Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Thursday, February 27, 2014

Four meals in 13 months - that's saying something. And the crew at Aubergine keeps picking up awards - indeed, during our most recent visit in November, Justin Cogley was in Germany receiving a Grand Chef award from Relais & Châteaux. I also said at that time that I did not foresee a return in the first half of 2014 - I'm very glad I was wrong.

Lemon-berry Meritage, hibiscus rim
Kumamoto, seawater gelée, caviar
Like discovering hidden treasure in a pile of driftwood - each shell held a sweet Kumamoto topped with a heap of caviar and saline gelée. If only oysters came like this in the wild.

Siberian caviar, Kampachi belly with passion fruit and seaweed
These "gifts from the Pacific" are a textural departure from the snacks served at previous meals. Whereas prior iterations had a strong emphasis on crunch, the theme here was suppleness, highlighting the fresh offerings from the sea. I particularly liked the rather toothsome kampachi belly, accented by acid and salt.

Miyazaki wagyu tartare, Santa Barbara uni
I expected loosely-packed beef, spaced like the rice in good sushi, but this was dense - a little unsettling, albeit tasty.

Raw milk panna cotta, sea grapes
Dungeness crab, Bibb lettuce, crab gelée
Duck liver, mache, sherry, local vegetables
Such a pretty dish, with the duck liver hidden beneath a garden of greens. I tasted peas, parsnips, carrots and radishes - Winter passing into Spring. An amazing way to lighten the creamy, unctuous liver.

Steelhead trout, its roe
Fennel frond, hearts of palm, olive
Monterey Bay abalone, artichokes, seaweed
Tender abalone farmed in local waters, matched with two types of seaweed and a hot, sweet, nutty artichoke broth - my favourite course. Visually stunning, with flavour to match.

Dover sole, truffle, fava leaf
This was a narrow second to the abalone dish. The sole was beautifully prepared, highlighting its firm flesh, but the truffle-infused sauce was spectacular - an unabashedly over-the-top (one could even say gratuitous) burst of salt and truffle. A glorious sendoff to the end of truffle season.

Rabbit, its kidney, mustard, spinach
Colorado lamb
Rhubarb, salsify, nettle
Miyazaki wagyu, 7 herbs
Twice-seared A5 wagyu, dusted with matcha, topped with a lump of wasabi, and accompanied by the kitchen's Northern California version of nanakusa - inspiration from Justin Cogley and Aaron Koseba's recent trip to Japan (and Takazawa in particular, I was told). Vegetal, earthy, sharp - another dish that marks the transition into Spring.

Salers cheese
Black trumpet mushrooms, chicken jus, gingerbread crumble
An umami explosion - I literally had to reduce the size of each bite, to keep from overwhelming myself. Addictive, but arguably too much give the point in the meal.

Sorrel sorbet, celery root, crispy milk
Cleansing and extremely welcome after the cheese course. Cold, crispy, slightly sour from the oxalic acid, yet grounded by the celery root purée. Very good.

Baba au rhum
Tonka bean whipped cream, lemon sponge, candied kumquat, ginger beer purée
Baba au rhum like I've never had it before. The yeast cake was soaked in a syrup that had less rum than I'd prefer, but the the accoutrements made up for it. The deep, rich notes of tonka bean contrasted with the acidity of lemon and kumquat. Ginger beer and rum combined to evoke shades of a Dark and Stormy - cocktail and dessert as one. Brilliant.

Milk chocolate mousse, jasmine ice cream
Peanut, cocoa paper, banana pudding
Juniper macarons, passion fruit rock
Caramel truffles
By design, our shortest menu to date, and possibly the strongest. A reading of the menu suggests a linear progression from light to heavy, reaching a crescendo with the lamb and beef, but they surprised with their lightness (in contrast, the abalone and Dover sole were heavy-hitters) -  dinner here crests and troughs like the ocean outside.

It's remarkable how they accomplish so much with so little on the plate - the mark of a master. As it turns out, Cogley's talent is not his ability to harness the coast (after all, he's proven equally successful in the center of the continent) - it is his skill at flavour arithmetic, the knack for knowing when to back off, and when an ingredient needs coaxing. I look forward to our next visit, whenever it may be.

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