At times you are genuinely surprised by a meal. You walk in without any expectations and see an uninspiring room. However, once the food starts to appear, things start looking radically different. Aubergine in Carmel is such a restaurant.
When you enter the hotel in which it is located, L’Auberge Carmel, you have no idea as to what you can expect. Carmel is famous for being Clint Eastwood’s home, a rather conservative seaside village, and a lot of fog. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a restaurant here will serve cutting edge food. And this is exactly the impression you get when you walk past it. The room looks small, a bit dull and uninspired. The menu owever, lists a good dozen of ingredients without much of an explanation. Whilst the room looks like that of an average bourgeois restaurant, the menu looks more than intriguing (to be fair, there is an a la carte too). It feels as if you’re stuck in the conservative surroundings, but dip your nose into something a bit more adventurous in the form of the menu. Once you made your choice, you are handed a wine list. That’s the moment when things begin to get a bit more serious, as there are verticals of DRC wines, Coche Dury, and many others on this little list of treasures.
However, the first real shock comes in the form of an amuse bouche. Deep-fried aju. Served nearly like you could imagine in Japan, this rare delicacy takes you somewhere else. You’re not sitting in this uninspired room in Carmel, in a restaurant that no one has heard off, and are eating this kind of food? Well, it is exactly that that will go through many people’s minds when they eat here. Oh, and suffice to say, that the aju is of fine quality and most competently prepared. That Justin Cogley, the chef, spent some time in Japan emerges later, and ties things together a bit.
Surprisingly enough, things just keep going on like that. Course after course is intriguing, technically impeccable and clever in its composition. It’s food that is delicious, but far from being boring or uninspired. There’s something to it, that somehow makes it fascinating. If there were one dish that really exemplifies Justin Cogley’s style it is an abalone. The Monterey bay is the most famous place in the USA for abalone, and the ones they serve here are indeed exceptional. Even people who have had abalone all over the world will probably have trouble finding better ones. For here, the dish and the product itself are of the highest order. But, lets not rush things.
What appears in front of you is a plate covered in seaweed that lets a clean smell of the sea rise towards you. On it sits nothing more than a shell of a sizeable abalone. There’s a white emulsion, a thin slice of lardo that covers the abalone and slowly melts away on the meat of the beast. Simple and to the point is what comes to mind here. It is like the aju, a dish that has incredible focus and works because of the incredible quality and craftsmanship behind it. On top of that, can you think of many better ways to eat something as decadent as an abalone then covered with melting lardo? Probably not. We’re trying not to go into superlatives that much, but this is sublime food.
Such combinations seem to be what Cogley likes, as another one of these pops up a bit later in the menu: Wagyu beef, marrow and girolles. Sounds good? Tastes pretty damn good too. Again, this is a dish that works because of the quality of what’s on your plate and the straightforward composition of the dish.
However, it would be a pity to not say a word or two about the desserts. Ron Mendoza, the pastry chef, is a congenial partner for Justin Cogley, someone who understands the structure and dramaturgy of a menu and serves you desserts that are again precise, delicious and clever at the same time. No matter if it’s a refreshing, fruit-based palate cleanser or a more substantial and rich chocolate dessert, this is pastry that is delicious without killing you after such a decadent meal.
This is where the Japanese influence in Cogley’s cooking really shines through. There is no tacky use of soy sauce or seaweed here. Rather, he manages to create restrained and pure dishes that are so special, because they are focused. There’s no moment at which you think that there’s something on the plate that doesn’t belong there. Pair this with the product quality on hand here and the refreshingly good service at Aubergine, and you might well have a hell of a surprise at Aubergine.