Working from Home: The Aurora Club
On the incredible fine dining pop-up from newcomers Julian Rogers and Hilary Dautner.
My Nan always said, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Wise words for restaurant writing in the pandemic era. -JRS
We here love a good Newfoundland and Labrador love story, and The Aurora Club makes for a fine one. You can read it in The Telegram, but in brief: Julian Rogers and Hilary Dautner, their lives and careers upended by COVID-19, moved to the province to pursue their dreams of opening a restaurant. The best part: they’d never been here before. Talk about a blind date.
In response to the “new normal,” Rogers (chef) and Dautner (manager) did what many others were forced to do: work from home. In July, the pair opened their restaurant in the dining room of their house. And so began The Aurora Club, a fine dining pop-up of sorts, or in Rogers’ words, a “private, underground dining club.”
The idea proved both clever and timely: Working from home avoided the typical start-up costs and overhead (not to mention, red tape and regulations). For diners, it presented a comfortable option vis-à-vis concerns about COVID-19. In addition, the concept filled a gap in this city’s fine dining scene – that is, there wasn’t much happening, not since the closure of Raymonds.
The project quickly took off: When I first spoke to Rogers in October, they were already booked two months in advance. In a province that often has a “who's-your-fadder” attitude to new things, the Club deserves some credit for their immediate success. It’s well earned.
It’s also well deserved, as The Aurora Club represents one of the most exciting food experiences you can have in this city. From the greeting at the front door to the final dish, the Club does hospitality right, and is well worth the price of admission.
A word on that. You pay in advance, first a deposit when you make the reservation and the remainder later. The total amounts to $185 per person and includes all food, drink and taxes. The meal runs ten courses plus an amuse-bouche and takes about three hours.
Seating is fixed, around a single table, which means you may be dining with strangers. Whether or not you enjoy that depends on your preferences – my dining companion and I certainly did, the two times we went. In fact, meeting new people, sharing thoughts on the food and drink, is part of what makes the Club so special. It’s like the dinner party of your dreams, where the food is phenomenal and no one has to do the dishes.
Speaking of food. I put Rogers on the spot and asked how he would describe the Club’s cuisine. “Adventurous, risk-taking,” he replied, adding a moment later, “comfortable elements and components, presented in an uncomfortable way – or, uncomfortable elements and components and making them comfortable, if that makes sense.”
Having eaten the food, it does. In fact, adventurous is an apt description. Others, moving along the alphabet: ambitious, bold, creative, delicious, exciting and – last but not least – fun. The menu, for example, might list courses like “You are My Sunflower,” “Fish Course,” or “Nacho Canadiano.” This is serious food, that does not take itself too seriously.
Here’s a few highlights.
One course is called “Mushrooms.” The eponymous elements – from The Newfoundland Gourmet Mushroom Company – are charred, roasted and served on a puree of cauliflower and aged cheddar. The Club finishes the course with a vegan demi-glace, sage oil, and a freeze-dried corn dust. The results are incredible: the deep, roasted taste of the mushrooms; the concentrated, caramelized notes of the demi-glace; the clever canvas of puree, with the subtle, but sharp character of the cheese. It’s a perfect dish.
Then there’s the above-noted “Nacho Canadiano.” The “chips” consist of fried chicken skin, seasoned with powdered chili. These the Club serves in a sweet and savoury whipped cream, topped with green salsa, hot sauce, cinnamon, seeds, and herbs coated in bitter chocolate. As the flavours come together, you can’t help but smile when you get the joke – it’s a play on a Mexican mole.
The “aburi” salmon is similarly playful. Atop a filet of the pink fish sits a tuft of pink cotton candy. Putting aside that the salmon is pitch-perfect in its seasoning and preparation, you can’t help but delight at this dish – you probably haven’t had cotton candy in years, and definitely not it in a subtly sweet pink peppercorn flavour. With some refinement, this could be one of those plates that puts a restaurant on the map.
As far as drinks go, the evening starts with sparkling wine – how’s that for a celebration – and continues with a couple of custom cocktails and two other wines. I expect you’ll be happy with their quality and quantity. The meal concludes with optional coffee or tea.
You’re taken care of mainly by the multi-tasking and -talented Hilary Dautner, who, in addition to manager, plays the role of host and server. Her understanding of the hospitality side of the hospitality industry plays a considerable role in the Club’s charm.
But here’s the rub. Like all good things, The Aurora Club must come to an end. In July, Rogers and Dautner plan to open Aurora, a full-service restaurant, on Water Street. So, that’s the good news and the bad news, in a sense.
But you still have time to join the Club: Rogers tells me the project will likely continue into March. While the thought of eating this food in a formal setting is exciting, the at-home version makes for a one-of-a-kind experience, an “I was there, when …” insider story that you can annoy your friends with in the future.
Book now, before it’s too late.