Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Saturday, February 9, 2013

"The buildings have no street addresses here," said Nathaniel Munõz, sommelier and restaurant manager of Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel. He was referring to the sleepy hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where many cottages have proper names and mail delivery is nonexistent. When night falls, the quiet village is plunged into an engulfing darkness - naturally, there are no street lights here either (indeed, we drove past the hotel's street twice before finding it).

Such is the setting for the twenty-room L'Auberge Carmel, a beautiful and historic inn, where Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza just happen to be working magic in the kitchen. On this night, the main dining room was reserved for a private event, so we dined at a lone table in the privacy of the restaurant's wine cellar (making the experience all the more special), where the kitchen served us 22 courses over four hours.

NB: Due to the length of the menu, I have kept descriptions succinct. Suffice to say that no dish was less than good, and a few were exceptional. Wine pairings (on this night, completely from the Old World) were likewise inspired at points.

Ginger, pomegranate, green tea
The evening began with shots of an effervescent concoction to wet our whistles. Light, refreshing, calibrated - a common chord we observed in the many courses to follow.

Kumamoto oyster, Japanese cucumber gelée, yuzu foam
Uni, concentrated nori, lemon verbena
Gorgeous orange uni, sitting in a thick pool of concentrated nori paste studded with bits of lemon verbena gelée. A squid ink rice cracker kept textures interesting. Salty, creamy, crunchy, offset by the lemon verbena's tang - really good.

Dungeness crab, frozen young coconut
For both of us, the weakest dish of the evening, but I'd probably still eat it again. The chilled crab was irreproachable, as was the shaved coconut ice. However, these were quite overpowered by the accompanying sorbet (which I believe contained geranium, Meyer lemon, rose water and lemongrass - all strong elements).

Fried mussels, apple-cinnamon granita
Chestnut purée, charred cipollini onions
The smoky cipollinis worked wonderfully with the chestnut purée and spiced granita (which also provided an enjoyable temperature contrast). The mussels were great, but almost unnecessary beside the other components.

Iranian caviar, apple, dried skins
Beautifully presented on a serving piece of barnacle shells. The briny caviar combined well with the sweet apple gelée. Salmon skin was notably well-executed, as were the puffed rice crackers flavoured with chicken bouillon.

Spot prawn
Rau ram, oyster dashi foam, lemon verbena gelée
Sardine, spinach, lemon curd
Bold in its simplicity. A perfectly cooked sardine fillet sat next to a sauce of leeks, spinach and oyster liquor. The lemon curd kept our tastebuds from being overwhelmed by the powerful sea flavours - an elegant study in tension.

Foie gras torchon
Beet leather, hibiscus gelée
Buttered brioche
Wow. Just wow. Hands-down, the best foie gras torchon I've ever eaten - impossibly smooth, spreading on the warm brioche like the best butter. I enjoyed the accoutrements as well, but given the small size of the dish, they were practically a distraction (had I been given more foie, they would no doubt have been greatly appreciated).

Bread service
Inspired by a recent dinner focused on fire, our bread was coloured with squid ink and served over charcoal - it was good.

Mussel frost, sea rocket
Very welcome after the foie gras - the briny ice reset our tastebuds in preparation for the next (more delicate) arc of the menu. A Meyer lemon oil played off the frost, further refreshing our palates. The sea rocket flower had a peppery, mustardy quality that was compelling.

Diver scallop steamed in its shell
Lemon balm, Meyer lemon confit
Smoked marrow, burnt vegetable broth
I loved this. The heady, smoky liquid was poured over marrow that was practically a custard. The vegetables tasted lightly pickled - of note, the hidden mushrooms that really pulled the dish together, bridging the marrow and the broth.

Kanpachi, saffron
Smoked char roe, date, Szechuan peppercorn
The fish was impressive - high-quality product that was treated to bring out its potential. Smoked roe amplified the flavour of the sea. A broth of vanilla, date and Szechuan peppercorn balanced on the thin edge between sweet and savory. I thought the careful application of dates put this over the top - profoundly delicious.

Abalone, umeboshi
Sea grapes, hijiki, green tea
To our pleasant surprise, the kitchen followed up with another outstanding course - abalone in its element, dancing in tandem with the earth (mushrooms). The umeboshi surprised, its sour-salty notes tickling and teasing. Fantastic.

Guinea fowl
Devil's club, black trumpet mushrooms
A third dish that knocked us for a loop - an amazing guinea fowl roulade, wrapped around succulent forcemeat. It was served with earthy black trumpet mushrooms and a gelée of the same. The roots of the thorny devil's club (a relative of ginseng, also used for medicinal purposes) were dried and crisped, while a tea of the shrub was poured over the dish. Every flavour complemented the others, melding together to invoke a wilderness scene - blissful.

Aged duck, kumquat, spices
Miyazaki wagyu
3-year aged soy, burdock kasuzuke, umeboshi
The beef was washed in sake kasu and soy, then grilled and wrapped in nori. I would have preferred slightly more heat applied, to soften the fat and meat a bit more - with this grade of wagyu, I do like the melt. The soy, practically a paste, was stunning. So too the pickled burdock and plum. A deceivingly simple dish that allowed the beef to shine.

Andante Dairy Picolo, flax, preserved sorrel
Asian pear, black garlic
Excellent palate cleanser after all the fat from the previous courses. Frothy, bracingly bitter green tea matched with the mild sweetness of the pear and the funk of black garlic - almost a shocking awakening for the palate.

Celery milk
Nasturtium, celery root
Growing up, I ate cereal out of a cyan-hued bowl eerily similar to the one presented to us - if only I had been so lucky to eat this every day. Christina Tosi can keep her cereal milk - this was far better. The milk was served over a celery granita, pickled celery, and celeriac chips. Such a complex interplay of textures and temperatures, highlighting the different profiles of the plant. As a whole, the dessert wasn't very sweet (which I like), and the peppery nasturtium also focused the dish. Absolutely brilliant!

Tangerine sorbet, vanilla, white chocolate
I wasn't particularly fond of creamsicles as a child, but this version would've made me a convert. The sharp sorbet juxtaposed with the sweet, crunchy, frozen crumbles - so nicely balanced.

"A walk through the forest"
Pine ice cream, maple-bourbon logs, sweet potato dirt, candy cap mushroom meringue
Black sesame, pear ash, chocolate, yuzu curd
A dessert in two parts. First, lush woodland flavours - soft in texture, sweet but earthy, with the bourbon hinting at things to come. Then, flame brought hard textures and deep, dark flavours, with surprising brightness from the curd. If I recall correctly, the chocolate bark was scented with spruce - a nice touch. Collectively, the four desserts cemented Ron Mendoza's place in my mind as one of the best pastry chefs in California (and perhaps the most unsung).

Sable cookie, ginger ice cream
What more is there to say? I believe the pictures speak for themselves - Aubergine was one of the most exciting meals we've experienced recently, and I have no doubt that it'll be one of our top meals of the year when all is said and done.

Carmel is hardly remote (certainly less so than Lummi Island or Chilhowie). Bay Area folks should be clamoring to get a reservation in Aubergine's small dining room - perhaps this year will finally bring Mssrs. Cogley, Mendoza and Muñoz the degree of recognition they deserve. For our part, we are already planning a return.

Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel
Monte Verde at Seventh
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93921
Phone: (831) 624-8578