While by no means exclusive to the West Coast, cool jazz is the style of jazz most closely associated with it, especially the sounds of Dave Brubeck, Chico Hamilton and Gerry Mulligan amongst others. Cool is a more laid back, subtle and melodious style of jazz compared to the be-bop roots it sprung from. Bebop itself came out of the blues, which was a representation of hardship and suffering. Cool jazz, coming of age in the plenty post war California was more about fluidity, optimism and feeling good. Chef Justin Cogley’s food at Aubergine, an intimate restaurant nestled in the lovely oasis that is L’Auberge Carmel in the northern California beach town of Carmel, represents the culinary equivalent of cool. His food is also laid back, subtle and built on beautiful taste melodies. it’s a cuisine that is fluid, optimistic and definitely about feeling good. Visually, Cogley’s food avoids violent be-bop like splashes of vibrant color in favor of the sensual understatement of muted earth tones. Dinner at Aubergine is the culinary equivalent of chilling at a small California jazz club listening to some of the idiom’s best players lay down one cool riff after another.¹
Location and place are important to many restaurants. elBulli would have been revolutionary wherever it was, but its location on the beach in Cala Montjoi turned it into a place of pure magic. While the location of Aubergine doesn’t provide quite that level of magic (few places do), it’s location steps from the beach in a beautiful and luxurious small inn is still sensational and integral to the experience. While not absolutely necessary, a stay at least overnight at the Auberge helps relieve the stress of the necessary travel (unless one should be fortunate enough to actually live in or around Carmel or the Monterey Peninsula). Yes, being able to take a few steps back to one’s beautifully appointed room to fall into a dreamy bed certainly helps reduce the stress. Being able to stroll to and along the beach also helps reduce the stress and set the mood.
Chef Justin Cogley, a former Chef de Cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s, is the Executive Chef and leader of the band that is the Aubergine team. A former professional figure skater, Cogley learned to appreciate what the world has to offer during his travels. He puts that experience to good use at Aubergine. Like any band, the sound or in this case, the food, is only as good as the team behind it and Chef Cogley has put together an outstanding team based around Executive Sous Chef and fellow Trotter alum, Aaron Koseba, Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza and Restaurant Director and Sommelier Nathaniel Muñoz. Cogley and his band are tight with each playing riffs off each other to create wonderful, edible music.
One element of a meal that is not often commented upon, but which can make or break the experience is the company present at the table and in some instances around it. Sharing the table with me were the inimitable Chuck from ChuckEats and his ever so lovely wife Lesley. In addition to their delightful presence, we became acquainted and friendly with a father-son set of music producers one table over. A fun duo, these accomplished veterans were the inspiration behind my musical theme for this post.
Aubergine is not a large restaurant. In fact, it is rather cozy. Bathed in the same earth tones as Cogley’s cuisine, the dining room is warm and comfortable. It neither distracts from the food nor adds to the experience. It remains background pure and simple.
The meal, as many contemporary tasting menus do, started with an aperitif and then some snacks. We were shown the menu for the evening, but then that was replaced with another put together specifically for us. I was excited.
The opening aperitif was not alcoholic. Fitting for such a holistic location, we were started with a foamy green tea infused with shiso and pomegranate. It was a refreshing beginning.
A flurry of activity at our table resulted in a bevy of snacks being deposited and explained.
These were creative and tasty bites that had a feel of the New Nordic/ New Naturalism movement to them.
They included dried and crisp elements as well creamy.
The quail eggs added an Asian touch within a New Naturalist plating. These snacks were good, but neither unique nor otherworldly. My first impressions while not negative, were not sensational either. Everything was well done, but they could have come from any number of fine dining restaurants in Europe or the United States. In musical terms, we started with a pleasant cover version of a song, but I was not yet nodding along to the tune.
I started being drawn into the melody with the next dish, raw razor clams with hazelnut and chickweed. I was expecting the dish to reflect the oceanic nature of the clams, but it turned out that the clams main action was as a textural contrast to the crisp earthiness of the dominant hazelnuts. I liked the unexpected flavor layers here.
I really started to get into the rhythm of the meal with the following dish. Good quality raw sea urchin always plays a catchy tune for me and the Santa Barbara sea urchin that came out swimming in a bit of dashi was top quality. I was starting to hum.
We each had a generous and most delicious tongue to ourselves. This was delicious luxury.
The second half of the dish played a superb bass line to the melody of the urchin. Raw milk with local sea grapes and excellent caviar spoke to the region’s bounty of quality ingredients as well as Chef Cogley’s creativity and ability to let those ingredients sing the high notes. This course really started showing the chef’s voice. I wanted more!
Even in California, the tomato season was coming to a close. Fortunately, it wasn’t quite done yet as the next course featured end of season tomatoes, specifically of the Indigo Rose variety. The dish was reminiscent both flavor-wise and texturally of a pasta with tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. I grew up eating baked ziti and lasagna, both of which had those components. Though nothing like those dishes compositionally other than the tomato, the resemblance was truly surprising. There was a gelee that assumed the textural role of pasta, the tomato base and a finish of nice spice with a hint of heat. This was a very intriguing and pleasurable dish.
Nathaniel Muñoz is a most capable sommelier. The wines started flowing with my first pour to accompany the next dish. The young Gewurtztraminer from Lucien Albrecht in Alsace, France was floral with good acidity as one might expect. The 2010 vintage was a good one there and this wine lived up to it.
New Naturalism has clearly been a big influence on Chef Cogley and with the produce at his disposal why not? Carrots have been resurrected from an afterthought root to prove to be a special ingredient – at least in hands as capable as Chef Cogley’s. With the acidity of the yogurt to balance the carrot’s inherent sweetness. This was one of the most delicious and most cravaeble carrot dishes that I have had and I have had more than a few. The Gewurtztraminer was a splendid accompaniment.
Mid-October is a wonderful time of year in California as the produce bridges the seasons from summer to autumn with much of the best from both still available. Salsify, while more popular than ever, has not been as ubiquitous as carrots have been. Chef Cogley made it his own, though with chestnut and apple-cinnamon snow. Upon presentation I feared that the dish was possibly going to be too sweet, but the apples were nicely acidic and the chestnuts, cinnamon and salsify itself kept the dish decidedly savory. It was delicious.
Marin Nadalin poured the next wine for the next course. Slightly sweet and produced in much the same way that Amarone are produced in the Veneto, this was a lovely wine, perfect for the next course.
One can’t get foie gras in California anymore, but fortunately, plain old duck liver remains available. Chef Cogley kept it relatively simple and classic, serving a torchon of the liver with hibiscus jelly and exquisite buttered brioche.
The Furmint grape from Hungary is most famous as the grape that makes the incredible Hungarian sweet wines from Tokaiji. The grape is also fermented dry, however, as this one was. Mineral rich and full of vibrant acidity, this is a superb food wine reminiscent of a good Loire white.
One of the things I love about the best of California’s haute cuisine is the way it has begun to bridge east and west as only California can. While some of Cogley’s dishes bore unmistakable Nordic influences, others derived influence from Asia, in particular from Japan. This next one, starring eggplant² showed a decidedly Japanese influence as it was steamed in wakame seaweed and served with sesame and rice bran. A tea made from the same seaweed was poured alongside. Ironically, I’m not a big fan of eggplant and this dish tasted too much like it for my preference. It was my least favorite dish of the evening.
One of the little old-time restaurant rituals I enjoy is the presentation of a product to the diner for inspection prior to preparation. It’s good to see that a restaurant has top quality product and are proud enough of it to display it. This occurred a few times at this dinner and each time the product was quite deserving of its presentation. The first was with a basket of fresh boletus mushrooms. These were beauties.
Like many wine drinkers I got burned out on Chardonnays in the 1990’s. They became ubiquitous with little stylistic variation. I am starting to appreciate them again. I was pleasantly surprised by the New Zealand Chardonnay poured by Muñoz. Rather than the oaky, buttery behemoth that I had come to avoid, this was a flinty, crisp mineral wine reminiscent of a Puligny Montrachet.
The porcini were prepared in a way unlike any that I had ever experienced before and they were delicious. The mushrooms were served three ways – roasted, sliced raw and as a sauce at the bottom of the plate – not too unusual other than the quality, so far. It was the additions of sea lettuce and an oyster emulsion that set the dish apart. It was packed with umami. The mineral rich Chardonnay worked nicely off the salinity of the sea products and helped bring everything together.
Chateau Musar is a wine that people tend to love or despise. I’m in the former party, so I was pleased when I was poured a glass of the 2001 red. It is unlike any other wine in the world and just the fact that Gaston Hochar has managed to make this fascinating and delicious wine for so many years in the heart of Lebanon makes it special and worth drinking. It also happens to be a great wine with food.
The second dramatic pre-plate presentation was that of a sixty five year old abalone that had been found and gifted to the chef, who, in turn gifted it to us and a few other diners this evening.
The abalone was portioned and served “in its natural surroundings” which included a variety of seaweeds, sea grapes, finger limes (ok, mostly natural surroundings), wild mushrooms and a pour over of chicken-umeboshi broth. I must admit to having feelings of guilt upon eating such an august creature, but those were tempered by the fact that it had been not been wasted and had been prepared in a most excellent fashion. It was amazingly tender for such an aged creature and the flavors were subtle, but delicious.
To accompany the abalone, the kitchen sent out some delicious, freshly made cheddar cheese brioche with butter from Petaluma, California.
Salmon is one of those fish that is quite versatile when it comes to wine. It can go well with either certain whites or particular reds. I am partial to pairing it with Pinot Noirs, but here we were poured a Chenin Blanc produced using biodynamic methods. It was a delightful pairing.
The salmon itself was wild coho salmon from up the coast in California. It had been gently cooked and topped with spinach purée, coastal herbs and a chamomile reduction. It was elegant, beautiful and delicious.
The last of the pre-plating presentations came to the table. It was a chunk of insanely marbled wagyu beef from Miyazaki Prefecture in Japan. Our mouths all dropped.
While we waited for the return of the Miyazaki, our penultimate savory course consisted of young chicken with wild rice, arugula, chanterelles and a fermented leek sauce. Starting with the porcini, Chef Cogley and his team had hit full stride and continued through the meal without a stumble. This was another marvelous dish.
The pouring of the Barbaresco meant that the beef could not be too far behind. Given the amount of food that we had already consumed, the fact that we were still excited about the beef was a testament to the food that had come before as well as the presentation of the product. With something ordinary, we might have felt, “oh no, more food!” With the Miyazaki, however, it was, “Oh yes, more food!”
The Miyazaki returned triple seared, wrapped in nori seaweed and sliced. It was accompanied by several dipping “sauces” including sake lees, plum purée, aged soy sauce and a chiffonade of young, pickled ginger. To the side was a bowl of sliced matsutake mushrooms with warm iso poured over the slices. The beef was truly incredible, combining intense flavor with the fat-popping texture only great Japanese beef can provide. The added umami of the mushrooms and miso was a case of the rich getting richer. The sauces were very good, but ultimately my preference was the straight up taste of the meat as it had been prepared. This was a truly extraordinary dish based upon truly extraordinary product. It was a crescendo moment of the meal.
The composed cheese course is an art rarely encountered today and when it is, it is even rarer for one to be exceptional or better than the cheese would have been by itself. Rarer yet has been the composed cheese course put forward by the kitchen at Aubergine. Featuring 2 year aged Ossau Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese from the northern Basque region overlapping Spain and France, the dish looked like a beautiful raviolo. The cheese had been melted over pressed barley and chives, while a Thai pepper crumble and a chicken-truffle reduction were spread on top. It was a decidedly savory preparation that served as the segue into dessert.
Helping to span the bridge from savory dessert was the wine that had been paired with the cheese course. While the cheese straddled the savory side of the meal, contrapuntal notes were played by the wine, a sweet wine from Vouvray produced by Domaine Huet from their top vineyard. While not their very top end Premiere Trie from the same vineyard, it was nevertheless a beautiful wine that treated the cheese course quite nicely.
The transition to dessert continued with a lovely palate cleanser from Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza featuring the clean flavors of cucumber, sorrel and chamomile. The beat had changed, but the rhythm was still intoxicating and true to the course of the meal.
The Asian influence of the the restaurant continued with the first dessert beverage, a slightly sweet, sparkling sake from Japan – delightful!
Also delightful was Mendoza’s first outright dessert featuring pears. This was delicate and elegant as well as delicious. I’m not a huge pear fan, but this hit all the right notes, while the sake played along in tempo.
Japanese cheesecake seems to be a dessert of the moment, at least in high end restaurants and understandably so. This and the one I recently had at Atera in NYC were quite different in terms of flavor and presentation, but both had the hallmark lightness of Japanese cheesecakes. Mendoza’s version was served with a raspberry sorbet with lemon thyme and rose water. Another similarity between the two cheesecakes was that they were both divine.
Horseradish is not an intuitive ingredient for a dessert, especially one containing chocolate, but that didn’t stop Mendoza from creating a stunningly delicious and impeccably balanced dessert using horseradish cream along with beets, red ribbon sorrel and chocolate cremeaux.
The final plated dessert was washed down with superb dessert wine that was new to me. Made from the Grenache Blanc grape using a method called mutage, the vin doux naturel from Domaine Frontanel was viscous and sweet, but with surprisingly good balance given the residual sugar content. It stood up quite well to the dessert with both wine and dessert enhanced in the match.
As the meal started with a non-alcoholic, tea-containing beverage, so it closed with one.The dark, earthy tones of the aged Pu-erh tea presaged a rich brew deep in flavor and mild in bitterness. This was a beautiful tea, perfect for the end of the meal.
As with any grand musical performance, an encore is appropriate and desired. In the case of this and most high end dinners, that encore comes in the way of mignardises. As the mint and chocolate rocks closely resembled their real counterparts on the tray, we joked that we had to be careful. We were and encountered no misadventures as we enjoyed both the “rocks” and the cinnamon and tapioca crisps.
L’Auberge Carmel has been around for quite some time. It has maintained a restaurant for most if not all of its existence as a hotel, but for the bulk of that time, as one might expect, the restaurant was classic French. At that time, I would imagine that it was very good for what it was and a very suitable dining spot for people who would come to stay at the hotel. The team under Chef Justin Cogley, however, has changed the tune and composed something more, though. The restaurant has morphed into a destination in its own right, one capable of attracting guests to the Auberge specifically to dine at the restaurant. That is the way it should be for the best hotel restaurants and Aubergine delivers. Cogley and crew do a masterful job of creating a cuisine that connects to the culinary rhthyms of the region as well as those from other parts of the world. It is a cuisine of luxury suitable to its location and demanding clientele, a cuisine that resembles the cool jazz sound of California of the fifties and sixties. Interestingly, in the recent Michelin awards for San Francisco, much of the area surrounding the city was covered in the guide, but it did not extend as far south as Carmel. That’s a pity, because both the restaurant and the Auberge are worth going out of one’s way for as I did. That the surrounding area is as beautiful and interesting as it is is yet another bonus. It would have been interesting to see how Aubergine played for Michelin.
¹Some of my favorite jazz memories involve intimate California clubs such as Milt Jackson and Monty Alexander in San Francisco in 1977 and Anita O’Day in Malibu in 1981. They inspired a feeling of just being in the groove. Cool jazz is no misnomer.
²With a name like “Aubergine” which is the French word for eggplant, there has to be at least one dish featuring the fruit, no?