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This Old House

Aura serves up a bold – and perplexing – exploration of cuisine

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It was an archetypal Carolina night in July. The heat of the day had been dissolved by a brief downpour and then fireflies appeared to herald the stars. Too hot to eat on a patio, we headed in with the other sun-kissed diners.

Inside Aura Dining & Bar, however, the tables were nearly empty. The layout of this restaurant, which occupies an old Pineville house, still resembles the rooms of that residence; here was the dining room, there a bedroom. Immediately inside and to the right is a bar area with a blocked fireplace. Windows are double-hung. One back room is fronted by a slim accordion divider. The interior hasn't changed much, although the business has changed many hands. It was once an outpost of Tio Montero and the Cajun Queen, and yet the dining room's décor is still studiously neutral.

In fact, owners Marcella Pabon and William Aguirre have changed their concept in this space as well. Originally they opened this spot as Casa Blanca, but Pabon said too many people came in expecting Mexican food. Pabon is a native of Colombia, and her husband Aquirre hails from Queens, N.Y. She said they knew they had to change the name to fit the new menu, so last January they introduced the 100-seat Aura (50 seats are on the front and back patios).

Pineville, preordained as a shining star along the light rail trail, has had a bumpy history with restaurants. Once the city had a bevy of antique shops and a few good locally owned restaurants. But then the population exploded, Carolina Place Mall brought in a large number of chains, and quite a few Mexican-styled eateries opened there as well.

Hence the confusion. Aura's current menu is both diverse and ambitious, featuring dishes from South American, Asia, Italy, as well as American dishes. The menu was developed by Chef Aquirre, who graduated from the New York Restaurant School (now the Art Institute of New York City).

The menu is written in accessible English: New Orleans Crab dip, Smoked Pork Three Bean Chili, Asian Fried Calamari. Some of the dishes work well while others are unfocused and leave you asking, "What was he thinking?" Like the Tuscan bread, for example, which is toasted bread slathered with creamed feta cheese with garlic, chopped tomatoes and onions. The macadamia spicy mussels are more successful, with tender sea creatures balanced by a broth of coconut and chilies. The best of the starters, though, are the colossal pair of sensational herb-scented beef empanadas spiked by a honey chipotle sauce.

Aura's chili was less impressive with an oozing mass of melting cheese. House salads are not always the breeziest dishes, but this one is light and summery spiked with crunchy jicama. Entrees, which are not dainty, can take you to many spots on the map, but the best were the Latino dishes. Not surprisingly, the most rapturously received is the deliriously seductive entraña, or grilled skirt steak a la Argentina -- showered with garlic oil and accompanied with a refreshing chimichurri and a few fried yucca strips. The pesto capellini is a pasta dish redolent in basil and pine nuts. The smoked duckling, though, is misconceived, tough and flat as if cooked too high for too long. The side of peanut fried rice and a singular bok-choy threw off the whole game. Despite a few missteps in the entrees, desserts are lovely. The marvelously tarted panna cotta predicted a gracious end to the evening.

Entrée prices range from $8.50 for a pasta dish to $19.50 for Paella ala Valenciana and are inclusive of a salad. The small wine list is inexpensive with some attractive options.

An aura is supposed to be the reflection of energy of a self. Does Aura reflect the ambition of its owners? Or has this light been compromised by the multiple personalities of the menu? You want Aura to work since the owners labor hard to capture an audience. Is the time of the locally owned eatery opened on a shoe string over for even the outskirts of Charlotte? Is this old house a nostalgic reminder of Charlotte's former culinary landscape? How many allowances do you make for a place while they work out the kinks, both in and out of the kitchen? Each dinner doesn't have to dazzle, I suppose, but shouldn't it at least shimmer? Yet, it's the personality of the old house that some of the patrons come back for, evidently. The guys at the bar were joking around with the bartender as we left. "This used to be a party place," gushes Pabon. "Now we want them to come for the food." So would I. Go for the entraña.

Eaters Digest

Kudos to Kellogg's for now offering organic cereals devoid of GE ingredients and High Fructose Corn Syrup and sweetened by cane juice. These cereals include an organic variety of mini shredded wheat, a cereal first introduced in 1894. The taste is not as cloyingly sweet and the individual minis stay crisper longer.

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