A new chef soars at L’Auberge’s restaurant, plus a happy hour to heart.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
An eye-catching question arrived on the top of a recent menu at Aubergine (624-8578), the transformational 10-table spot in Carmel’s L’Auberge.
“As chefs,” went the Chef Santi Santamaria quote, “we ask ourselves if there’s such a thing as culinary poetry.”
The answer appeared on 10 small plates of big possibility, precise miniature harmonies that bridged reality and fantasy by connecting other seemingly mutually exclusive domains – the simple and complex, the familiar and the mysterious, the calming and the energizing. Think microsquid the size of a finger tip accented by a delicate little swath of sea urchin and seawater yuzu, or Kusshi oyster with cucumber, pea shoots and smoked trout roe.
New Exec Chef Justin Cogley says he’s just living the dream of deploying great ingredients (and fighting fellow savant, Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, for his favorite gems among them).
“So much great product is just around the corner,” he says. “We can have an abalone show up a half hour after [harvest] at the back of the restaurant.”
But c’mon, Cogley. Abalone at otter-grade freshness is one thing. But a perfect ab filet in shell, set off with an oyster and pickled sea beans, all veiled with a wild sea lettuce that also obscures a little luxurious cake made from braised pig tail? There’s more than product in play here.
Two weeks later my dining companion still hasn’t fully recovered. “General giddiness,” she calls it. I still haven’t conjured a tidy way of approximating it. When a colleague overheard me marveling at the meal, he asked me what kind of food it was. I told him that it doesn’t really work like that. I described the abalone dish instead. “O… K,” he replied.
The very alignment of the “spontaneous chef’s tasting menu” ($125) that guided our press dinner hints at the wonder to come: There are no courses listed, only a grid of 16 elements – oyster and abalone, maple and Maine lobster, bull’s blood and blood orange – that ready the palate for unprecedented partnerships designed, in Cogley’s wildly understated parlance, “to enhance one another.” (There’s also a four-course for $89; both can come with sommelier Thomas Perez’s impeccable pairings for $110 and $75, respectively.)
The idea is to leverage the powers of chef creativity and customer intrigue. “There will always be those who look only at technique, who ask how, while others of a more curious nature will ask why,” reads another menu quote, this one from photographer Man Ray, “Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”
That translates to tender morsels of lobster with blood orange, snap peas and pea shoots. That means huckleberry, maple syrup and gingerbread combined with a head-shakingly satisfying foie-gras mousse. And melty Wagyu beef and pearl onions wrapped in an edible cellophane crafted by reducing a black garlic stock to a tea and combining it with seaweed agar to create a gelatin sheaf.
Cogley attributes his precision and daily spontaneity to years at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. He ascribes the creative use of ingredients like the black garlic, favored in Korea, to years spent touring with “Disney on Ice” as a professional figure skater, tapping obscure flavors while Anthony Bourdain was doing more drugs than traveling TV.
“I was in culinary school,” Cogley says, “but I had to jump at the chance to travel – in four years it was Southeast Asia, Europe, Japan, Borneo, Malaysia… ”
The resulting epicurean alchemy goes atmospheric before you introduce the interplay with Perez’s wines, a European white-leaning lesson on complementary excellence – an ’08 Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spalese from Ruwer, Germany, with the urchin, an ’08 Cantina Terlano Clasicco from Alto Adige, Italy, with the abalone – that multiplies the sense of indulgent adventure. The double-barreled discoveries feel like a party where you arrive knowing little and leave dizzy at the sudden chemistry with manifold magnetic personalities.
Soon Mendoza’s avocado ice cream with vanilla pineapple and white chocolate and Valrhona chocolate creameux had me thinking this Cogley-Perez-Mendoza trilogy is one that is easily as good as any in the area. If, as noted poet Paul Engle once said, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power,” theirs is food and wine taken to a similar place.
But past the poetry, another analogy eventually emerged as the memory of the meal refused to relinquish its headlock on my imagination. At their most basic, Cogley and company are taking known elements – wine and seawater, pea shoots and citrus – and remaking them into something else altogether.
There’s a word for transforming something this familiar, via mysterious powers, culinary or otherwise, into something else: magic.
The best way to honor that is with a little reciprocal magic: by making these delicacies completely disappear.
(There are maybe a couple seats left for a special Le Grange of Bordeaux wine dinner Saturday, April 30, and a bunch of cool cooking classes with Cogley and Mendoza coming down the pipe. Visit the blog for more, and for a sequence of images from the dinner.)
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I take it personally when a place does not honor the great American tradition of shaving a couple bucks off for us working stiffs, however briefly. It’s not just good community karma, after all, it’s good business. So, even though I loved Schooners Bistro on the Bay (part of the Monterey Plaza Hotel, 372-2628), I always carried a little chip on my shoulder – what, you guys can’t throw us schmucks a lil’ happy hour love?
The love is no longer lost – and their nascent happy hours is immediately one of the best around: Castroville artichokes, herb-seasoned Monterey Bay calamari, wood-fired flatbread pizzas and wings are only $3 from 4:30-6:30pm Monday through Thursday. Draft beers – Stella and Widmer, Big Sur Amber and Kona Longboard Lager – are $3, wines including Kenwood, Estancia, Lockwood, Colores and Solaire are $5. Sassy and fancy cocktails are $7.
The flatbread pizza, which shifts shape daily according to chef inspiration and are roasted over oak, came off, well, flat – but at $3, it didn’t matter. It’s still a silly good value. The wings sport a light, lively chili sauce. The calamari comes tasty, crispy and zested with fried slivers of lemon. Castroville’s finest, meanwhile, is roasted with a creamy garlic treatment.
The signature cocktails include the Schooners sunset, the passionfruit cosmo and the island paradise. They are all lip smackers, with the sunset special scoring top honors for its coconut rim and smooth marshmallow character.
Long live Schooners happiness.
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The scream from the young crowd came loudly: “I wanna be a pancake!”
That breakfast-food fetish provided but one small morsel of evidence that interesting things happen when kids are exposed to quality morning food. Another: A girl announced the thing she is best at cooking is chocolate milk. Another still, beyond far better attentiveness and retention, as noted by Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Nutrition Services Supervisor Jenn Gerard: friendliness.
“It helps them be nice to their friends,” she says. “Everyone is nice when you have a peanut-butter-and-jelly pancake from Jordan Funk.”
Coastal Luxury Management’s Funk was one of three chefs to compete in a pancake cook-off last week at Marshall Elementary. Funk gave more seasoned chefs Dory Ford of Aqua Terra Culinary (917-6502) and Todd Fisher of Sticks (647-7470) a run for their flapjacks with 100 percent whole-wheat pancakes stuffed like a sandwich with jelly, peanut butter, granola and strawberries and topped with Greek yogurt topping. Ford pimped a classic banana approach with strawberry and mango, and Fisher dropped blackberries in the batter and crowned his with mascarpone and orange zest.
The event marks the beginning of the new breakfast program at local schools, and enhanced MPUSD relationships with purveyors like Food For Thought to procure produce.
“It was great watching the kids getting so into it as sous chefs,” Gerard adds. Another showdown happens 1pm Friday, April 29, at Olson Elementary. This former educator – who saw junk food diets wreck havoc every day – calls that A-plus stuff (and would also like to be a pancake).
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If you haven’t seen a cat play with a dolphin, see the blog. If you haven’t heard the plight of the smallest dolphin in the world, check it on the blog. And if you want to help that mini dolphin by way of your gullet, dine at Hula’s (655-HULA) any Monday in May and a 10 percent chunk of total sales goes to Viva Vaquita… As Nepenthe celebrated 62 years, and Big Sur celebrates an open Highway 1, some big-hearted residents are readying a Big Sur International Marathon run to benefit Rachael Short. BSIM sponsored one of the teams; Big Sur businesses backed the second. Fashion Streaks is donating the shirts. Props to the Apple Pie Ridge team (Marika Anderson, Derric Oliver, Cyrus Bell, Lacey Sutton and Rodrigo Ochoa) and their Pfeiffer Ridge opponents (Macia Churchill, Luke Perkins, Kodiak Greenwood, Kendra Morganrath and Aengus Wagner). www.relayforrachael.com… Half-price pizza 5-9pm Tuesdays at Casa Sorrento (757-2720) in the Oldtown Salinas… Lopez Restaurante y Cantina (324-4260) tequila tasting 6-10pm Monday, May 2… Herradura, Tres Agaves, Arta and Cava de Oro. $15 in advance includes Firestone beers and Lopez snacks… “No poems can please for long,” ancient poet Horace once said, “that are written by water drinkers.”