The rapid rise of Carmel's Aubergine restaurant25 Jan 2013 10:56 AM
When Zagat released its 2012 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurant Survey, a surprise entrant appeared in the list's coveted top five. Typically, the top spots are reserved for Bay Area haute-cuisine stalwarts like Chez Panisse and Manresa. However, Aubergine, a meteorically rising restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea that didn't even appear on the list in 2011, found itself at number five, delighting fans and introducing an entirely new population to the restaurant's innovative cuisine.
At the time, many people were shocked to see such a relative newcomer crack the top five, but those who have tasted Aubergine's fare were less surprised. In the last several years, a new executive chef and a continued devotion to fresh, meticulously prepared dishes have helped the restaurant extend its reach well beyond the nearby Monterey real estate and into the heart of San Francisco's revered foodie culture.
Hiring the aforementioned new chef played a major part in Aubergine's move into the limelight. The restaurant's owners poached renowned Chicago chef Justin Cogley at the beginning of 2012, and Cogley's attention to detail and extensive fine-dining pedigree has helped Aubergine make the leap into the rarefied air of the Bay Area's premier dining scene.
"Aubergine in L'Auberge Carmel didn't have a chef last year when I did a Monterey roundup, but in January  the owners pulled off a coup by hiring Justin Cogley," Michael Bauer, food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, told the Mirabel Group, explaining how Aubergine's fortunes changed so quickly.
What has Cogley done to elevate Aubergine to this level? For starters, he renewed the restaurant's focus on locally sourced ingredients and incorporated Monterey favorites more fully into the menu.
"So much great product is just around the corner," Cogley told the Monterey County Weekly. "We can have an abalone show up a half hour after [harvest] at the back of the restaurant."
Cogley's additions to Aubergine go well beyond simply bringing in the freshest, most local ingredients. He has also brought his knack for complementary platings and fully realized dishes to the restaurant. Offerings like Santa Rosa Island spiny lobster tail and blood orange emulsion demonstrate Cogley's ability to marry Monterey's natural produce with classic flavor combinations and preparation techniques.
Although it may not be on the tip of everyone's tongue yet, Aubergine is unlikely to remain a Carmel secret for long. Monterey residents can visit this praise-winning establishment in the L'Auberge Carmel Hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea.