5 of us dined at the L'Auberge Carmel last week. Walter Manzke is the Executive Chef (also at Bouchee).
Guiliano was our server and Tomas Perez the sommelier. Although as we had bcrought some wine with us we didn't use Tomas' skills as much as we would have. He did explain some selections that he made to pair the food The wine list is extensive and does justice to the kitchen. Wine pairings were available that evening for $75.
As the format is a menu ($82/person) we really didn't bother to read it to order anything. Mainly the menu serves to prepare you for the scrumptious stuff to come. The night we were there we were served 10 courses (including amuse bouches). Walter has chosen to name some of the courses from the geography or region the dishes come from (although it breaks down a little with things like Tapas, and Kobe Beef). Bottled water is included as is all the butter, olive oil, etc.
The dining room is quite nicely decorated with great bold painting on the walls of jazz groups. The chargers on the table were hand made glass and quite attractive, although they were removed as soon as food started to arrive. The chef presents 3 salts in small glass rectangle in 3 indentations (Hawaiin sealt, sel gris, and I wasn't able to recognize the third.). Guiliano will ask if there is anything that the kitchen should avoid. They are prepared to make changes to their menu to accomodate any dietary constraint. They do make all vegetarian menus on the fly.
The first 2 courses were the amuse bouches. Titled Tapas, The first plates were a small shot glass with a small ball of frozen berry sangria that was topped off with a bit of Cava. A small Croquetas de Paella was on the side, and a final tidbit of a Black Olive Barquillos. After completing this "course", the second
was called simply Baja and arrived on a long oval plate with a 2 shot glasses, a cocktail spoon, and a beautiful kumimoto oyster. The first shot glass had a small ball of frozen margarita in it. The second had a triangle of crisp corn chip across a clear liquid of salsa water. The spoon contained a piece of lobster on a dollop of guacamole. This was Walter's Deconstructed Lobster Taco. The oyster was garnished with a touched of jalapeno and a squeeze of lime.
Small rolls were served that are made on the premises (as is the walnut bread served with the cheese course).
The first "big" course was the one from Japan. A martini glass with some Tuna Tartare, Sesame Vinaigrette and covered with a rich creamy Edamame Foam was placed on the left corner of the place setting. A small square plate with perfect bite of Hamachi Sashimi, Wasabi and Ponzu Sauce took the left side of the setting. Finally a small triangular bowl of a Seared Maine Diver Scallop in the center, surrounded by diverse seaweed garnishes (mainly Suizenji Nori), over which the servers pour from a beautiful iron teapot the best Katsuo-Bushi (Bonito Broth) I have tasted in a very long time. They shave their own bonito to brew up this flavorful broth and it shows it as it is deep and rich and a satisfying bowl of umami. A truly spectacular course. So good that I raised the bowl and drained the last drop (as did the other members of my party after we got over the slight frisson of bad European table manners).
The Thailand course was another jewel. A small Spring Roll with a Spicy Peanut Sauce, a perfectly cooked soft and succulent King Prawn in a soup bowl covered at table with a fragrant and zesty Dungeness Crab Curry. What a treat! There was a small freshly made rice cracker to served as a textural complement and as 2 people at my table said simultaneously,"If all rice crackers tasted as good as this one, I would eat them all the time."
By now we were grinning from ear to ear and when the next course arrived we were ready to be wowed. Who would pair bacon, abalone and caviar? Walter Manzke, that's who. But not your everyday bacon. Oh no. This one was luscious, soft and meltingly good, a small square of braised bacon. Walter makes this as a confit the day before and then cuts it into servings. The bacon was in the bottom of the bowl, with perfectly seared slices of abalone fanned on the top of the bacon, and a spoonful of Iranian caviar on the top. Normally bacon would be far too sttrong a flavor, but after the long braise, both the texture and the slight smokiness complemented the abalone perfectly.
Course 5 brought me one of my favorite fishes. Walter had sliced a gorgeous three inch piece of Dover Sole and laid perfect circles of shaved potato to mimic scales. Sauteed to perfection, the Sole was served with Artichokes in a Sauvignon Blanc sauce. Piquant and rich, crispy from the potato crust, moist and juicy...a really fine piece of fish in a velvety sauce.
Our appetites were stoked and more was coming.
Course 6 was our first move away from the sea and brought a tongue in cheek take of Coq au Vin. Walter had taken the breast of a Four Story Hill Farms milk fed Chicken (a la Bresse), stuffed it, poached it and served it in a bowl. A Red Wine Consomme was poured over it (at table side) and then some black perigord truffles shaved over the top. And it was over the top in a very very good way. The chicken was so tender that I am trying to find my own supply of Four Story Hill Farms chickens. Of course when someone shaves truffles over my dinner I am a happy man.
The meat course was a small perfectly cut rectangle of perfectly grilled Kobe beef served with a Wild mushroom bordelaise and some thinly sliced root vegetable salad. A perfect finish to the main courses.
The cheese course was presented on a long rectangle plate. Each of us had 5 cheeses separated with the perfect side (a bit of apple (perfectly cut), quince paste, fig jam, walnut, etc). Just small pieces of cheese, ripe and ready to eat.
After the cheese came the 2 (Yay!) dessert courses. The Baba au Rhum was stunning. it was served with a vanilla glazed piece of pineapple (wow!!!) and creamy coconut sorbet. But to gild the lily, Marge (the Pastry Chef and wife of Walter) sent out 3 additonal sauces: a creamy tapioca, a rum sauce, and a lemony ice. Why I don't know, but when presented with really good stuff, shut up and eat.
The final dish of the night was another example of this kitchen's dance with perfection. A Chocolate Panna Cotta served in a martini glass. But it was on the bottom of the glass. You had to eat your way through an Amaretto Mascarpone Sabayon and Espresso Granite to get to it. But it was more than worth it. What a dish.
There is coffes, espresso, great teas, and of course they had to offer us some of Marge's Earl Grey chocolate truffles. Ha.
A splendid meal.