Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel – Fog of the Sea

With the sting of an herb and brine of the sea, Justin Cogley’s food at Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel captures the Central Coast outside. Ocean mists and forest floors. His palette is largely the surrounding land and it clearly influences his work. And just as oranges, reds, violets, and blue swirl together during a Carmel sunset, flavors blend seamlessly in strong focused dishes. Naturalist, without masking ingredients, it also draws much from across the Pacific.

A short drive from the Bay Area, Aubergine has generally been omitted from the recent stories of California cooking. This is unfair.1 The surrounding beaches, mountains, hills, forests, fields, and farms are ripe with ample bounty. Microclimates persist throughout the region. Some areas get daily waves of fog and afternoon breeze; others are geographically protected. This allows for diversity of crop. And while hours don’t make a difference, it is closer to the seafood. Plying his craft away from media cycles, Cogley is an emerging voice in the exploration of California’s regional terroir.

This was my second meal at Aubergine, last March. The first meal was very good but the last few protein courses were disproportionately heavy.2 So I asked for a more vegetable and seafood focus – they were my favorite dishes from round one and Cogley’s Twitter feed had shown a few more exciting prospects since. Lately, whenever possible, I have found myself taking this pseudo-pescatarian approach to tasting menus.3 And Cogley excels with this approach.

zucchini, squash blossoms, tarragon

From crisped to natural crunch, differing zucchini preparations were presented first. The dish had great textures and seasoning – the salty chips breaking into the crisp raw would have been satisfying on their own. But the tarragon re-defined the dish. Forming a strong herbaceous backbone – spicy, minty, sweet – it provided structure and focus.

A tangy yogurt mousse and bright lemon verbana gel set a backdrop for the surprise pairing of cocoa and spring onion. Each scoop would start tangy but soften to the sweet verbana gel. The sweetness of the stringy onions merged beautifully with the slightly bitter cocoa crumbs – an earthier burnt onion. One is reminded of Quique Dacosta’s “we used the langoustine to sweeten the vanilla.”

But it was the slight bitter perfume of turmeric that paused the menu. Like a soft fog rolling in, the subtle heat enhanced other flavors – sweet crabs and peas, earthy fava leaves – and faded long into the finish. It was a remarkable display of restraint, and power.

lemon verbana, cocoa, spring onion

green tea, kasugo dai, wasabi

crab, fava leaf, snap pea, turmeric

Vegetables are in Cogley’s DNA, having spent four years at Charlie Trotter, two as chef de cuisine.4 Like other modern cooks focused on terroir, he is able to use a single leaf, or herb, to highlight or focus on a dish. When done right, dishes are light but bold, without a leafy mouthfeel.5

Raw, pickled, pureed, and even the tops – a vertical landscape of carrots showed off their versatility. Carrots take so well to umami flavors – seaweed, burnt ends, meat – and here, the fermented flavors of miso mixed with the varying bites of sweet, tangy, and carrot concentration. But the dish was arguably missing a crunch factor. The raw and pickled carrots crunched, but there wasn’t a complement. Perhaps the sponge could have worked better as a rock – to break the saltiness off in chunks, and to mix into the bites of carrot, instead of a sponge left after the carrot had been chewed.

Before the California foie gras ban,6 this foie gras torchon was every bit as good, if not better, than the infamous French Laundry torchon. Creamier, somehow smoother, it had the texture of a room-temperature Bordier7 that almost sweats its fat out. It coats your mouth in such a way that a hot preparation never can. The varying accompaniments – minerally fava leaves, pickled rhubarb, sweet rhubarb puree – were interesting diversions. But a great foie gras is always enjoyed best alone.

miso, carrots, young ginger

foie, rhubarb, charred fava

And Cogley excels at seafood, in what was the strongest arc of the menu. He refuses to skimp, sourcing locally and internationally in search of quality. And he knows how to prepare it. Chilled mussels and mussel ice offered a great re-set after the foie – a cool ocean wave. The cucumber flavors of borage and citrus flavors ebbed while the ice slowly melt in the mouth. Foie gras fat washed away with a crisp brine.

Strawberry and cuttlefish haunted in its careful orchestration of unlikely partners. With each bite, the roe would pop, burst into brine, and finish with a taste of smoke. And sweetness clings to smoke. The strawberries too would breach, bright and acidic at first, but left a faint sweetness that paired with the smoke. They mingled with the chew of the cuttlefish textures. Absolutely stunning.

chilled mussels, mussel ice, asparagus, borage

cuttlefish, strawberry, smoked roe

A kanpachi was immaculate, of Japan quality,8 with great bite and a slightly sweet oceanic flavor. Citrus beurre blanc was just tart enough for the richness of the fish. And the parsley meringue, once melted, lent a beautiful green note. This could have rivaled the dish of the night, if not for the meringue; its crunchy texture detracted from the natural beauty of the fish.

Abalone and chicken broth, of such different terrains, belong together. Here, a slightly smoky chicken broth accented the abalone’s meatiness. Others would rave about the abalone’s tenderness but I prefer mine with more chew. Particularly here, the chew could have been used to tease out more smoke with each bite. Sea lettuce umeboshi ratched the umami factor even more. But it was the salty umeboshi, with its fruity inflections, that brought the dish together and let it sing with clarity and focus.

kanpachi, parsley meringue, citrus, lobster knuckle

abalone, sea lettuce, hijiki, umeboshi

asparagus, miners lettuce, elephant garlic, marrow

And then the last meat dish.

Aged for two weeks, the duck had the slight depth of funkiness, that something more missing in many duck dishes. Here it was roasted beautifully, golden on the outside, ruby rare in the middle when cut. The fat coated the mouth lusciously with each bite. But the finish! The subtle and beautiful peppercorn, coriander, saffron, and date broth smoothed the game and fat. Spice and sweetness perfumed the meat flavors and lingered long.

duck, date, saffron, sichuan peppercorn

ossau iraty, bib lettuce, morels

white chocolate, shiso sorbet, yogurt

praline ganache, yuzu sherbet, raspberries, rose

There is a clear sense of terroir at Aubergine where the environment is represented by the food. Cogley’s food can be light but focused – assertive flavors that don’t overbear the palate. Vegetables star and augment; herbs focus; and seafood really shines. Technique is controlled, dipping from French, Japanese, and various Modern schools. But it coalesces around showcasing nature. It is one of the better restaurants in the area, and country.

While technically the Central Coast, Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel deserves to be mentioned, and considered, when discussing big restaurant itineraries of the Bay Area. It is a wonderful two-hour trip south from San Francisco proper along a variety of interesting and scenic roads.9 Carmel, the city, may not be for everyone but the beaches have an accessibility with just enough West Coast ruggedness. Watch the day end with a picturesque sunset on the beach and then stroll a few blocks over to finish the night at Aubergine.

- chuck

1 – Marinus is another restaurant that does not get its proper due. While the food is more classical in style, Chef Cal Stamenov has been foraging long before the trend. In one article, the source no longer linkable, Cal described having an open door policy for anyone nearby that found, or grew, interesting ingredients.

2 – This dish from the first meal was genius: a chilled dungeness crab, young coconut, roasted banana, & candied peanut – the flavors were Thai-like and they were beautiful together.

It is also worth noting this meal was comped.

3 – Regular readers know my issues with heavy, uncreative meat dishes at the end of long tasting menus. A month ago, I met Jing Theory at Sons & Daughters. We both opted for the “vegetable tasting menu”, citing similar feelings, but we had to throw in some seafood for 1-2 courses.

4 – A restaurant I have never visited and, given its impending closure, probably never will. The food looks anachronistic but I would like to try it if schedules permitted. Despite this, there’s no denying his influence and the quality of the chefs that have passed through the kitchen.

5 – The leafy mouthfeel is a style of vegetable dish I don’t get. It is most often seen with meat dishes, where the meat:leaf ratio verges toward 1:1. The leaves are meant to break up the monotony of the meat, or to a more natural alternative to a sauce or puree; but the mouthfeel is too leafy.

6 – My politics have been largely left off of this blog but how silly is a foie gras ban? I’ve had the Thomas Keller French Laundry/Per Se foie gras a half-dozen times in his restaurants; and have made it many more times at home – I love it – it’s my favorite Thomas Keller dish – but this torchon was even better.

7 – You don’t know the glory of Bordier? They sell it at a few stores in Paris and a few top restaurants also serve it. But I’m convinced l’Arpege gets a slightly different version from the rest – it’s always better. Resist the temptation to eat it when they first place it on your table – it’s too hard. Let it sit. Watch it sweat. Be patient. When you can wave your knife through, without effort, the glories of Bordier are ready for consumption.

8 – Japan is magical – you should visit.

9 – You can, and should, make an adventure out of it during a Bay Area vacation. It is two hours away. You could drive down the Highway 1 and experience a certain deja vu – for you’ll instantly recognize the many car commercials you’ve seen. Downtown Santa Cruz is just a few blocks off the highway; stop in for Verve coffee and Penny Ice Creamery – I personally like the espresso shake!

  • Kelsey Elliott

    I’m a big fan of this restaurant. Made 3 trips down to Carmel last year to satiate my cravings. But I’m surprised you didn’t go into dessert! I think Ron Mendoza’s desserts are some of the best of anything I’ve had on the west coast (I’d put Melissa at Aziza in that category as well). He had this technique for taking ice cream nd essentially putting it under enormous pressure in a vacuum sealer until it exploded in a puff like a cloud. Tasted like one too =)

    Glad you wrote about this one!

  • ChuckEats

    Hey there – my notes on dessert were skimpy & i thought i’d let the pictures talk (which happens too often.)  Desserts were very good, in-tune with the meal (which can be rare), & i will take better notes next time!

  • Manda Bear

    On my list to try this summer ;) TY Chuck for nice write up ;) and your photos are getting more beautiful each time!

  • helveticajane

    the food looks amazing! nice review.

  • venkat

    Really i love this
    post. Thank you for sharing this post.