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Oasis Dining

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115 South Front St.
$$-$$$ •
Bottom line: Outdoor dining adds to Aubriana’s already tasty menu and upscale flavor.

DECADENT OFFERING: Aubriana’s serves up a hearty bowlful of crab and spinach gnocchi. Photo by Bethany Turner.

One of my favorite radio personalities once postulated on air that any meal is “15 percent better if eaten outside.” While his numbers may be pure fabrication, the sentiment has merit. Between the oppressive humidity of Wilmington summers and the standard chill of our winters, on only so many pleasant days does al fresco dining exist. For this reason, I gladly take part in Aubriana’s outdoor seating during spring and fall’s perfect temperatures.

A mainstay of downtown’s fine-dining scene for the last five years, Aubriana’s remains a favorite of discriminating diners and a highlight of Wilmington’s culinary scene. Locals and tourists alike stop by often, looking for innovative meals and comfortably elegant surroundings.

A dark corner table on the back patio and a bottle of pinot noir greeted me last week as my dining companions and I parused the menu. Surrounded by wrought-iron tables, a small water feature, and plant life creeping across the brick walls, outdoor dining at Aubriana’s felt like a perfect respite to our day—an Italian oasis, if you will.

While my companions began wisely with salads, I couldn’t resist the guajillo guava rum pork ribs. The Mexican pepper—known for its green-tea flavor and berry hints—contained a light spiciness offset by the sweetness of the rum’s molasses. It warmed the tongue without diminishing the unctuous pork. The rib’s crisp outer portion gave way to tender meat underneath in a rather beautiful juxtaposition. Though the slaw served beside it seemed forgettable, the reality was, any cabbage concoction would never compare with a rib dish like this.

Chef Alex Succop’s menu changes slowly at Aubriana’s. Though he’s always chomping at the bit to experiment with new dishes, some entrées become too popular to kiss goodbye. One of my guests sampled such a meal with Succop’s popular crab and spinach gnocchi. I’m biased in its favor, mainly because I think this potato-pasta is under-used and incomparable to much-less interesting side dishes. Aubriana’s gnocchi was rich beyond compare. Swimming in a cream-based tomato sauce with sautéed spinach and copious chunks of lump and claw crabmeat, the dumplings transformed the meal into one of the more decadent offerings of our city. The lightly acidic tomato sauce, made rich with heavy cream, provided a tangy covering to the delicate rounds of starch. The sweet crab meat counterpointed the mild bite of the tomato for a hearty bowlful.

If I had to pinpoint any problem with this entrée, it would be that thankfully the portion is too large. Diners will be hard pressed to stop eating until every drop os gone—or at least save it for lunch the following day.

Another guest chose the mahi-mahi, a cashew-encrusted fillet served in a vanilla mango beurre rouge (an emulsified butter sauce). I confess: I wasn’t entirely blown away by the dish. Yet, the entire table raved over its interesting pairing of nuts. I found the beurre rouge tangy to the point of overpowering everything. However, I was shouted down rather quickly by my fellow diners.

I opted for the local flounder and Cajun-style crab cake. I know, I know—a far too boring, classic dish for a restaurant review. My rebuttal: There are reasons pairings become classics and first among them is, they work. One of the more pungent whitefishes, the flounder coupled with the rich, sweet, fresh lump crab to form a beautiful combination. I didn’t press the kitchen to discover which Cajun spices went into the cake, but they were mild and easily enjoyable to any but the most delicate palates.

The light garlicky mashed potatoes remained a treat, too. Heavier than whipped potatoes, which enjoys a trendy status at many restaurants, Aubriana’s side dish did not lighten up on the heavy cream—which is why they’re so delicious. My only disappointment came in the form of slightly overcooked asparagus. While the somewhat bitter flavor remained intact, the texture of the vegetable was compromised, having lost that nice pop.

Given the heartiness of the meal, I had no choice but to eschew dessert. However, I am no first-timer to Aubriana’s. Their double-chocolate peanut-butter pie is first amongst equals. With its whipped, creamy peanut-butter filling and chocolate ganache coating, all on an Oreo crust, it qualifies as three desserts on a single plate.

Aubriana’s has dedicated itself to local products and fantastic meals for years now, which is why it remains a staple along our downtown streets. While any dish from Succop’s menu will provide flavor and satisfaction, the restaurant’s outside dining experience heightens it tenfold. With cooler temps beckoning shorter days, a lovely oasis awaits every diner who prefers quality, attention and care with every visit.

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