Aurora restaurant: Sophisticated but not stuffy — with great locally sourced food and views of Cayuga Lake
By Jacob Pucci
Food always seems to taste better when paired with a great view and while dinner at the Aurora Inn Dining Room would still taste good with the view of a drab wall, a view of the sunset over Cayuga Lake doesn’t hurt.
Built in 1833, the Aurora Inn is a prime example of Federal-style elegance. It’s sophisticated, yet not stuffy. My dining partner and I played a quick game of chess in the adjoining parlor (I lost) as we waited for our table. It was an unseasonably warm fall evening and we, like just about every other diner, chose to sit on the lakefront veranda.
The menu is billed as “refined American” and sourced from producers and purveyors from across the Finger Lakes and Central New York. The dinner menu is not long — five appetizers, seven entrees, a few soups and salads — but it changes frequently and in the world of menu options, quality is much more important than quantity.
Our dinner started with a pair of cocktails (largely made with locally sourced liquor) as well as homemade bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar from F. Oliver’s, a Finger Lakes-based gourmet purveyor.
We were tempted to start our meal with a platter of locally made cheese and house-made charcuterie, but we opted for the smoked salmon with capers, blistered cherry tomatoes, sweet pickles and a garlic and tarragon puree. The salmon was only lightly cold-smoked, resulting in a final product with a texture close to raw that melts in your mouth like a well-crafted piece of sashimi. The slight anise flavor from the garlic and tarragon puree played well with the sweetness from the pickles and tomatoes, while the bright acidic pop of the capers was a complementary pairing with the fish.
The duck breast ($28) is served one way — seared to crisp the fatty skin and served rare. Duck is a fascinating meat, because it is like chicken or turkey when roasted whole, but a duck breast behaves more like a beef steak, with a rich, slightly liver-y flavor to boot.
At Aurora Inn, the duck was joined by honey roasted carrots as sweet and addictive as candy and a butternut squash polenta that was as smooth as ice cream and tasted like fall. A scattering of baby greens on top were spicy and bright.
At this point in late September, the menu had turned the page to fall: Other entrée offerings included pot roast with root vegetables, pasta bolognaise with sirloin and pork, and pappardelle pasta with mushroom and leek ragout.
However, as the sun beat on Cayuga Lake and temperatures danced around 80 degrees for most of our meal, it was clear summer still had a little fight left.
So the seared diver scallops with sweet corn puree, truffle and summer beans ($32) was a natural choice. Corn is a wildly underrated ingredient that’s far too often reduced to at best, a backyard barbecue offering. But here the corn was presented as both whole kernels and a fresh, sweet puree where the pure flavor of the corn is on display.
It served as a well-trained second fiddle to the trio of scallops, the deep brown sear of which was a testament both to the quality of the seafood and the chef’s skill. The scallops themselves were plump, firm and perfectly cooked.
The Aurora Inn’s chocolate torte ($9) is a cross between a dense chocolate cake and a Snickers bar. In this case, the layers of rich chocolate were sandwiched around a gooey layer of salted caramel and almonds. The whole bar was coated in chocolate ganache with a quenelle of dulce de leche ice cream garnished with chocolate cookie crumbs and hibiscus served alongside.
The chocolate torte was far more decadent than my candy shop comparison and the homemade ice cream was velvety, sweet and satisfying. The expected tartness of the hibiscus didn’t come through as much as expected, but this dessert was still a star.
The Aurora Inn Dining Room accomplishes both fine dining with an extensive wine list and the kind of place to dine on banana bread French toast or eggs Benedict at brunch on the veranda. It’s elegant without being stuffy because the kitchen lets the top-quality local ingredients do the talking without being fussy. It’s a restaurant built for all occasions with a view you’ll want to enjoy all day long.
Aurora Inn Dining Room
Address: 391 Main St., Aurora
Breakfast: seven days a week, 7 – 10 a.m.
Brunch: Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday – Thursday, 5 – 9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.