Araka has made an interesting choice with what’s known as a "soft" opening. Unlike many new restaurants, there was little fanfare, no big advertising. This is generally a good idea, allowing the kitchen and front of the house to gradually get into rhythm before the hoped-for hot-spot rush. Even with experienced restaurateurs and chefs, the coming together of staff and environment is always an equation whose solution is not glitch-free, especially with a new chef from out of town, his sensibilities not shaped by having to constantly discuss his high school. Mark Curran last worked in Vail, Colorado.
But, my goodness, it’s certainly coming right along at Araka. We went on a quiet early week night, so the staff wasn’t being slammed. But everything passed early tests with flying colors.
To begin with, this is a lovely space, the curved front wall facing the fountain that was installed when the Ritz Carlton opened. There are outdoor tables which will be fun for lunch on days when the weather is right. Inside, the front dining room and bar are two stories high, an energetic, handsome space. The more intimate dining area near the kitchen has a lower ceiling and a partition dividing it, and a stairway to private rooms on the second floor.
The menu leans towards the Mediterranean, but somehow we never tried the pastas or flatbreads. Instead, we kicked things off with a couple of salads, a soup and a hot appetizer. Roasted red and yellow beets were centered with a handful of arugula and some gorgonzola cheese. A light vinaigrette dressed things well, but the fun was in the beet-gorgonzola pairing, the beet flavor quotient upped by the roasting.
Another was a stack of Bibb lettuce with avocado, orange, sunflower seeds and a mild goat cheese. Alas, the first thing the stack did was topple violently, sending a few seeds into the darkness under the table, but when it was subdued with a knife and fork (it was self-defense, your honor), the combinations were tasty, particularly the orange and goat cheese, and who would have thought that combo a logical one? Next time, we may succumb to a French-style fruits de mer platter with shrimp, crab claws, lobster and raw oysters, or scallops with a cauliflower puree, which we’ve heard good things about.
A Tuscan bean soup tasted–well, it tasted like the bean soup we’ve had in Italy, including its temperature, warm enough but not tongue-burning hot. Garlic and onion, a little tomato, and shavings of Reggiano cheese the size of corn chips to top it off. But the absolute winner this course had to be the escargot, which were cuddled in a nest of silky mashed potato, the whole generously anointed with lashings of the traditional garlic-parsley butter. It’s a fabulous combination, one of those why-didn’t-anybody-think-of-this-before things.
Curran does this throughout his menu, avoiding the potato-and-seasonal-vegetable cobination that accompanies too many main courses around town. For example, potato gnocchi arrives with beef short ribs and wild mushrooms, and the wide, flat pasta known as papardelle is accompanied by braised lamb and a topping of mint-pine nut gremolata. Flatbreads are led by one that includes prosciutto, wild mushrooms, arugula and truffle oil.
Main courses show the same imagination and wide-ranging use of ingredients. A veal chop includes sweetbreads, creamy polenta, pancetta and cipollini onions, a combination that would make its own exciting entree. Chicken comes from Petaluma, Calif., a Sonoma County town famed for its poultry, and black cod arrives with fingerling potatoes and fried calamari. Tuna is surrounded by crispy polenta, braised fennel, olives and oranges, offering some potentially lovely contrasts.
Our choices turned out to be splendid. Duck arrived as a leg that had been cooked as confit, a braise in duck fat that finishes with a crisping of the skin, and a breast cooked medium-rare and sliced. We’ve had several relatively ho-hum duck breasts lately, a statement we never thought we’d make, but this was a blue-ribbon duck, the leg beautifully crisp and full of unctuous flavor, the breast still pink in the center, very tender, the edges of the fatty skin also crisp and a little chewy, an excellent rendition. The duck came with a risotto that was still a little al dente, the whole anointed with some truffle oil, and some braised Napa cabbage. That sounds a little pedestrian, but the flavors bounced off the duck particularly well.
The truffle oil also was sprinkled over some Parmesan-sprinkled and very good fries that accompanied a flatiron steak, Another tender and flavorful piece of meat, it was remarkably good. Short ribs and carrots, the former carefully trimmed and the latter slightly glazed, lolled on more of the mashed potatoes, which we’d begun to realize were so moist and silky as to be more of a puree. The short ribs, served in their own juices, did not fall apart at the touch of a fork, but cut easily and were very tender to the chew.
Skate is one of our favorite fish, and Araka’s version is excellent. Yes, lemon and capers, the traditional accompaniments, and more of those potatoes to pick up any extra juices, but also some browned almonds to add a little crunch and another flavor layer to the lush, rich fish.
The wine list, properly long on by-the-glass offerings, is deep and intelligently designed.
Only the dessert course wasn’t completely on target. A toffee bread pudding began as a riff on sticky toffee pudding. Light and fluffy, mildly sweet, warm and full of toffee-esque flavor, it was a delight. Smooth and tart, a lemon cheesecake flan (pictured)was more flan than cheesecake,
absolutely marvelous. It was the housemade ice cream that flopped. The chocolate was extremely chocolatey, but so dense it was almost chewy, almost as though no air had been beaten in as it froze. The vanilla was full of tiny ice crystals, a sign that it had thawed and been re-frozen, and it was markedly underseasoned.
So: Enjoy Araka. Just don’t order ice cream.
131 Carondelet Plaza, Clayton
Dinner nightly, Lunch Monday-Friday, Brunch Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Good