“Oooh, what kind of surprise is it? Is it something I would like? Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Napa… will I ever get sick and tired of this place? Probably, but for now I’ll enjoy every excursion until my mind grows weary of the crimson grape vines, luscious backdrops of Mt. St. Helena, and of course the wonderful gastronomic experiences (aka bomb ass food). I promise this is my last fancy-schmancy place (at least for a little while) and I’ll go back to eating my usual standard of stuff.
Previously referenced in my NYC Round 2 Finale issue, sometimes the pressure builds and even the best and brightest Chefs, can have an off day. In this case, it is the complete opposite and perhaps it’s because of the system established at this high caliber Italian restaurant. Yountville, which boasts quite a bit of rivalry amongst talented Celebrity Chef empires, and Bottega is no different. Chef Michael Chiarello has proven himself a force to be reckoned with ever since the three-way Season One Finale, of which even he himself is a good sport of my tongue and cheek commentary via Twitter.
Michael Chiarello’s confidence could be mistaken for arrogance given his appearance on Top Chef Masters Season 1, majority of the Chef-Testants (beyond the Italian mafia Top Chefs) did not want him as their mentor. However after visiting his restaurant, his style of management and charisma spills onto the restaurant floor like a well-oiled (pasta) machine. There’s no hesitation in pushing his team members to the limit by acknowledging every guest in attendance (big or small) while pumping out pasta creations like nobody’s business with a high turnover.
When we first arrived, our party was immediately seated and presented with this view from the corner seat. The ambiance is lively, bringing the grand Italian family meal setting to life. The decor leans toward being ergonomically friendly while balancing a clash of dimly lit red walls and natural lighting creating the shadows and contours that thrive among the guests (and occasional horseflies, that were swarming in our premises).
*** Author’s Side Note Begins ***
A simple side note…If you look closely on the picture to the right, you notice a man sipping on red wine who rocks a Pseudo-Gordon Ramsay silhouette. His ostentatious behavior and proclaiming “disturbance via silent photography” to his dinner date was quite annoying throughout the course of the meal seeing as I rarely used flash photography and did not cause a distraction during his time of attendance. Spewing profanity every three seconds and gritting his teeth as if he were a Tiger.
This type of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, nor repeated in an establishment as this, please readers do not act like this man. I only highlight such nonsense to bring awareness in the difficulties of providing such content discreetly (and respectfully) on a regular basis while enduring said harassment.
*** Author’s Side Note Ends ***
Beyond the ambiance, it’s time to explore the table offerings. The bread was quite nice for this place and the garlic dip for which they provide creates my new standard for impromptu room temperature Garlic Bread. Our party of two literally swallowed this in less than 20 seconds. Amazing house bread, savory and galick-y dip without overwhelming your palate, down to the last bite.
The Polenta should be a familiar offering for those who have followed Bravo’s Top Chef Masters series. Chef Chiarello made this dish, in light of all the harsh “three-star” reviews all season by James Oseland while creating a flavorful “decoupage” out of his publication to “Saveur” the moment. All tongue and cheek aside, this starter swung a home run in our hearts. The polenta was just as silky as my grits experience in TORC the night before. I’ve had lots of polenta over the years and this is my penultimate standard unless proven otherwise.
Many Italians pride themselves on their highly rustic and creative Gnocchi iterations. Over the years, I’ve had a good amount and the only one that came close was Stella Alpina Osteria’s iteration (Burlingame, Ca) which excelled on balancing the savory truffle vs. the fluffy kneaded potato shown (on the bottom right corner). Chef Chiarello’s presentation and flavor profile bring tradition with a modern attitude. The tomato sauce is aggressive and bold, serving as the center piece, whereas the Ricotta tries to join in on the party but is shunned on the side. Which one was better? It’s truly preferential, the argument of Catsup vs. Ketchup comes to mind. Granted it would be much easier to dissect identical dishes but that wasn’t possible.
My time with Ravioli, has gone back since the good ‘ol days of Chef Boyardee (actually spelled Boilardi) on the can (1)*. I do not care if Bourdain and any other Chef would snub me simply because my first memories were those of a 1920s east coast Italian whose name couldn’t roll off the tongue quite as smoothly and a memento of WW II rations.
Anyway, the importance of Pasta being made is that the hand creates a pleasant harmony between the amount of egg yolk, flour, and any other (insert ingredient) is used for that pasta’s specific presentation.
Everyone could make pasta, don’t get me wrong, however, not everybody can recreate a Picasso overnight. The shards of black truffle and brown butter hits your tongue, providing a savory base. Then the delicate bites of Italian potato pasta wrap around your mouth, and finally the shredded notes of ricotta and sage permeate through the broken egg like special guests in your favorite concert. I was a happy man, if eating a leafy vegetable with truffle and pasta could be this divine, then strike me down from heaven immediately.
This is an awkward pose seeing as the birthday date had a hard time flipping the plate over with the limited table room we had so I took the picture as is. Displayed is the Shortrib offering (one of two secondi offerings), at first glance you think, this looks way too dry. However, contrary to popular belief, the meat fell off the bone. Lots of the Ju and Vegetables contained a strong impression of smoke. The birthday date hoped there would be more veggies to go with the dish (I agreed). The polenta speck was straightforward in seasoning and in taste; however, it didn’t really made a mark like the previous dishes.
I am a big sucker for lamb, if there’s been anything that Catholicism and cooking have brought to my attention. Always try the best cuts from New Zealand, Colorado, and the Holy Land (Jerusalem). Sacrilegious as this all sounds, the dollop of sweet corn polenta (from the appetizer dish) served as the soil. The watercress (the grass) harmonized with the gelatinous fig (I don’t even like this fruit and it was a pleasant surprise). The challenging factor to lamb is removing all the ‘gaminess’ from ruining the rest of the experience. Thankfully, Chiarello’s staff was able to execute and move forward with the progression of our birthday meal.
The Zeppole (doughnut holes) were all very sugary bites and one could argue a good way to compare in texture to Boon Fly’s (which is the bar standard for Napa Valley Italianized-doughnut holes) . The candied fruits within the Moscato Sabayon all blended together quite nicely. A bit too sweet, we would’ve preferred much more sabayon or the fruits to be made of a jam instead.
The final dish was a Tiramisu w/ a simple cookie crumble, definitely on the sweeter side. Presentation was nice but the lack of ‘espresso’ (rum/coffee) resulted in you tasting nothing but the mascarpone until you got to the very bottom (where all the rum notes were tucked away).
Overall, Bottega has its charm and niche within Yountville, being one of the few destinations where you aren’t stuck at your seat for four hours wondering if this dinner is going to end. The passion, pace, and presentation are all symbolical of Chiarello’s vision for his guests. Our total time elapsed came out to 1 hour and 10 minutes, that’s a record compared to other fine dining meals in the past. The strongest points of the meal were the pacing and pasta and it remains stuck in my brain how well every single iteration he had on his menu had great texture and flavor. The weakest points were dessert, I know there is potential for refinement. I hope his pastry chef has learned a great deal since then and finds a way to become more innovative by introducing new textures or remixing classic Italian favorites.
For my special birthday lady, this is one of those experiences she’ll never forget for a while. To this very day, she keeps asking me whether or not we’ll return to this place. Until we decide to come back, my main focus is to progress forward and find more restaurants pushing their boundaries without holding back, regardless if it is fine dining or a hole-in-the-wall.
Chef Boyardee Bio “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chef_Boyardee” via Wikipedia.com; Last seen 6 Dec 2014; Last Updated 2 Dec 2014
6525 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599