Carmel-by-the-Sea is well known as a quiet luxury escape. But while the elegant enclave has always been home to some lovely restaurants, it's never held the culinary destination status of Michelin star-studded San Francisco or the Napa Valley.
But like every place, Carmel and its surrounds are enjoying a moment of fresh energy. And with Michelin's reveal of its 2023 California guide this summer, the coastal hamlet is gazing at its second Michelin star.
Chez Noir's casual patio belies its Michelin star status.(Sarah Chorey)
Joining mainstay Aubergine, the one-star restaurant at the Relais & Chateau hotel L'Auberge Carmel, is Chez Noir, a seafood-centric haven opened last fall by married duo chef Jonny Black and Monique Black, who runs the front of house. While snagging a star in year one is a fine dining restaurant's dream, the Blacks came ready, with resumes polished at the likes of Atelier Crenn, Quince, Per Se, and Coi.
And though the couple knew from experience just what Michelin inspectors look for—"consistency, attention to detail, and the personality of the chef to really show in the cuisine...which is really the only way we know how"—they also set out to create a friendlier approach to fine dining: "We wanted it to feel very personal, fun, and with a palpable energy in the room,” says Chef Black.
This is the secret in Chez Noir's sauce.
Inspired by Parisian bistronomy—that combination of casual bistro food and more elevated technique—Chez Noir's ethos is apparent right when you walk in the door. The atmosphere is refined but effortless, the kind of place that feels ideal for gathering with great friends for a long evening of eating and quality catching up. You might think of it like a dinner party where the hosts are having as much fun as you are, even if they are busy turning out star-quality food and service.
Chez Noir's menu revolves, expectedly, around locally sourced ingredients: seafood from Carmel-by-the-Sea; produce from Monterey, Salinas, and Watsonville; and wines from Central California. Friendly connections to regional producers don't hurt either, leading to such bonuses as the Chez Noir private label caviar, created with Sausalito's California Caviar Co., which finds its way into dishes such as smoked swordfish and brioche or scooped over raw halibut with bright nasturtium leaf and crème fraiche.
While caviar has been on the menu since the beginning, the Blacks have ultimately opted out of serving ingredients just because they seem Michelin star apropos (think truffles and wagyu). “We did that for the first month or so, but it never felt authentic. We were cooking with all the local items and the guests were excited, so we doubled down on the commitment to really creating a menu and restaurant that has a sense of place.”
This means many dishes change almost daily depending upon what is fresh and in season, like the lengthy green pole beans that, on our visit, were beer-battered, fried (yes, Michelin-starred fried food!), and delicious when dipped into a slightly tangy onion caper remoulade.
Staple items include skewers that riff on Spanish tapas. The abalone version, which was named among Michelin inspectors' five favorite dishes in all of California this year, is both tender and hearty, grilled with liver butter that imparts a nutty, savory flavor for an extra punch of richness.
The best way to order is to choose the “let us cook for you” option ($175 per person), which showcases the restaurants many in-house talents including the making of charcuterie and pasta, the dry-aging of fish, and baking. In the pasta category, the agnolotti is a guest favorite, stuffed with creamy sweet corn, garnished with Boba Farms zucchinis and their blossoms, and finished with earthy bolete mushrooms.
A few plates here are outright pieces of art, including the aptly called "fantasme de legumes"—a carpaccio of crudites layered over creamy stracciatella cheese and drizzled with Carmel Valley olive oil—and the Santa Barbara hamachi crudo topped with a delicate fan of heirloom cucumbers and nectarines, which is definitely the work of a swift pair of tweezers.
Luckily for all involved, classic French pastry is a particular passion among the team. Cap your meal with a mille-feuille of rich dark chocolate and hazelnut cream stacked high with raspberries, or sink your teeth into the crunchy caramelized crust of the vanilla canalés de Bordeaux, perhaps one of the more underrated pastries around.
Not to be underrated, though, is this team's passion for the philosophy at the Blacks' place: “Many of our staff have never worked nor eaten in a Michelin-star restaurant," says the chef, "so it is quite awesome that they were able to build one that is authentic and genuine.”
// Chez Noir is open for dinner Monday through Saturday; 5th Ave. between Dolores and San Carlos St. (Carmel-by-the-Sea), cheznoircarmel.com.