Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Saturday, August 31, 2013

So much can change in six months. Since our meal in February, Justin Cogley (deservedly and expectedly) received one of Food & Wine's Best New Chef awards, putting Aubergine on the map for a whole new segment of diners. Naturally, national recognition brings increased pressure, but the entire restaurant seems to be holding its own, and more.

We had planned a drive along Highway 1 for the Labor Day weekend, and a good meal is always the perfect way to end a long day on the road - what follows is an extended version of Aubergine's tasting menu.

Green tea, pomegranate, shiso
Flax, apricot, white cheddar
Lapsang Souchong-soaked quail eggs
Dried kelp, beech-spinach dip
Crispy potato, oyster cream, viola flower
Like our previous meal, a light, fizzy infusion kicked off the meal. This was followed by four snacks, served together. Crispy, creamy, briny, tart, herbal, jammy - the bites engaged a multitude of textures and flavours. A strong start.

Santa Barbara uni
Raw milk panna cotta, caviar, lime
The local milk panna cotta was topped with caviar from British Columbia, upon which we draped each tongue of uni. The combination was intense - explosive spheres, melting unctuousness and cool velvet in every mouthful.

"Flavours of gazpacho"
Foie gras, toasted brioche
Smoked leeks, arugula, hibiscus gelée
Still the best duck liver I've had anywhere. The smoked leeks were excellent here, lending a rather novel element to a dish that has seen countless iterations across the globe.

Kagoshima wagyu fat-braised carrots
Sheep's milk yogurt, exotic spices
I expected the tender carrots to taste meatier - instead, notes of allspice and anise were dominant, reminiscent of jerk seasoning without the heat. A great pairing with the sour yogurt.

Eggplant steamed in seaweed
Rice bran, garlic-infused white tea
King salmon
Spinach, coastal herbs, pineapple weed
The locally-caught salmon was topped with a veritable garden of herbs, anchored by a verdant spinach purée. A thin sauce of wild chamomile was drizzled over the fish tableside. Flaky and so fresh-tasting - quite impressive.

Mushrooms, puffed rice, grape, fermented leek sauce
"Abalone in its natural environment"
Hijiki, sea grapes, umeboshi
The red abalone, a gift to the restaurant from a diver, was huge - I regret missing the photo opportunity, but it must have been well above the 7-inch minimum size for dive-harvested abalone. We are very grateful that the kitchen shared this gift with us. They did the creature justice, serving it with underwater plants and umeboshi, in a shallow pond of light chicken-umeboshi consomme. Spectacular.

Colorado porcini, sea lettuce, potato
Wild turbot cooked on the bone
Charred onions, lettuce purée, summer truffle vinaigrette
Kagoshima A5 wagyu
Grilled sake-washed beef, topped with shredded nori and served with a number of accoutrements - salt, aged soybeans, Meyer lemon kasuzuke, ayu sauce, and puréed plum. The ayu sauce, milder than a typical fish sauce, was delicious. With the meat, however, the aged soybeans and the Meyer lemon with sake lees were synergistic.

Cucumber sorbet
White chocolate, Thai basil, melon consommé
Pine, lemon cream, yogurt snow
Japanese cheesecake
An interesting dessert duo - a fluffy, lemon-tinged slice of Japanese cheesecake, served with a block of lemon cream topped with pine-flavoured meringues. It really worked for me, with the lemon component tying together two very distinct dishes. I just wish I could've had another slice of cake - it was good.

Sheep's milk bavarois
Sablé, compressed peach, Indian spices
Beautiful. I really enjoyed the taste of coriander and fennel seeds with the bavarois, and the playful use of Nerds added a much-needed touch of sugar to the composition.

Corn ice cream, puffed quinoa
Corn silk, nasturtium, raspberry
An ode to summer's end. I have a soft spot for corn ice cream, and this was a fantastic rendition - savory, almost salty. The crispy corn silk was a little too much in sum, especially with the quinoa. Just give me a tub of the ice cream.

Bitter chocolate namelaka, huckleberries, juniper milk foam
Mint chocolate stones, puffed coconut tapioca
Our previous meal would've been difficult to top, but they did it. Fewer courses this time allowed more focus, and a tighter narrative. Compositions were more cohesive, with fewer stray elements. The kitchen is self-examining and paring itself down to the essentials.

The table next to us enjoyed their meal so much that they requested a reservation for the next day (unfortunately, they couldn't be accommodated) - I completely understand the feeling. I, for one, am glad that we'll have the opportunity to revisit in a mere two months.

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