One of Edinburgh’s best and most unassuming modern eateries serves up some seriously good food – 9/10
From the outside, Aurora (187 Great Junction Street, Leith) looks like it may have been a launderette or tanning salon in its past life. Metal shutters creep down over its inconspicuous windowfront, which bears the delightfully vague yet enticing words “modern eatery”. On the inside, the space is truly diminutive (maybe 24 covers) but warm and welcoming – reclaimed wooden tables and benches give it a Scandi vibe and the steamed-up windows let you forget you’re dining on probably one of the less desirable streets in Leith. Nautical sort of lighting hints at the historical shorefront a few hundred yards away where, along with numerous others, two of Scotland’s finest chefs ply their Michelin-starred trade – The Kitchin and Restaurant Martin Wishart.
The menu concept is pretty simple: five snacks to nibble at “while you ponder”, then ten other sharing plates and a handful of side dishes. If you’re averse to sharing, simply treat the left-hand side of the menu as starters and the right-hand side as mains. We start with a few irregular-shaped slices of local Morningside sourdough, which come with a starry splodge of soft, smoky butter. A small ramekin of green olives are juicy with a touch of chipotle heat and some salty sticks of Manchego make for good snacking while we try to decide which of the main dishes we’re going to have to give up.
Round two of the snacks brings our collective favourite: another ramekin jammed with “frickles” (fried pickles, for the uninitiated). They use the sweeter variety of pickle, deep-fried in a good Scottish batter and served with a silky aioli, which is thankfully not overpowered by flecks of dill. A cluster of firm flatbread canapés topped with tapenade are quite good, even for an olive-loather like myself.
We decide to go big and order seven of the sharing plates between the three of us – only slightly exceeding the recommended dose of two per person. The first is an absolute beauty: two thick wodges of Loch Fyne salmon, delicately cured in gin and cleverly served with a tonic gel. From the first firm but yielding bite, it’s clear this salmon has lived an extraordinarily charmed life and has been treated equally kindly by Aurora’s kitchen. Pumpernickel slices are a bit soggy and a hidden slice of orange is unnecessary, but the dill aioli, cucumber and puffed rice are all excellent accompaniments.
Two arancini the size of tennis balls are formidably crispy and stuffed with a lightly zesty courgette risotto. The combination of rich avocado crème fraîche and fresh pico de gallo is dreamy and we happily scrape up spoonfuls into the arancini.
A curried haddock dish is not unpleasant, but oddly incongruous as none of the other dishes have an Asian influence. I’m not sure which part of it is meant to represent a Mexican mole but the haddock is nicely toasted and warmed by a light coconut curry sauce.
A pile of heritage potatoes is one of the less pleasing dishes of the evening. The green sauce is a little bland, which is strange considering it contains both Marmite and watercress – two very distinctive flavours. Slivers of asparagus and scattered whole almonds have a rubbery texture, which detracts from the actually very pleasant texture of the different potato varietals. In hindsight, the side of campfire potatoes with dill and brown butter that wafted past our table might have been a safer choice.
As dinner goes on, we notice that there are a couple of recurring ingredients – the dabs of apricot gel, the tiny kernels of puffed rice, the asparagus cooked three different ways. Some may think it repetitive or unimaginative, but in fact it creates a subconscious thread through the dishes that (like The Dude’s rug) really ties the menu together.
A dense pastilla of duck (confited in-house twice a week) is, again, a stand-out dish. The spherical shape is different to the traditional flat Moroccan pie, but allows the dish to dramatically burst open, releasing the unmistakeable aromas of fennel seed, allspice and cinnamon. Babaganoush and labneh mixed with chermoula (a North African sauce of garlic, coriander, cumin, oil, lemon juice and salt) make for very saucy bedfellows and the apricot gel and asparagus continue the theme.
Pork cheeks are irresistible on pretty much any menu and Aurora is no exception, especially with the added temptation of lobster bisque (swoon) and scampi (double swoon) completing the surf ‘n’ turf vibe. A couple of thick, triangular slices of burnt apple take the edge off the rich braised meat and a delicate sheet of potato glass (made by mashing and dehydrating a thin layer of potato and carrot) adds a novel crispy twist.
A plate of fat mushroom slices comes doused in slick cheese and covered with shards of the same potato glass, though I am too preoccupied with the pork cheeks to really dig into it. A basket of sticky sriracha grilled cauliflower scattered with sesame seeds makes for an excellent final side.
By the time we reach dessert, we are all completely stuffed. The miso caramel crème anglaise to share (and a couple of complimentary drams of Japanese plum wine) is all we can manage. Fortunately it is spectacular: a beautifully thick puddle of caramelised salty-sweet miso custard, comically garnished with an upside-down vanilla ice cream cone and some chocolate sprinkles.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about our meal – and a true testament to the skill and competence being demonstrated in Aurora’s tiny kitchen – is that is was perfectly paced. Dishes came in pairs: never too much to overwhelm the table, never too little to disinterest the palate and always enough to talk about. Three hours passed by in the blink of an eye and, before we knew it, we were the only ones left in the place, chatting to the owner, Cezar, about his time at the Salt Café in Morningside and the price of sushi in London (he’s a big fan of the Araki). He is immensely passionate, quietly confident in his own knowledge and more than willing to share it with those who ask – which we do.
Dinner for three at Aurora (including a £35 bottle of Petit Pittacum 2017 and a couple of cocktails) cost us £147.20 – almost laughably cheap for anyone used to London prices. Whilst it wasn’t perfect, it was much more than I was hoping for – relaxed, clever and confident. Most importantly, I would return in a heartbeat. Long live the “modern eatery”!
A Moveable Feast