ARGENTINA/NAPA:Â Far from being the cruelest of months, April was a banquet of adventure.Â My first foray to South America took me from the cultured urbanity of Buenos Aires to Bariloche’s lake district (and a near fatal expedition in search of condors) to the otherworldly glaciers of Patagonia.Â The variety of experiences in Argentina whet my appetite for a return, while the Michelin stars dotting the Napa Valley whet an altogether different kind of appetite:Â the all-you-can-eat hedonistic kind. Bardessono may have been a disappointment under the fussy hand of Sean O’Toole but Michel Chiarello’s convivial Bottega was extraordinary.Â The high point:Â a gastronomic pilgrimage to the altar of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
Tomme de Brebis, Barigoule pain perdu, globe artichokes, piquillo peppers and arugula coulis.
Robiola tre latti (made from both cow, goat, and ewe milks), Royal Blenheim aprocots, celery branch and toasted oats.
A most refreshing palate cleanser:Â English cucumber sorbet, white verjus gelee, green grape and quinine-juniper foam.
Coconut milk sorbet, vanilla-roasted Maui Gold pineapple, medjool dates and cashew nuts.
“Coffee and doughnuts” was a humbling pre-dessert dessert.Â Is there anything better than a warm, sugared beignet?Â I think not.
Rhubarb and kumquat vol-au-vent, vanilla chiboust, poppy seed ice cream and 100-year aged balsamic vinegar was accented with delicate edible blossoms from the French Laundry’s garden
Peanut butter Bavarois, crunchy feuilletine, milk chocolate “whip” and Gros Michel banana sorbet
Mignardises:Â lavender scented rice paper wafers on the left.Â a bowl of candied macadamia nuts on the right.
Mignardises:Â truffle heaven!
Sauteed fillet of Atlantic Coast halibut, turnips, English peas, Meyer lemon and garden tarragon.
The soft-poached Americana hen egg, with lobster Salpicon, sunchokes, Savoyard spinach and mousseline Bearnaise was a revelation of taste and textures.Â Who knew a simple egg could taste so rich and complex?
New Bedford sea scallop, French Laundry garden spring onions, melted leeks, hazelnuts and black truffle.
Herb-roasted Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms were a crunchy, woody taste sensation served with fennel bulb, San Marzano tomato compote, green garlic, Marcona almonds and sherry mignonette.
I once thought Kobe and Wagyu were indulgent grades of meat.Â Then along came this tartare of Kuroge beef from Shiga – accompanied by broccolini, lily bulb, pine nuts and cherry-olive puree – and I learned they are but rank amateurs.Â The fat content of the Kuroge is ridiculous.Â But then again so, too, is the umami flavor.
English pea agnolotti with confit d’aile de volaille, Nantes carrots, Cipollini onions, Parmesan nuage and sauce Dijonnaise deserves some sort of prize for the most inventive use of a chicken wing.Â It’s genius:Â the salt, fat and crunch of the confit elevates the delicate spring flavor of the pea and carrot.
Elysian Fields Farm lamb rib-eye, lamb ribettes, pomme Boulangere, Nantes carrots, fava beans, green garlic and sauce Bordelaise.Â Check out the color of that meat!Â I look at this photo and I am able to conjure the taste of it all over again.
The first (of many) amuse:Â a velvety sunchoke puree with just the faintest taste of fresh earth.
Cauliflower “panna cotta” with California sturgeon caviar.Â A mother-of-pearl spoon at a place setting elicits an almost Pavlovian response in me.
Shirred egg custard with lamb gelee, potato chip and chive.
Two different butters arrived for the bread (which was warm and golden and gobbled so quickly that it escaped the camera’s glare):Â Â a lightly salted pot on the left and an extravagantly dense quenelle of unsalted from Andante Dairy on the right.Â Look at that color and then blame me for expecting to hear it was duck fat.
Three different salts:Â sel gris at the top, a Filipino white salt similar to fleur de sel, and pink Jurassic salt, mined from a deposit in Montana that was a seabed back when dinosaurs roamed.
Salad of roasted Belgian endive, sour Michigan cherries, pecans, oxalis, and kola nut gastrique.
Pave d’aubergine confit, with cauliflower, chickpeas, sultanas, harissa, pine nuts, cilantro, and yogurt was perhaps the most perfect expression of a humble eggplant that I’ve ever tasted.