New Chef at Carmel's Aubergine, Justin Cogley, Delivers Big
April 28, 2011
New Aubergine Executive Chef Justin Cogley says he’s just living the chef’s dream of deploying great ingredients (and fighting fellow savant, Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, for his favorite gems among them when they arrive) at his transformational 10-table restaurant at L’Auberge in Carmel.
“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 red 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 the power of product at work here.
Two weeks later my dining companion still hasn’t fully recovered. “General giddiness,” she called it. I still haven’t conceptualized any 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) hints at the unique wonder to come: There are no courses listed, only a four-by-four 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 the wildly understated parlance of Cogley, “to enhance one another.” (There’s also a four-course for $89; both can come with sommelier Thomas Perez’s impeccable wine 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,” reads a quote on one of the menus from photographer Man Ray, “while others of a more curious nature will ask why, 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.
Think micro squid 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.
And melty Wagyu beef and pearl onions wrapped in an edible cellophane of sorts crafted by reducing a rich, black garlic stock to a tea and then combining it with seaweed agar to create a gorgeous gelatin sheaf. (This shot doesn't do it justice—low lighting with a smart phone camera can be tricky, my good people.)
Cogley attributes his precision and daily spontaneity to years at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. He ascribes the creative use of ingredients like black garlic, which is favored in Korea, to years spent touring with “Disney on Ice” (yes) as a professional figure skater, tapping obscure flavors while Anthony Bourdain was still doing more drugs than traveling TV.
“I was in culinary school,” Cogley says, “but I had to jump at the opportunity to travel—in four years it was Southeast Asia, Europe, Japan, Borneo, Malaysia…”
The resulting epicurean alchemy goes atmospheric before you introduce the evolved interplay with Perez’s wine symphony, a European white-leaning lesson on complementary excellence—an’08 Karthauserhofberg 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 almost feel like a party where you arrive knowing few attendees and leave dizzy at a sudden chemistry with manifold magnetic personalities.
To close, fast friends like Mendoza’s avocado ice cream with vanilla pineapple....
...and white chocolate and Valrhona chocolate creameux...
...only further demonstrate this Cogley-Perez-Mendoza trilogy (that's Mendoza above) is a team that rivals any in the area.
I can see how their work invokes the eye-catching question laid out on the top of a recent menu at Augergine, .
“As chefs,” read a quote from Chef Santi Santamaria, “we ask ourselves if there’s such a thing as culinary poetry.”
The answer was those 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 intellectually energizing.
Noted poet Paul Engle once said, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power.” Here these three and their team—who also provide impeccable service—raise food and wine to a similar place.
Past poetry, another analogy eventually emerged as the memory of the meal refused to relinquish its lock on my imagination. At their most basic, Cogley and company are taking known elements—wine and seawater, pea shoots and citrus—and remake them into something else altogether.
There’s a word for transforming something as familiar as food, via mysterious powers, culinary or otherwise, into something else. It’s called magic.
The best way to honor that ability is with a little reciprocal magic—making these Aubergine 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. Here's a look at the list:
May 18, Wednesday – All about the Egg
May 19, Thursday – All about the Egg White-Meringues & Souffles
June 22, Wednesday – Out of the Garden
June 23, Thursday – Uses of Mousse(s) September 21, Wednesday – Sauce Boot Camp
September 22, Thursday – Pate a Choux & You
October 19, Wednesday – Working with Shellfish
October 20, Thursday – Proof is in the Pudding
November 16, Wednesday – Wonderful World of Tubers
November 17, Thursday – The Great Crepe Escape
From their website: "Classes take place from 11:30am–1:30pm and are limited to 10 people. The cost is $100 per person, plus tax and service fee. Classes are scheduled on consecutive days so you can enjoy overnight accommodations at L’Auberge at a special seasonal cooking class rate that includes breakfast each morning. Please call reservations to inquire at 831-622-5909."