Wednesday, June 6, 2012

best meal of my life

I have been to really nice restaurants before. I have been to very good restaurants before. I have been to expensive restaurants before. But I have not been much into modernist cuisine other than to be proud that the author of the media-sensation eponymous tome lives in my hometown. Nevertheless, since our trips to Europe - not so much because of the great food we ate there, but more because of the eating culture we experienced there - Will and I have been trying to eat "better." By better, we're really just going for more mindful... to consider the sources, quality, artisty, and occasion of a meal can bring significantly more enjoyment to eating.

Vacation - in Europe or in your own backyard - can be a great time to practice this. Putting aside cooking techniques and local ingredients, most of us in the States just have a different way of life than Europeans. Our culture values busy lives and packing as much into a day as possible and does less to make time for lingering over meals and conversations. But kicking back on a trip out of town can help us to put aside the rushing and cramming that leads many of us to take out and frozen pizzas.

That is why when I discovered that one of the top five restaurants in San Francisco (which Travel + Leisure has rated #2 city in the United States for Food & Restaurants) was just minutes from our lodging on the Monterey Penninsula, I decided we needed to make a stop.

The restaurant is called Aubergine in the classy L'Auberge resort in Carmel. The food focuses on the freshest local and seasonal items available, which given the proximity to both pristine seashore and one of the largest agricultural belts in the country, is short on neither seafood nor produce. The most fun for me about restaurants like this is just knowing I can truste the chef in that whatever is served will be the best it can possibly be. Even if I don't like it, I know I am judging the finest specimen available. I didn't have anything I didn't like, but what always surprises me is how unappetizing some of the dishes can sound compared to how delicious they taste.

I continually struggle with some of the basic concepts of "modern" cooking which often seems to do more to play with the food than to prepare it into a meal. When our server described some of the preparations at Aubergine to us, I was concerned by the over-the-top creative sounding efforts being more artwork than edible. Do the hunks of succulent lobster meat with crunchy carmelized peanuts, fresh herbaceous cilantro, and satiny-sweet banana foam really need to be presented until a saran shell of coconut gelee? Have we learned nothing about the pleasures and delights of minimalism from our over-indulgent consumerist society? Isn't enough enough? Can't there be too much of a good thing? Well, the answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes. More is not always better, but what makes Aubergine such a triumph is that the chef brings you right up to the edge of pefection without ever slipping down over the other edge. And when that fleshy pure-white lobster comes out shimmering under it's scalloped-edged crown of transparent coconut flavor, we will delicately divide it into tiny bites so as to stretch each mouthful into an entire evening.

I believe the menu changes every day, and you have the choice of two to three options for each of a four-course meal (plus an optional cheese course), or to order the "chef's spontaneous menu" where only ingredients are presented to you and the chef determines the preparations and combinations on the fly. We ordered from the predetermined list, but the couples at tables around us had the spontaneous menu and I would have been joyous to have a bite of anything that came out of the kitchen.

The fois gras was wrapped in rhubarb gelee like a canneloni, then topped
with pea shoots, scortched fava beans and more rhubarb.

Our five-course meal took over 3 hours. Service was impeccable; knowledgable, friendly, polite, sophisticated, unstuffy, and attentive without being intrusive. They took ample time to explain the ingredients in each dish, as well as how to consume it to greatest enjoyment (ie: when to use the unfamiliar utensil, or how to incorporate an unexpected garnish.) The dining room is small but not cramped, and tasteful without being pretentious. Extra special touches included truffles and madelines following the dessert course, a take-home gift box of lemon pound cake for the next morning's coffee break, and an invitation into the kitchen to meet the chef as we were on the way to gather our coats.

Mini lemon pound cake party favors.

Our meal for the evening, as presented on their menu, was preceded with a shooter of spherisized apple with fennel and st germain, and an amuse-bouche of oyster with citrus foam.

First course:
roulade of foie gras, charred fava bean, rhubarb, shallot
maine lobster, young coconut, roasted banana, cilantro, candied peanut

Second course:
monterey bay abalone, bamboo shoot, umeboshi, sea lettuce, alba mushroom and a facinating garnish of "oyster leaf"
king salmon, asparagus, watercress, smoked roe, marrow

Main course:
roasted pintade (a game bird), salt baked celery root, mustard green, celery leaves
pavé of suckling pig with the most incredible seared exterior and fall-apart braised interior, english peas, black garlic, foie gras vinaigrette

Cheese course:

Californian sheeps milk cheese with herbs
French cow's milk triple creme with prune jelly
French aged raw cow's milk with dates
Californian Point Reyes blue cheese with honey
dried fruit crostini

Dessert course:
strawberries, elderflower, deep-fried angel food cake
abinao (dark chocolate from Africa) truffles, toasted marshmallow ice cream, almond

This was a clear coconut gelee - basically edible plastic wrap atop lobster pieces
and candied peanuts topped with white banana foam and fresh herbs and flowers.

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