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Aurora in the Heavens

ne of the finest restaurants in Chapel Hill isn't on Franklin Street. Aurora, an upscale Italian eatery formerly nestled in trendy Carrboro, is a hidden treasure just off Highway 54. With neo-Mediterranean flourishes and classic interpretation, the dishes are exquisite and reasonably priced for their quality.

Dining at Aurora is a culinary event, and a five-course meal is a temptation worth fulfilling. The funghi ripieni, a stuffed portobello mushroom appetizer, demonstrates from the start the contrasts at the heart of each dish. The sharp goat cheese filling complements the sweet tomato sauce just as the spinaci salad's gorgonzola offsets the tender apricot slices mixed among the greens and marinated carrots.

Aurora's pasta offerings are a necessary prelude to main courses. The ravioli ai carciofi (filled with artichoke and ricotta cheese) is delicious, and the mushroom broth and parmesan reduction sauce in which it's served could stand alone as soup. The lasagna is less innovative, and its "spicy" Italian sausage lacks bite, but fans of classic preparation won't be disappointed.

Central to Aurora's entrZes is its wood-fire grill, in which exceptional dishes like the beef tenderloin, lonza di maiale (smoked pork) and marinated lamb are prepared. Aurora marries the tenderloin (filetto di manzo) with a wine and bourbon reduction sauce that's at once smoky and pleasantly acidic. The garlic mashed potatoes on which the meat rests are perfectly seasoned, and the ample portion suits the size of the tenderloin. The smoked pork playfully incorporates sweeter flavors with apple chutney and a cider reduction sauce. And the lamb, though somewhat bland, benefits from a rich and hearty garlic bordelaise.

A meal at Aurora wouldn't be complete without dessert, and the torta a strisce nere finishes things off quite nicely. The torte again exemplifies contrasting flavors, pairing white chocolate mousse and layers of bittersweet chocolate truffle.

Service at Aurora is generally consistent and prompt, but food is the true star at this venue. The nouveau design concept features conflicting themes of modern art, and the classical music in the background seems out of place amid armless chairs with turquoise patterned seat covers. But these atmospheric miscues cannot countervail the wealth of the eating experience. A welcome break from more familiar Tarheel haunts, Aurora is not to be missed.

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