Day Trip: Refined Weekend Escape to Carmel at Aubergine & L'Auberge
In the ritzy yet laid-back, walkable town of Carmel, the sea adds intrigue as the backdrop to fairy-tale cottages that dominate the architecture of the legendary California coastal town. A mere couple hours drive from SF, Carmel is also home to a standout restaurant housed in an intimate hotel, making for a restfully delicious overnight or weekend getaway.
The Hotel — L'Auberge Carmel: As one of only 500 Relais & Châteaux hotels in the world (chosen for a luxurious experience coupled with gourmet dining), this small boutique destination features just over 20 rooms surrounding a peaceful brick courtyard where you can linger over breakfast or an early evening aperitif. Each room has a different layout than the last, some with sunken tubs, while service is impeccable.
The Restaurant — Aubergine: Chef Justin Cogley has earned numerous accolades for his innovative Californian fare (including a Zagat Food score of 26), and we were lucky enough to dine on the pricey yet exquisite 12-course tasting menu ($145 per person, wine pairings $45-175). As a few other menus around the country do, it lists only the main ingredient, rather than the dishes, hinting at the flavors in store, and each course represents the region’s wealth of seafood and produce – a common theme all over the state. Since there are only 12 tables, the experience is intimate and quiet, while wine pairings from restaurant director/sommelier Nathaniel Muñoz (chosen from more than 4500 bottles in the underground cellar) are pleasurable discoveries. Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza's desserts exhibit welcome savory touches, like celery leaf partnered with chocolate and pear.
Dish Highlight — Dry-aged rib-eye steak (pictured above) is as artful as it is tender, dusted in matcha green tea powder and dramatically lined with mustard greens, radish flowers, kale, turnip, parsley and almonds, and dotted with a Chinese shallots purée. But we were really blown away by Cogley's distinctive, unctuous interpretation of black trumpet mushroom and cheese. The delicacy's served under a sheet of French sheep’s milk Ossau-Iraty cheese, accented by sorrel. Drops of chicken jus keep it savory, while there's a bit of spiced sweetness from gingerbread crumble on top. It looks almost like flat ravioli — but more beautiful — with goodness visible inside the sheets of cheese. Muñoz sublimely complements this with the umami notes of Tannenbaum Imperial Korean Rice Wine made from a rice-based spirit and mushroom concentrate. Yes, mushroom on mushroom...and it works.
Monte Verde at Seventh St., Carmel; 831-624-8578
L'Auberge Carmel's courtyard [Photo Source: Virginia Miller]