As the waiter slid dessert menus in front of us, the young couple at the next table came alive. The woman leaned deep into our space gushing, “You have GOT to get the cheesecake. It’s warm. It’s goat cheese. It’s warm. Ohmygosh. Get the cheesecake.”
After we issued a polite word of thanks and turned back to our serious dessert deliberations, our table neighbor commanded our attention once more with renewed vigor and another rush of cheesecake fervor. And, possibly because we had yet to acquiesce, her husband took up the cause, beseeching us to order the ode to chevre.
At Aria, which opened in 2000, cheesecake has long been a staple. If you’re an Aria loyalist, you may recall the popular warm chocolate cheesecake that occupied a spot on the menu for an extended period.
Herein you find Aria’s modus operandi. Chef-owner Gerry Klaskala has created a comfortable menu framework that shifts slightly with seasonal availability. Your waiter may present it with a flourish, explaining that the ever changing menu is printed daily, but be assured that your favorites remain in one form or another.
Using this strategy, the Culinary Institute of America graduate rarely strays from Aria’s formula for success, nor does he disappoint diners who have developed attachments to specific dishes. This constancy, coupled with Aria’s consistently high level of execution, makes for a dining experience with few surprises.
Klaskala, who was the opening chef for Buckhead Diner and consultant for Horseradish Grill, is known for slow-cooked meats like the Painted Hills Ranch short rib ($29). Well executed, this classic dish contains all the tried-and-true beefy-veg notes to satisfy the meat-and-potatoes contingent.
The braised Niman Ranch Berkshire pork shoulder ($26) tops the list of don’t-you-dare-get-rid-of-that dishes. I get it — a comfort food fest. Who can resist tender shreds of pork glazed with a sweet, bacony onion marmalade?
Protein accompaniments are most subject to change, often doing so in tandem with seasonal produce. For now, the pork shoulder comes with a screamingly fluorescent orange deconstructed-pimento-cheese risotto. The tangy risotto, made with Black Diamond cheddar and topped with blistered sweet red peppers, gets all juicy mixed with the lovely pork-marmalade drippings.
Risotto is one of Aria’s consistent menu components. It appears again paired with three crusty seared New Bedford jumbo scallops ($29). This firmer, less creamy version comes with a crackery thin strip of bacon adornment set at an artful angle.
Like the risotto, you’ll usually find some incarnation of a homemade pasta dish. The potato gnocchi ($13) currently play that role. Although bland and wanting on their own, you can put the gnocchi to good use sopping up the rich potpourri of chanterelle and oyster mushrooms, brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
One recipe that won’t soon shift is the ever-popular creamless celery root soup ($9), historically one of the restaurant’s most requested. The deceptively creamy soup features just a handful of ingredients, including leeks, light chicken stock, celery root, truffles and Parmigiano Reggiano. According to Klaskala, the secret to the soup’s depth and slight tanginess comes the from slow cooking of the leeks.
Aria also has enjoyed success with the hazelnut trout ($26). Think fragrant and toasty hazelnuts, fresh mountain trout and a vibrant schmear of blood orange and carrot puree, somehow simultaneously bright and earthy. Both the puree and the briny-sweet raisin-caper topping for the fillet of lemon sole ($29) wake my palate with a welcome spark of creativity.
Maybe we’re meant to be surprised and indulged by Andres Lozaia’s wine list, which will help you expand your horizons beyond California Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to wines by the glass, choices include an array of New and Old World half-bottle options, a great way to sample unfamiliar varietals. Play along. In addition to waiters well-versed with the wine list, Aria employs three sommeliers to assist you with selection and food pairings.
Surprise and a glimmer of creativity also may come in the form of dessert — but not from our table neighbors’ dreamy cheesecake. Yes, it was warm. It was goat cheese. It was cheesecake. All true. And tasty enough, for sure. But it wasn’t what made pastry chef Kathryn King my new heroine.
If you were my table neighbor, I’d implore you, as I do now, to order the tasting of sorbets served with a meringue crisp ($8). Boring, right? So, so wrong. Each quenelle, artfully stacked in a Lincoln-Log-style tower, brings a concentrated flavor explosion. I started with the passion fruit, which was my favorite until I tried the lemon, which was my favorite until I got to the tangerine, which was my favorite until I got to the grapefruit. … Get the picture?
Our table also ordered the Valrhona chocolate cream pie ($9), which I tried out of obligation, mentally calculating how much of the sorbet would be eaten by my table mates while I switched gears. And yet, I was as impossibly ensnared by the decadent wedge of ganache-like chocolate as I was by the sorbet.
After 12-plus years, Aria has its formula down to a science, altering the menu to reflect the seasons and walking a delicate line to appease loyal customers with favorite dishes.
Yet, even with consistent and well-executed food, a wine list begging for exploration, and service that leaves you feeling pampered, I wish for a little more. More risks? More playfulness? More that I know Gerry Klaskala can give.ARIA