Gutsy Italian fare at Aura, Beppe De Vito's new flagship at the National Gallery

SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Beppe De Vito is nothing if not ambitious. And fast. Even before the first painting could kiss the walls of the newly minted National Gallery, the prolific restaurateur had already opened his new flagship in the first week of October - a good month before all his F&B neighbours.

After closing Il Lido - the restaurant in Sentosa that made his name - he needs something big enough to make a splash beyond his stable of eateries that includes Osteria Art, Latteria Mozzarella Bar, and &Sons. He's gone for broke with Aura - an impressive two-level restaurant/bar/event space that caters to every dining need, with a lovely rooftop view as a bonus.

True to form, Mr De Vito - who is as free-spending with his restaurants' decor as a tai-tai with a standing order for Birkins at Hermes - has not scrimped on the frills at Aura.

Solid marble accents; an elaborate grey feature wall on one end; warm wood and vermillion upholstery in the main dining area - you can tell this guy doesn't shop at Ikea. It's opulent and arty with some over-the-top drama - all in keeping with Mr De Vito's Minimalism-is-for-Ninnies stylebook.

  • AURA

  • 1 St Andrews Road
    #05-03 and #06-02 National Gallery Singapore
    Tel: 6866-1977
    Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 10.30pm

While a sense of theatre is fitting in an iconic space such as the National Gallery, we're glad that Mr De Vito limits it to the decor and not to the dining experience. You expect him to price his food in line with his contractor's bill, but he doesn't.

Instead, he opts for a winning common-sense formula: he makes the place look so fancy that the well-heeled will feel perfectly at home here, yet the prices are attractive enough for the average working Joe to enjoy a special date night without breaking the bank. Add the S$18 salad buffet lunch at its casual Sky Lounge upstairs, and he's got all the demographics covered.

The food - like his other restaurants - is built on a foundation of gutsy Italian cooking with a broader modern European spin. But it's the pastas that are the star of the show, while the appetisers and mains are more of a mixed bag.

For starters, you're served a little snack of arancini - appetite-whetting crunchy cheesy fried risotto balls - followed by a generous basket of hot, coiled pesto bread rolls that look like cinnamon buns. Eat them before they get cold and a little stodgy.

Aura's raison d'etre must be to make sure you don't feel hungry for the next two days - portions are generous and it's hard to stop eating the pasta, especially our favourite spicy pasta taglioni generously slicked with a mellow tomato sauce with an unexpected chilli kick within. Pearls of caviar add luxury while tender poached scampi lies contentedly on top.

The small pasta tasting portion (there's a bigger S$38 a la carte version) is part of a four-course set dinner priced at S$80 (up from the opening S$68 promotional price) that lets you sample highlights from the main menu.

It kicks off with a comforting, thick cream of Jerusalem artichoke dressed up with drizzles of beetroot, fried chips and hazelnuts to make it more interesting.

It's followed by the pasta and a good-sized version of the beef sirloin tagliata with bone marrow salad (S$45 if a la carte). This protein-rich wonder is pure Paleo - slices of chewy medium-rare beef and oozing fat from whole bone marrow.

From the main menu, a limp grilled octopus (S$25) is saved by a soft-cooked egg coated in the lightest batter and deep-fried for that fail-safe mouth feel of crunch followed by smooth unctuousness. Corn niblets, corn mousse and a thin crispy corn wafer add fun, sweetness and texture.

Meanwhile, semi-cooked seared scallops (S$25) that try to dominate a pretty salad with edible flowers are no match for the fragrant smoked quail eggs with their runny yolks that are good enough on their own. Think ramen soya-marinated eggs miniaturised and put through a smoker.

Our other pasta - fat sheets of pappardelle (S$26) - can barely breathe under the weight of thick, rib-sticking braised oxtail ragu, leaving a luscious sheen on the slippery smooth noodles. It's a big portion too, with lots of shredded meat, so pace yourself.

Because we don't, we struggle with our main course of quail casserole (S$38) - a bed of chewy orzotto pasta interestingly infused with beetroot juice and enriched with mascarpone cheese that makes it rich and heavy-going. Pieces of juicy, seared quail sit on top - a little over-salted but tender.

Now we're never one to tell restaurants to give less food, but we're ready to call it quits by dessert time. if you still can't resist, the molten chocolate lava cake with passion fruit sorbet or the hefty chocolate and banana cake layered with banana mousse and chocolate ganache are suitably decadent.

Aura's appeal lies more in the aesthetics than the food which focuses on value-for-money and comforting flavour. Mr De Vito does not aim for any gastronomic highs but believes in accessible cuisine that can hold its own.

His neighbours are already opening but with a combination of gorgeous setting and who-doesn'tlike-Italian-food mainstream appeal, Aura's an exhibit well worth spending time to enjoy.

Rating: 7

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

This article was first published on November 2, 2015.
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