Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Top 4 Springtime Inspirations (so far...)

Living in paradise never gets old, but spring might be my favorite season in Napa, when the verdant new veggie crop hits the market and locals hit the back patio with rosé in hand.
Spring also signals the time for my annual celebration of rapacious gluttony (other people call this a "birthday"), which tends to unearth a lot of exciting new dishes celebrating the sweet glories of the season. This year's gluttony was truly exceptional, but here are my top four dishes that brought a fun new idea to the springtime table.

1. "Sweet pea, farmstead butter, mint, bitter chocolate,"AQ (San Francisco).

This dessert blew me away, and not just because of the clever terrarium presentation. It was flat out delicious. The delicate green flavor of the peas took a starring role in this frozen gelato-like preparation, with fresh mint and pea tendrils providing backup. Combined with the fresh creamy nuttiness of farmstead butter, these garden gems paired spectacularly with crunchy bitter chocolate. Who knew?

2. Puntarelle foccacia, Oenotri (Napa)

Oenotri started serving weekend brunch this spring, and everyone must go try it immediately. I found this mountain-sized sandwich in the pizza section of the menu, and special ordered the extra egg that's pictured above. As you can see, the dish consists of an entire loaf of house-made foccacia -- split in half, toasted, slathered with crescenza-enriched sauce, and finally buried by what seemed like a full pound of tender braised puntarelle greens. Devouring the entire thing is the only way to ensure you get your recommended daily allowance of greens.

3. Smoked trout salad, the girl & the fig (Sonoma)

Sometimes you forget about certain ingredients, because your eating habits don't see them for extended periods of time.  This dish reminded me how much I dig smoked trout, and prompted a rash of smoked trout meals at home in the week that followed. Smoked trout is the Audrey Hepburn of smoked salmon -- delicate and lovely, but with a focused intensity that belies its waifish frame.  This salad showed it off beautifully with Pink Lady apples and shaved fennel (some of my favorite complements for trout) and a creamy anchovy dressing I'd never had in this context before, which helped spread the richness of the fish flavor across all the veggies, and unite the dish.

4. Sweet pea aperitif, Aziza (San Francisco)

I love surprising flavor combinations, the sweet-savory counterpoint, and paradigm shifts for traditional ingredients.  I especially love them when they are actually delicious.  This drink was listed under the aperitif section of Aziza's famed cocktail menu, combining sweet pea juice, calvados (my favorite brown liquor, a French brandy made from apples), and sour orange.  I don't normally enjoy mixing apples and oranges in any context, but here the combination was superb -- with the sweetness stripped away, they complemented both the sweet pea flavor and each other.  Truly a remarkable beverage and unique taste experience.  I can't wait to have another.