Aubergine – A Walk on the Sea

The water crashes. Birds squawk. A salty smell is swept briskly through the seaside town of Carmel By The Sea. Wave after wave, dish after dish. Four blocks uphill, Justin Cogley and Aaron Koseba walk along the ocean’s edge. Of seaweeds and tidal pools.

The salt clings to the palate. Seaweed curls around the plate, jut out as dried chips, or accent like an aquatic herb. And sometimes they pop like caviar. Raw fish is not the only vector of a seafood cuisine. Local ingredients from the Monterey Bay are showcased and championed but the far side of the sea is still the same sea. A recurring brine, rhythmic like a wave, threads the meal. By plate. By terroir. By imagination. A journey into the wine-dark sea.1

The cooking at Aubergine has changed – from shades of a Chicago school to what is loosely a Bay area style.2 The molecular constructions are less obvious and less frequent. Local produce appears more often. The seafood and vegetable aspects of earlier meals seem to be meeting closer to the water’s edge, with a particular fondness for seaweed.

With each visit, there is further refinement. And the accolades are coming.

Less is on the plate. Natural flavors and textures are given more prominence. The story is stronger and the cooking more confident. Cogley is not afraid to let an ingredient speak, sometimes completely surrendering the menu. But he is also ready to fully assert his vision with the next dish.

Night falls. The air is crisp. Light smoke drifts lazily through the dark streets. Waves splash and retreat, splash and retreat, a soft rhythm in the darkness. There are just a few intimate tables inside. This reviews covers four different meals over the past year.3 Aubergine is very much a restaurant in movement – like the ocean.


Razor clams, hazelnut, chickweed


Fried mussels, chestnut puree, apple-cinnamon granita

Pristine ingredients, gentle manipulation – this set of dishes embody Cogley’s new approach.

Early in the menu, a siren song emerges. Pearls of caviar glisten. Bright uni, with its textured tongue, is temptation. Wild seaweed teases to seize it all with its tentacles. But it is the dissipating sweetness of a raw milk panna cotta that ultimately seduces. It dissolves into liquid with each spoonful and a mini tidal pool forms – brilliant briny pops of sea grapes and caviar. There is such finesse between flavors and textures – it tastes like grazing on an oceanfront meadow.

Accompanying it is more sea urchin presented on a bed of ice in its own shell. Seasoned only with dashi, the dish is just a reflection of natural beauty. And is it telling, that on each menu, this dish was among the more profound?4 Nature can be quietly assertive and Aubergine is sourcing among its best. Of three versions, the Monterey Bay uni was probably my least favorite in taste; but it was the most interesting, and satisfying – narratives matter too. If every restaurant just served “the best”, all high-end meals would be the same.


Raw milk panna cotta, local sea grapes, caviar


Santa barbara sea urchin, dash


Squid

Vegetables continue to spark creativity in high-end dining.5 With a Charlie Trotter background, in the Central Coast, it is foretold that the menu will read shades of green. Herbs pepper the plates, beautiful flowers spike dishes with intensity, and common vegetables are interpreted in new fashion. In July, many of the vegetable dishes were touched by the sea – almost to suggest the salty summer breeze.

It is an interesting angle for Cogley’s cooking – can he build a sea-based vocabulary and incorporate vegetables under that umbrella too? Everyone has a garden these days (that’s good), purveyors are so much more sophisticated (that’s good too), but is there an opportunity to consistently explore vegetables in relation to their proximity to the sea? To treat seaweeds as herbs, to more prominently feature them as dishes, or to just create vegetable dishes that evoke the sea? Has this been done consistently anywhere else?


Flavors of gazpacho


Asparagus


Lovage


Carrot, sheep’s milk, exotic spices

The humble carrot is well known to be a symbol for the new luxury – where quality and execution is celebrated over scarcity. Carrots take so well to strong flavors – seaweed, meat, pickle, curry, chocolate, coffee, and so on. Combined with its most ordinary reputation, it is the perfect ingredient to change perceptions around vegetable cookery. And this one could.

Here, the tug between sweet and savory was enhanced by its being braised in wagyu fat. Pickled carrot slices sat atop, adding crunch and tang. A vibrant carrot/yogurt sauce, satin in mouthfeel, had spices dancing around its jabs of acidity. Warm and cool temperatures, warm and cool flavors, so tightly controlled. This was world-class.

Porcinis were presented table side in grand fashion before later showing up sliced atop an unassuming foam. In the first Aubergine review, I wrote: “And Cogley excels at seafood, in what was the strongest arc of the menu.” Looking back, the genesis of the current cooking was the seafood sections of those earlier meals. But Cogley no longer “excels at seafood” – the entire meal is a tale of the sea, where the proteins are but one element of his palette. Here, the bridge between vegetable and sea is an unlikely pairing between earthy mushrooms and briny foam.

Roasted and raw porcini lie in their own sauce. Emulsion of oyster bubbled around and deep green sea lettuce jutted out. A linkage of flavor developed – earthy porcini and seaweed, and then briny seaweed and oyster. The foamy oyster evaporated on the tongue, leaving the texture of perfectly-cooked, and raw, mushrooms and sea lettuce. It is an unusual pairing that shows Cogley dragging the forest toward the sea.


Porcini, sea lettuce, emulsion of oyster


Kanpachi, saffron, smoked char roe, date, peppercorn

This versatile broth of peppercorn, coriander, saffron, and date has made an appearance on most menus; as it should because it is such a remarkable example of Cogley’s sophistication. The kanpachi here, sourced impeccably, was just cooked – to a satisfying firmness. The roe added nice pops of smoke, delicately perfuming the meatiness of the fish. And that smoky sweetness of the broth lingered – it is haunting and appropriate for the cool Carmel nights.

A massive and stunning Massachusetts diver scallop was barely warmed in its shell, its raw texture intact, with roe, and the mellow lemon accents of the balm. Pristine product, gently cooked, maximum impact. The sophistication here was the gentleness in the cooking, and the restraint to allow the essence of the scallop to shine. It was among the best scallops I’ve ever eaten.


Scallop, lemon balm, meyer lemon confit (?)


Abalone

Abalone in its natural surroundings is the restaurant’s signature, as it should be. It captures the preciseness of Cogley’s cooking, the aspirations of the food, and the history of the immediate sea. The dish usually features a farmed four-year old red abalone from the nearby Monterey Abalone Company.6

However, on this night, a massive 65 year old wild abalone was substituted. The dish’s form has changed often but its elements remain largely the same. This was the most refined version – a simple thin strip with small bursts of sea grapes and finger lime. The flavors were strong but clean – chicken umeboshi broth, the meatiness of the abalone, the tissues of seaweed, and the sweet and salty dance of the umeboshi. The umami of each blend together, filling in blanks instead of overpowering or clashing. This too is world class.


Spiny lobster


Dover


Roasted beet


Miyazaki beef


Miyazaki, matsutake, nori

And then what is becoming perhaps a third signature of the restaurant: A5 wagyu beef, seared three times. Once with salt, second with soy and kasu, and a third time in the nori. While fashionable in some circles to eschew luxury ingredients (I’m guilty too), a well-portioned wagyu can still add an exclamation point to any meal. The prefecture changes from meal to meal (Kagoshima vs Miyazaki) but the indulgence remains unchanged. Here is it also paired with lemon kasuzuke, aged soy salt, young pickled ginger, and pureed plum.

This was cooked to a medium rare, necessary so that fat renders ever so slightly. Obviously rich and unctuous, it still had depth suggestive of aged beef. The condiments were distractions7 but the kasuzuke, a flavor I am obsessed with, added the right notes of sweetness and pungency.8


Ossau iraty, barley, sorrel

And there is, of course, dessert.

Ron Mendoza’s desserts always hit the mark – explorations of the larger themes of the menu without focusing on sweetness, or tradition. This isn’t to say Mendoza is creating a sea-based dessert program but vegetables and herbs are often used as counterpoint to sweetness, to pinpoint flavors. Textures are always satisfying and interesting.

There is a bit of Quique DaCosta magic in these desserts – they are evocative of the seasons, and very much the forests that do sit around the area.


Cucumber, sorrel, chamomile


Pear, creme fraiche, coriander


Candy cap meringue, sweet potato dirt, maple-bourbon logs, pine ice cream

Candy cap meringue looks like the forest floor but eating it placed one on that patch of land. Filled with savory-accented sweets, every bite had a variety of textures and a linkage of flavors that were just sensational. The pine ice cream was a burst of cool and creaminess that provided a high note to the earthy tastes of the other elements. If there were a dessert Hall of Fame…

The technical chops can be seen in the Japanese cheesecake – cotton light.


Japanese cheesecake, raspberry sorbet, lemon thyme, rose water


Strawberry


Grapefruit


Rocks

Over six visits, the cooking has always been solid – but what happens when the sea grabs you? This is one of the country’s best restaurants.

Gagnaire is cited as an influence, and the web site talks about spontaneity and the seasons but I’m unsure if this most accurately describes the cooking. I think it does it a slight disservice. There are “standard” dishes, like the abalone or beef, and they are getting more and more refined. Gagnaire is a genius but his food is complicated; Cogley’s food falls far more towards the minimalism spectrum.

Are there criticisms? This review reads overwhelmingly positive but the beginning snacks lack excitement when compared to the remaining meal. The meal always starts with an explosive shooter – bursting with flavor – but then sometimes meander until the first proper course. The snacks could be a time to engage in some livelier tastes and sensations that fall outside of the subtle nature of the food. Keeping in topic – intense brines, fermented fish, dehydrated seaweeds – challenge the taste buds?

In the last review, I said the restaurant deserved to be considered when discussing Bay Area restaurant itineraries. It is good to see others adding Aubergine to their visits, as well as Cogley getting recognition. Some day, the Michelin Man will make the beautiful drive down Highway 1.

- chuck

1 – I came across wine-dark sea while reading a Jorge Borges discussion on metaphors in The Odyssey. When you look out onto the Pacific at night, it seems so apt. But, apparently, the metaphor has puzzled scholars – why not just use the word blue? In The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World, Erin Hoffman looks at a language which has no word for blue.

2 – Very loosely speaking, of course. I’ve always thought of these restaurants more as a confederation than a school, thought some might argue they are a subset of Nordic. I think, however, there are big differences: less austere, less based on traditions, and definitely less molecular. Of course, for every statement, someone will come out of the woodwork with 10 reasons why it’s wrong. Maybe I am – just my impressions.

3 – The descriptions are accurate but some dishes have not been included because I lost my single-point-of-failure notebook somewhere on Lummi Island. More dishes would be covered in this review if I only had the notes. But those dishes weren’t the only casualties – Willows Inn, Willows Inn First Harvest Dinner, two Saison dinners, and Atelier Crenn could forever remain un-documented.

4 – When chefs serve such simple dishes, they often get labeled as order takers, instead of chefs. But if the ingredient warrants it, there shouldn’t be an issue with serving it as-is, especially if it can contribute to the arc in a meaningful fashion.

This bias also exists for many when reviewing sushi – how can fish and rice be rated so high? But in such simplicity, there is no hiding – the skills and product are laid bare for the world to see.

5 – And they will probably will continue to spark creativity during our lifetimes, until the clone meats come. But sometimes, if you read the media, they make it sound like a revolution that just started last month. In How Haute Vegetables are Conquering $500 Tasting Menus, Ryan Sutton writes a Christopher Columbus-like discovery of vegetables! It’s yet another example of the food media, largely based in NYC, not getting out of NYC enough.

6 – The Ulterior Epicure wrote a great article on his visit to the Central Coast, Aubergine, and the Monterey Abalone Company. It looks like a fascinating place – an ecosystem sitting on the edge of the bay.

It is also worth noting that the inaugural issue of Sugar and Rice magazine has an endlessly fascinating article, A Fishmonger’s Tale by P. J. Stoops on aquaculture ecosystems in the Gulf. You can also read more here in their suggested links & notes.

The magazine is worth seeking out. It’s a breath of fresh air in a food magazine industry that regurgitates the same chefs and writers over and over. It will make you want to visit Houston. You can also follow them on Twitter at @SugarandRiceMag.

The Ulterior Epicure article goes into depth on the the inaugural Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine event that Cogley hosted. He invited John Shields, Matthias Merges, Scott Anderson, James Syhabout, and George Mendes to come down, pick seaweed off the beach, and cook a meal.

Surprising to me, both of my favorite dishes were by Mendes – olive oil-poached bacalhau and a porridge of spot prawn (both pictured below):

7 – I’m a beef purist. If beef is excellent, it needs no pairings. And if it’s not excellent, do not serve it. Every bite paired with a condiment is a bite that does not enjoy the beef in all of its glory.

8 – A few years ago, I received a gift of six or seven different bottles of Cultured Pickle pickles. All of them were great but a pickled burdock in kasu intrigued me the most. It was just a root that I could never figure out how to take advantage of (it turns out – grate it!) but I could eat the kasu all day long. I loved the stuff.

Fast-forward to last year when I met Kevin at Cultured Pickle and he suggested marinating fish or meat in the kasu. It was one of those simple ideas that just made so much sense. So I started with the obvious black cod, creating a tastier version of Nobu’s famous black cod. Chicken skewers were next – pretty good.

And then I marinated a skirt steak for two days and grilled it on The Big Green Egg. What a magical piece of meat – the beefiness, the sweetness of the kasu, the bitter from the charring, and the smoke that just clung to the sweet kasu. I ate this twice a week until I burned out on it.

So purist, yes, but not always.


Sausages, potatoes, and eggs on the beach on the morning after the Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine event.

  • Josh Bieker

    I wish I could have gotten to aubergine earlier. The dinner that I had on Friday night was exactly how you described, very oceanic. A really fantastic meal and the staff was really enjoyable. A lot of flavors really bridged what I seen in japan to how I feel the terroir driven California cuisine of Manresa, crenn and saison are delivering right now. I would rank Aubergine with the best we have to offer. Great write up

  • emraguso

    Great write-up and photos — perhaps worth including the restaurant contact info — address and website — in your post?

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy
  • Kait

    Wonderful write up and terrific photos!