Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Sunday, November 17, 2013

When traveling, it's unusual for us to visit an out-of-town restaurant more than once within a short time span - there're just so many places to try. Yet, this is our third meal at Aubergine this year - a testament to the house that Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza have built. On this night, we shared our meal with two others who had each come long distances to dine here. Over four hours, we ate our way through 25 courses - an evening that will not soon be forgotten.

Sparkling green tea, pomegranate, shiso 
Tea-smoked quail eggs
Dried kelp, beach spinach aioli
Miyazaki wagyu tartare, roe
Flax, apricot, white cheddar
Crispy potato, oyster emulsion, radish flower
As with previous meals, the kitchen led off with a series of snacks. The fried potato nests topped with a thick oyster cream were particularly good - strong and assertive.

Mendocino sea urchin
Local milk panna cotta, sea grapes, lime zest
A gift from a local harvester, the uni were the largest I've ever seen - each tongue was two fingers thick and as long as my palm! The unworldly size conferred an unusually firm texture, and it tasted sweet, with no metal and very little brine. We spooned the tongues over a raw milk panna cotta, melding its tangy creaminess with the sea urchin. Amazing.

Dungeness crab, pears fermented in elderflower vinegar
Salsify, chestnut, apple, cinnamon snow
The earthy, spicy flavours of Autumn came early in the meal. I found the components slightly too sweet at this point in the progression, although it set up the next course nicely.

Duck liver, toasted brioche
Grapes, arugula, smoked leeks, hibiscus gelée
New England scallop
Meyer lemon, lemon balm
The scallop, cooked in its shell, was laid atop an intriguing service piece - a curled-up "feather boa" kelp, still moist and springy. We quite enjoyed the herbal, lemony notes of this dish after the richness of the previous course.

Kohlrabi, lovage, whey, citron
Delicious. The texture of the barely-cooked fish was so supple, and it contrasted with the crisp kohlrabi nicely. The aromatic sauce of lovage and whey was also memorable - milky and vegetal at the same time.

Sablefish, crispy skin
Siberian caviar, oyster emulsion, wood sorrel
Mendocino abalone
Dulse, hijiki, finger lime, buckwheat, juice of butternut squash
We were presented with an absolutely monstrous abalone, another gift to the restaurant that they were kind enough to share with us. The mollusc was estimated to be over 70 years old - a humbling thought (and certainly not something that should be consumed on a regular basis). It had been cooking for 4 hours before our arrival, and was whisked away to be portioned. It returned, dressed with seaweed and topped with a buckwheat crisp that tasted remarkably like fish skin. Over all of this, the runny juice of squash was poured. Sweet, briny, tangy - fantastic.

Roulade of young chicken
Leeks, black trumpets, wild rice
Moroccan spices, turnip, milk skin
Shoulder and tongue of lamb, cooked separately, both with nicely browned surfaces - two textures and tastes. The dish had an interesting pairing of the powerful Moroccan spices with the much milder turnip and milk skin - it worked surprisingly well, although the plate as a whole was rather dry.

Miyazaki A5 wagyu
Somewhat of a signature dish at Aubergine - grade A5 wagyu that has been washed in sake, seared, washed in soy sauce, seared again, then wrapped in nori and seared a third time. It was accompanied by (from left) matsutake, Meyer lemon kasuzuke, umeboshi puree, aged soybeans and a slice of myoga. It never disappoints.

Cheese and accoutrements 
The cheese board offered the largest selection of Andante Dairy cheeses I've ever had on one plate - I recall five! Also present - the now verboten Mimolette. I somehow missed the news that Mimolette had been banned by the FDA - a real pity. The sheer quantity was a little overwhelming at this point in the meal, but we put up a valiant effort (helped by the most delicious apple butter and warm, crisp toast).

Cucumber, lime
Japanese cheesecake, shiso sorbet, Tahitian vanilla yogurt
I love Japanese cheesecake, so my opinion is a little coloured, but this was excellent. The sorbet was brilliant as well, bright and spicy with a touch of sugar.

Apple, puff pastry, goat's milk ice cream
A course honed to its bare essentials, signaling the coming Winter. Crisp caramelized puff pastry, shaved apple, and a cold, creamy element. Elegantly plated and a refined balance of ingredients.

Sunchoke, walnut, white chocolate, tangerine granita
A week after our meal, I am still torn about this dish. I was very taken by the earthy sunchoke cream and walnuts, but the granita came off as harsh and overly acidic (although perhaps necessary to balance the other ingredients). I rarely feel so conflicted, and I wish I had a chance to try it again to make up my mind.

Beet, horseradish ice cream, chocolate
Mini madeleines
Fried tapioca with juniper sugar, cocoa-dusted raspberry ganache, sweet potato stones
The marathon concluded with mignardises, my favourite of which was the sweet potato ice cream encased in a gingerbread sablé - it was my perfect last bite.

Great food, great company - that's all she wrote. When a cuisine exposes itself the way Justin Cogley's has, analysis is unnecessary. Go, eat, taste. Sadly, I don't foresee any more visits to Aubergine for us in the near future (certainly not in the first half of 2014), but this dining room is more than worth a detour.

NB: Since our previous visit in September, the restaurant has evidently (finally) received its own website - a welcome recognition of the critical acclaim it has received.

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