Revelling in the Aura Cafe


By Madushka Balasuriya 
If you were to walk around the coastal residential area of Jumeirah in Dubai, you would quickly come across BOXPARK, a stretch of trendy shops housed in shipping containers. This itself is based on a similar container-laden indie shopping district in Shoreditch, East London. While the trend has yet to catch on in the same vein in Sri Lanka, it hasn’t dissuaded Aura Café from attempting to fill the container-shaped hole in Colombo’s increasingly-competitive restaurant industry.

As you enter Bullers Lane in Colombo 7, the container-housed café, at first glance, does indeed look more storage space than eatery with only a bright yellow sign with ‘Aura’ sprawled on it in blue offering any clue as to its true nature. Closer inspection, however, reveals a picture book garden seating area with teak tables and benches in front of a moss-strewn pond and a pebbled pathway which leads up to glass front doors.

During the day the glass walls on either side of the doors give an open feel to the otherwise modestly-sized establishment, with only a handful of tables on offer so as to ensure it does not get too cramped.
The tables, which occupy about half the space available, are neatly lined along the walls; a little over quarter of the container is used up by the kitchen, while the rest is reserved for the cashier’s counter and a fridge displaying some fresh produce, juices and desserts. Extra seating and a (non-alcoholic) bar will also be introduced in the near future utilising the space upstairs, where a roof has already been put in place.

Regardless of what side of the shipping container love/hate spectrum you fall on, Aura Café is most definitely unique – what would be infinitely more helpful of course is if it were lined up next to a few more container cum shops ala Dubai/Shoreditch – but that’s only half the battle; a brief perusal through the menu revealed it was definitely on the smaller side even by most cafe, let alone restaurant, standards.

As at publication time, 28 items were on offer, though that will change by 1 December; the owner was in touch after our mid-November visit and informed me they would now be serving made-to-order breakfast over the weekend and savoury breakfast muffins over the week along with a new range of sandwiches and burgers.

Be that as it may, we were assured that the dishes served to us would be on the menu going forward, with additions being made based on customer feedback of daily specials. It was fitting then that we started off with a daily special vying for a main menu spot: the Caprese Salad (Rs. 900). Comprising of tomato, arugula, kalamata olives and buffalo mozzarella, the flavours combined supremely well, as the acidity of the tomato was expertly counterbalanced by the sourness of the buffalo cheese.
But where the Caprese Salad triumphed, the Semolina Crusted Calamari – a Rs. 850 appetiser – wilted; the cuttlefish dish served with lettuce, tartar sauce and tomato sauce disappointed nearly on all counts, with the calamari lacking in crispiness and the choice of (homemade) tomato sauce baffling. The tartar sauce – again homemade – worked better, yet was let down by the sogginess of the cuttlefish batter.
Next we had another dish in the experimental phase: the Prawn and Mango Salad (Rs. 1,100). One bite and the anti-climax that was the calamari was soon forgotten; the chef makes his way personally to shop for produce every morning and the mango on offer was all the proof we needed of his dedication to quality.  The blend of sweet and sour in the fruit was music to the palate, while the mango dressing, assorted salad leaves and prawn which accompanied it made the dish sing. The only oddity was the poached egg on top; while not taking anything away from the flavour, it certainly didn’t seem to add any either, instead trying in vain to compete with the zest of the mango.
Moving on to the mains, we tried the Seafood Marinara (Rs. 1,200) and the Jamaican Style Jerk Chicken (Rs. 950). The marinara held no surprises; a straightforward dish with a generous assortment of fish, prawns and cuttlefish. Also this time around the homemade tomato sauce was rather more welcome. The only gripe was that there was no parmesan served at the outset; we received it upon request and that addition was what transformed the dish from good to great. Finally we had the jerk chicken, which was easily my dish of the day. It comprised a crispy chicken leg served with a sweet potato mash and a green apple/roasted onion/red pepper salsa. The flavours were on point, as my predilection towards the sweeter side came to the fore; the chicken skin was a beautiful golden brown with an audible crisp resonating every time it was prodded with a fork, while the salsa and the sweet potato mash offered great texture and balance to the juiciness of the chicken. Highly recommended. All in all, barring the calamari, every dish we tried was full of flavour with the presentation well beyond what one would expect from a ‘café’. This though brings me to the one area in which Aura Café seems to be having somewhat of an identity crisis: the pricing.

The juices and desserts are provided from Coco Ceylon and Bakes by Bella respectively (both at marked up prices), so the only beverages made in-house, for now, are the teas and milkshakes. Meanwhile, the mains range from Rs. 700 to Rs. 2,950 – premium prices even though they are inclusive of tax. Moreover, proprietor Malisha Kumaratunge when asked as to how the initial response had been to the café said: “Some people come in here and are really impressed with the look and think it’s cool and different. But then others come in and are like, ‘what is this?’ Because they feel the decor was done haphazardly.”

This leads me to the conclusion that there is a disconnect between the pricing and the type of casual clientele Aura Café’s look and vibe is geared towards attracting. The question must be asked – how many customers in the long run, willing to spend premium amounts on food, would choose a café atmosphere over a fine-dining option? The answer to this question will determine Aura Café’s ultimate fate in the long run, but until then there are several positives to get them by: the management seem to have hired a talented chef who looks to ensure high calibre food is presented beautifully on a regular basis; and despite an ostensible lack of cohesion with regard to its overall vision, Aura Café’s move towards longer serving hours, the addition of burgers and sandwiches to their menu, its dedication towards constant menu updates through customer feedback, and its savvy self-promotion on Instagram (@Auracafecolombo) and Facebook (Aura Café Colombo) mean it is on its way to building a healthy customer base and looks well poised to navigate the many pitfalls present in Colombo’s challenging restaurant circuit.
Pix by Malik Gunatilleke

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