Carmel by the Sea. Even the sound of it is comforting and elegant. Carmel is a small oasis on the California coastline that seems to defy time. Though just two hours south of San Francisco, Carmel feels worlds away, untouched by sprawling buildings of the city, a place where every tree and walkway is historically preserved. Downtown Carmel is known internationally as an artists’ colony, with a one-mile-by-one-mile collection of bohemian boutiques, art galleries, and gourmet eateries to indulge upon.
In the heart of town sits L’Auberge Carmel, a stunning white European-style hotel located next to City Hall. L’Auberge contains an open-air courtyard, alluding to its past life as Sundial Court Apartments, built in 1929 by architect Albert Farr to invoke the country charm of Belgium. Today, the hotel honors the old-world charm of the apartments, with antiques dating to the 1920’s visible throughout the hotel. Twenty unique rooms look down into the original courtyard, spotted with flowering plants and a classical fountain. The historical sun and moon dials that gave the apartments their name are still there, offering an ethereal glimpse into the history of the hotel.
After a year or so of restorations to protect the history of the building, L’Auberge opened their doors in 2004, with the intent to go beyond expectations for excellence in hospitality. When it comes to taking care of guests, General Manager George Nagata insists that the sky is the limit. Beyond the luxury amenities, every employee of the hotel has full permission to give each visitor exactly what they want, restrained only by the realms of physical and logical capability. George explains, “What makes us different than any other hotel is the service. We cater to anything and everything: no is not an option for us, so we find different ways to accommodate our guests. I want to let guests know that whatever it takes for them to have a more memorable experience here, is what I want to deliver.” From running errands to setting up for parties and gatherings, creativity is the only limitation. As a boutique hotel, L’Auberge has the flexibility to honor guests’ personal requests without the degrees of separation that may restrain a larger hotel chain. The focus is on the experience of staying at the hotel, of spending time in Carmel on a true getaway.
One of the most special elements of staying at L’Auberge is their coastally inspired fine dining restaurant, Aubergine. Aubergine is an intimate ten-table restaurant staffed with experts on the origin and preparation of the food. Executive Chef Justin Cogley brings culinary artistry to the table, particularly in his disciplined yet free-spirited nine course tasting menu. The actual menu is more like a collection of hints; a list of elements of the dishes to come that may play a prime or complimentary role in the dish. This allows Justin and Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza to experiment endlessly, foraging the shores for new edible herbs and flowers and traveling the world for a new take on their favorite elements to serve guests at Aubergine.
Jetset Times enjoyed the nine-course tasting menu at Aubergine, and with each course, insight to Justin’s gastronomical history appeared vividly. From a coy sprinkle of green tea on the dry rubbed rib eye to his buttery foie gras decorated with fresh edible flowers, each dish told a story, joining oceanic flavors of seaside Carmel with minimalist and bright Asian elements, such as sake, soy, and green tea. We were not surprised to learn Justin has traveled extensively in Asia, taking with him Japanese flavor profiles that he crafts to compliment California coastal cuisine. You can truly taste Justin’s excitement for fine dining; on the palate his flavor combinations seem serendipitous, as if the complicated dichotomies of flavor were effortless. But in tasting nine intricately linked courses, Justin’s meticulous and artistic philosophy towards food becomes very clear. One of our favorite courses was the abalone, served in lemon broth with pan seared artichokes, seaweed, and edible flowers. The combination of local seafood with floral and savory flavor reflected Justin’s talent for incorporating “gifts from the sea” with outstanding international technique.
L’Auberge’s philosophy towards superior hospitality and culinary excellence at Aubergine earned the hotel Relais & Chateaux status in July 2007. Relais & Chateaux began as a collection of unique hotels and restaurants in France that represented a higher standard for experienced travelers. Today, Relais & Chateaux honors hotels and gourmet restaurants in 60 countries that portray the level of extraordinary architecture, service, and cuisine fit for La Route du Bonheur, or The Road to Happiness.
If traveling in California, spending a weekend exploring the quaint cottages and pine trees of Carmel by the Sea is a must. And on the life-long road to happiness, we can assure you there is most definitely a stay at L’Auberge Carmel. Their sitting room literally has a hidden whiskey chest – what more can you ask for.