainly one that seems to exceed the bounds of the stated Mediterranean cuisine): Sunday roast, full English breakfast, Italian “favourites”, such as lasagne and ravioli, and a further broad choice of meats, fishes and side dishes.
The wine list was good: reasonably extensive and with a pleasing range of wines available by the glass, carafe and half bottle, as well as, of course, full bottles at a healthy variety of prices. The list features predominately Italian wines, with a large number also of French, and also some Spanish, Portuguese and Greek wines, as well as magnums and dessert wines. We ordered a half bottle of 2007 Cruzes Hermitage – Peter Jaboulet Aine (Domine de Thalabert) and were deeply impressed. The intense purple colour and thickness of the wine in the glass promised a substantial and interesting beverage, while the nose gave off appealing aromas of tar, ash, leather and dark bramble fruits, implying, at the same time, quite a high alcoholic hit. These initial impressions were borne out by the taste, this full-bodied wine being dark and rich yet also gloriously smooth and sophisticated. The lingering aftertaste again was redolent of tar, ash and leather. A very fine wine indeed. It was quite noticeable, however, that the wine softened considerably during the meal, and one suspects that it would have been better off having been decanted at the outset.
The decor, music and cafe-feel perhaps led us to underestimate our anticipated food – to say we were pleasantly surprised would be something of an understatement, as the food at Aurelia is quite magnificent. My husband and I shared our starters of Caesar salad and smoked salmon (well, I ate most of them and graciously allowed him a little of both). The lettuce in the Caesar salad was both crunchy yet also quite silky, while the dressing was paradoxically very liberally applied and very rich, creamy and deeply flavoursome, yet wasn’t overpowering – which surprised me: surely such a quantity of so intense a flavour should have drowned out the other elements? With delightfully crunchy and also flavoursome croutons, the salad was full of good contrasts of textures. I have to say that this was, without doubt, the best Caesar I’ve ever had (and I am something of a connoisseur of Caesar salads). The smoked salmon was also presented in generous amount. Beautifully tender and delicately smoked, it was quite superb, and greatly enhanced by the complementing addition of dill.
Our mains arrived after a decent pause. My husband had ordered rib-eye steak of Wagyu steak. Although it was slightly rarer than the requested medium, it was nevertheless rather stunningly flavoursome and perfectly tender, having an excellent “coefficience of elasticity” as my husband so poetically put it. It was accompanied by reasonably good chips and salad.
I had opted for veal Milanese, which was served on the bone in a rather overwhelmingly munificent portion. The meat was succulent and tender, although possibly a little on the fatty side for my taste – although said fat nevertheless added extra flavour. The crunchy breadcrumbs and flakes of sea salt added texture and further taste. The veal was served with a leaf and tomato salad, so I had chosen green beans as a side order – and these were exquisite – wonderfully buttery and perfectly done – crunchy yet without being at all undercooked.
Petit fours followed – biscotti and fruit jellies that we guessed were probably grapefruit. These were beautiful – the taste very natural with a good contrast between the tartness of the fruit and the sweetness of the sugar. Again, the melting middle contrasted well with the crunchiness of the sugar.
At a long table closer to the door, a large Italian family had been celebrating the birthday of a young girl, with all the champagne and noisy, friendly chatter, emotional singing of Happy Birthday and general clamour that one would expect to attend such an event. The celebration culminated in the production of the most incredible creation of a birthday cake in the form of giant house-mushroom (with little windows and door and chimneys and set in an also-edible garden). We had most kindly been given a vast slice of this rich chocolate cake – yet despite this still decided to try a dessert, alighting upon tiramisu as a good end to the meal. It is very difficult to rewrite the history book on tiramisu and make it a success -after all, this dessert hasn’t become a staunch favourite for nothing – and it’s really rather hard to better perfection. But Aurelia succeeded – here, one finds a rewriting of the traditional recipe that really works. The new format presents the dessert as a log, with an outer “wrapping” of spongy biscuit, sprinkled with chocolate and drizzled in chocolate syrup. Next comes a layer of mascarpone cream, and under this, the log core of sponge. The substantial appearance of the (again, generously-portioned) tiramisu is belied by the fact that it is actually amazingly light and easily manageable. The only element I found myself missing in this marvellous dessert were the traditional ingredients of brandy and amaretto – it appeared to be alcohol-free – presumably a necessary measure in a family restaurant!
Perhaps the best accolade that one could possibly give Aurelia was granted when my husband and I found ourselves ready to leave after what seemed to us to be an hour or two, only to look at our watch and find ourselves running late for the next appointment; no fewer than four hours had passed – in a happy, supremely well-fed, flash. 31st January 2013
EM MARSHALL-LUCK is the Quarterly Review’s restaurant critic