Our economy still sputters and coughs, and the days of high-end, pretentious dining may be behind us, but there is still a market for classy, dress-up, adult experiences with delicious, artfully crafted food.
With Club XIX’s closure last year, the list of fine-dining places has really shrunk to three: Marinus at Bernardus Lodge, Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn and Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel.
Under wunderkind chef Justin Cogley, Aubergine in Carmel really stands out in my mind as a place to splurge and indulge, with the memories fresh in your mind weeks or months later. In 2011 the restaurant earned a No. 5 Zagat ranking throughout the San Francisco Bay Area region.
Cogley was appointed chef de cuisine of Aubergine restaurant a year ago, taking over for mega-talented Frenchman Christophe Grosjean. Cogley comes to Carmel by way of Chicago, where he was instrumental in opening the Elysian Hotel’s new kitchen as executive sous chef. He previously worked at Chef Charlie Trotter’s critically acclaimed namesake restaurant for four years, earning the title of chef de cuisine.
His sophisticated style and playful creativity work well together, and while he strikes a chord with innovative, modern twists, he doesn’t create dissonant tones by serving inaccessible chemistry experiments.
Cogley’s menu descriptions exude simplicity: braised lamb shoulder, charred scallion, elephant garlic, pickled tongue; or guinea hen, smoked potato, foie gras, mizuna. But the result is always a sophisticated, exciting flavor profile that tickles all the senses. There seems to be spontaneity (and always seasonality), but it’s certainly just not thrown together on a whim.
“If I had to describe my food,” Cogley says, “I would say each plate has a purpose.”
Equally talented, and a perfect sweet note for Cogley’s savory sensations, is executive pastry chef Ron Mendoza, a Thomas Keller disciple who was recognized as a “Rising Star” by StarChefs.com.
Mendoza cut his teeth at LA’s famous Patina Restaurant, where he undertook pastry training from Michelle Myers. Later he helped open Boule Patisserie in Los Angeles as the director of operations, overseeing the launch of one of the city’s most highly regarded specialty pastry shops.
In 2006, Keller offered him the position of pastry sous chef at the famed French Laundry in Yountville.
Mendoza uses a modern style steeped in classic technique and has a reverence for raw ingredients. “Everything starts with fruit,” he says. Mendoza strives for balance in flavors and textures. He firmly maintains, “the best desserts are made in the moment.”
While talent such as this can cost a pretty penny, a new monthly dinner series called Terroir allows diners a less expensive entry into this world created by Cogley and executive pastry chef Ron Mendoza. The series, inspired by landscapes, includes wine pairings and costs $75 per person.
December’s dinner was titled “Forest and Fields,” and we were lucky enough to be present. Wow. It started with amuses of foie gras on flatbread served on a log with forest scents, followed by hay-smoked pickled quail eggs and a small shot of warm apple cider and bourbon. And it only got better from there. We ate squab cooked in smoked butter, with apple and strips of succulent lardo; porcini mushrooms with caramelized onion and black garlic; and venison with salsify, birch syrup and devils club root (a crunch component that looks like a twig). Dessert was a “painted landscape,” with guanaja cremeux (a decadent chocolate cream), bits of torn chocolate cake and eucalyptus ice cream playing the moon and a sweet, dark orange gelee serving as the setting sun. Edible art, and visually stunning.
Jan. 24 brings “Pacific Coastlines.” Call 624-8578 for reservations.