La Belle Aurore, Niantic

Butternut squash ravioli with a crunch of hazelnuts: one of the many pleasures at La Belle Aurore.

Butternut squash ravioli with a crunch of hazelnuts: one of the many pleasures at La Belle Aurore.

Ryan Lavine

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La Belle Aurore ★★ 1⁄2 (Very Good-Superior)

Hmm, a small storefront restaurant named for the Roman goddess of dawn in a 1950s strip mall in Niantic? Now that’s interesting. What’s cooking? Ethereal morsels for discriminating mortals? 

Actually, yes, my scouts report, citing heavenly bisques, vegetarian options by the bevy and the most sybaritic chocolate mousse this side of the City of Light. I’m hooked, I’m here to check it out. Sweet job I’ve got, right?

Although La Belle Aurore is also the name of the Parisian bistro in Casablanca, this La Belle Aurore is an American bistro, a one-of-a-kind little gem showcasing the simply delicious home-style cooking of chef-owner Dawn Bruckner (the beautiful dawn).

An American version of what the French call bonne femme, or “good wife,” cuisine, the fare is uncomplicated, homey and lovingly prepared. A pitchfork-and-table-fork icon at the top of the page declares the chef’s allegiance to the farm-to-chef program, but the growing season has barely begun and the winter menu is still in force, so we are astonished at the number of vegetables on offer: Swiss chard, butternut squash, turnips, Brussels sprouts, beets, wild mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, green beans, roasted pumpkin.

The starters (many of them vegetarian) look so exciting we almost skip the shrimp-and-crabmeat bisque. What a mistake that would have been. A gorgeous pale pink, and thickened with nothing but extra crabmeat and shrimp, it’s almost a stew. The taste is fresh and sweet, hinting of the sea, the aroma tantalizingly elusive. If I have had better shrimp or crab bisque in my life, that memory has been eclipsed by the pleasure of this one. We find plenty of crabmeat in the crab cakes, too, and a jolt of chipotle aioli for just enough heat.

Like many dishes on the menu, butternut squash ravioli is available as appetizer and entrée. Either way, portions are generous. An appetizer order brings two large house-made ravioli, each plump with creamy, subtly seasoned squash filling. No heavy sauce, just a glisten of chive butter and a few chopped hazelnuts for crunch.

While she calls her cooking home-style, Dawn Bruckner has an artist’s eye. She also loves flowers. Both inclinations add to our delight, as plates arrive decorated with a snapdragon stem, a daisy or a stalk of flowering stock. Nothing too fancy, just something a home cook with a  garden might do. Always the emphasis is on flavor—rich, deep, integral, not added on with garnishes or sauces.

La Belle Aurore, Niantic

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