The restaurant openings at the soon-to-be-unveiled National Gallery Singapore must be one of the most eagerly awaited events in the food scene during the last quarter of the year.
Besides boasting the biggest collection of South-east Asian art, the gallery has also curated some of the most promising restaurateurs and chefs in Singapore to fill its offering of food options.
With all this attention, the first one to open can expect to be subjected to intense scrutiny. That honour belongs to Aura, which opened on Oct 1, way ahead of the gallery's launch next month.
Luckily, the Italian restaurant under the ilLido group more than meets expectations.
1 St Andrew’s Road, 05-03and 06-02 , National Gallery Singapore, tel: 6866-1977
Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily
Food: 4/5 stars
Service: 4/5 stars
Ambience: 4/5 stars
Price: Budget about $100 a person, without drinks
Like Osteria Art, another Italian restaurant opened by the group in Raffles Place earlier this year, Aura offers good service and an elegant setting without fine-dining prices.
The ambience is posh yet not stuffy, with a view of a reflecting pool on the top of what is the former City Hall building.
For an even better view, walk up a flight of stairs just outside the restaurant to its sister outlet, Aura Sky Lounge, a rooftop bar looking out onto a panoramic vista of the Padang and the buildings encircling Marina Bay. Even on a hazy night, it is a view that makes you proud of the beautiful city that Singapore has become.
Back at the restaurant, you are attended to by well-trained staff in a setting that is ideal for a formal work lunch or dinner, a social evening out or a romantic celebration.
So the prices on the menu - mostly $20 plus for appetisers and $30 plus for mains - come as a pleasant surprise. The food, while not quite fine-dining, is refined and, more importantly, tastes good.
I've dined there twice, once for a full dinner and the second time just for pasta. And both times, I'm impressed by the cooking, with a couple of exceptions.
The dish I will not order again is the Crispy Frog Legs With Basil & Garlic Cream ($25), a starter let down by the tough and dry frog legs. Another starter, Grilled Octopus With Crispy Egg And Corn ($25), is decent but does not blow one's mind.
What does wow are the pastas. I have tried four and all are exceptional, with each boasting a distinctly different flavour.
The Tagliolini With Scampi And Avruga Caviar ($38) is the one I like best. The pasta is firm, not hard, with just the right amount of bite. And the scampi is crunchy and sweet. What makes it even more appealing is the sting of chilli in the sauce - enough to get your tastebuds tingling without the burn.
Trofie With Truffle Pesto And Prawns ($28) is another memorable choice. Trofie is a short and thin pasta, and the closest local equivalent I can think of is bee tai mak, except it is made with wheat and not rice. It gets coated evenly with pesto and the al dente texture goes well with the prawns, another shellfish that is sweet and crunchy.
The Whole Wheat Stracci With Duck & Foie Gras ($32) has a more conventional flavour, but I like the flat and smooth sheets of pasta. Here, the bigger pasta pieces help to balance out the richness of the foie gras.
The last pasta, Tonnarelli With Sea Urchins ($48), is considerably more expensive because of the sea urchin. But if you enjoy the distinctive taste of the sea creature, you will find this worth paying for. The squid ink-flavoured pasta is certainly delicious.
I like both the main courses I tasted, though my vote swings towards the Iberico Pork Chop Milanese, Parma Ham Sauce ($38). It's difficult not to like the crumbed and deep-fried pork, especially when the meat is so juicy and flavourful.
But the Beef Sirloin Tagliata With Bone Marrow Salad ($45) is not to be scoffed at either, even though the meat comes slightly too cooked to be medium rare, which is what the server suggests. The slices of beef are not dry though and offer up lots of flavour as you chew on them.
The three desserts I try are very good, especially the Amedei Chocolate & Banana Cake ($18), an excellent match of rich, smooth chocolate with ripe bananas that help to lighten the dessert.
The Strawberry, Pistachio & Chocolate Profiteroles ($18) are a surprise, with each profiterole in one of the three flavours. So you get a different sensation each time you pop one in the mouth.
Even the Tiramisu ($15) is not the typical classic Italian dessert. Disc- shaped layers of cheese and sponge are stacked on top of one another, and chocolate balls and sticks sprouting on top give the dish a whimsical shape. They add crunch too.
Aura, with its lovely ambience, good service, excellent cooking and reasonable prices, is a work of art - one that certainly deserves a place in what promises to be the most impressive art museum in this part of the world.
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• Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.