Carmel Mission Inn, Carmel-by-te-Sea, California, February 13, 2013—DINING'S ONE THING; tasting's another. To dine is to partake of a meal, in company ("dine alone" sounds so apologetic); a "meal" being healthful, nourishing, pleasing, usually (not always) consisting of several courses which are designed to complement one another. Thanks to the Fates, I dine nearly every day.
And as I dine, nearly every day, I generally taste. I try to think about scents and flavors, to lodge them in memory, to tease out components, to compare them, to characterize them — usually clumsily, as scents and flavors are among the most elusive, fugitive of sensory stimuli; certainly resistant to verbal expression.
For that reason fine cooks seem to me akin to fine musicians: un.ike painters, say, or dancers, or writers, they work with material that can't really be pinned down, that resists description and recording and reproduction. And the subtler and more imaginative their work, certainly the further their work from the mainstream, the lonelier they must be, aware that the essence of their work is not for the general audience.
Thankfully, in the last fifty years many restaurants have evolved, even in my country, from being concerned simply with dining. They are becoming more aware of the pleasures of tasting as well. Inevitably, some push this evolution too far. A few years ago we ate — I won't say "dined" — at a fancy place in the Napa Valley where we were presented with a "tasting menu" of twelve or fifteen courses, each introduced with a lecture. Flavor after flavor, many of them confusions of sub-flavors, not really obeying any kind of logical sequence, not adding up to a meal.
Tonight, though, we dined on a tasting menu, full of subtle and even arcane scents and flavors, and the final impression was that indeed we had dined, and dined well:
Amuse-geule: ginger and green tea foam "soup"
Kumamoto oyster on the half shell with yuzu and cucumber foam
Duck-liver mousse wrapped in very thin beet with chocolate
Abalone with sea grapes and alba mushrooms in umeboshi broth
Palate-cleanser: tapioca, frozen rosewater bubbles, passionfruit, and cocoa
Kanpachi (Japanese Yellowtail) with carrot, date, vanilla, smoked trout roe, and coriander
Abinao chocolate on nasturtium praline with candied grapefruit
Erbaluce di Caluso (Piemonte), Orsolani, 2009
Yes, you read that right: foam involved in a few courses. But this isn't a molecular-kitchen restaurant: we've eaten at one of those, too, and found it as irritating as the Napa Valley taste-lecture hall. This was post-molecular: agar, and foaming techniques no doubt using liquid nitrogen, certainly entered into the preparation, but only as one more resource: they did not dominate the event.
That's the yellowtail in the photo above. When the plate was brought I immediately lifted it to my face to take in the aroma: coriander, for sure, but so blended with good vanilla and with smoked roe that it took on a completely new aspect. These scents stood out individually, but merged at the same time, like independent voices in a string trio, and as indescribably.
I then did my own deconstruction, of course, as you see at the left. The tuna was perfectly cooked, soft, not quite flaky, creamy; the little trout eggs in their vanilla-coriander bath complemented the color and texture; the paper-thin slices — lengthwise, as I always prefer them, not crosswise — of tiny carrots not a quarter inch long rested atop the fish; the date — which I ate last — rounded everything off, and recalled the similarly spherical and condensed passionfruit in the course that had just preceded.
Well: this was an exceptional dinner, and not, as Lindsey pointed out, one you'd want to indulge in every week; not even if you could afford to, and we certainly couldn't. The night was as expensive as a night at the opera with a fine dinner thrown in. And why should it not be? In addition to the cost of the ingredients and the skill and experience of the staff, there was art to pay for here.
We used to spend a week every summer in Carmel, thirty or forty years ago. There were two or three acceptable restaurants in those days, and many more that simply offered food — dining — without any real thought, if I may be ungenerous, to doing anything exceptional. Those days are over; dining has turned a corner in many California towns and cities in the last decade or two. I'm thankful; and I continue to be grateful to chefs like Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza, who, as the restaurant website states, "prepare sophisticated modern California cuisine."
Aubergine, Monte Verde at Seventh, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; 831 624 8578; open daily, 6-9:30 pm