Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
My family takes a bi-monthly or so road trip from Sacramento to Napa to go to restaurants and buy wine, which really translates into “spending a day pleasantly making fabulously wealthy people even more fabulously wealthy, sort of a wealthy-people vicious cycle of overeating.” If you detect a mild, self-loathing tone creeping into my food-blogging, you may be diagnosing something lurking below my soul. Not that I’m passing up the wine and cheese.
We had been meaning to try Celebrity Chef (TM) Michael Chiarello’s Yountville outlet for some time now. I’ve been vaguely aware of Chiarello for years, ever since he played the slightly menacing, goomba-esque presence on Top Chef, and roughly after his rustic lifestyle catalogs begin arriving in regular shoals in my parent’s mail-box.
An exceedingly clever businessman, the California native parlayed high-end Italian cooking into television shows, a winery, regular appearances in the media, a line of furniture, and God knows what else — picture a much gruffer looking Martha Stewart, although I know Chiarello has never been to prison. We made a lunch reservation at Bottega.
The restaurant is dark inside and full of brass and amber accents, creating a late-night feeling even when it’s high noon outside and getting progressively hotter. An open-style kitchen allows diners to watch the kitchen team move in a fast paced frenzy, slinging huge metal pots with preternaturally strong wrists. The warm color given off by the flames of the oven, interplaying wit the cold steel of the fixtures, lit them all in a delicate, Renaissance-like tone. It was good viewing.
We were seated quickly, thanks to our reservations, and began paging through the immense wine list and the rather interesting cocktail menu. Mindful of our planned itinerary of paying people well over $10 a pop to take small swigs of their fermented grape juice, we stuck with the non-boozey stuff — the ginger lemonade was surprisingly delicious.
The menu, true to form, is a combination of California local ingredients and contemporary Italian cooking, with ingredients like sea urchin and nettles bumping shoulders with ricotta gnocchi and grilled skirt steak.
The shaved brussel sprouts salad was tucked into a small pyramid (and I do mean rather small) but had a delightfully spring-y taste, evading the uncomfortable chewiness of less worthy raw brussel sprouts preparations. The combination of egg, almond, pecorino cheese and Meyer lemon gave the dish an earthy, season-appropriate richness. I want to try to emulate this at home.
Meatballs, polpettas, whatever — these were excellent, composed of extremely tender grilled shortrib meat that fell apart with silky intensity when poked with a spoon. They were served with a hummus-like puree made from sunchoke, a somewhat under-adored vegetable. This is the kind of thing you would imagine yourself ordering in a simplified form at an Italian estate after slaying a slag sometime in 1723, or at least these are the fantasies with which I sustain my life. I should build more slaying into my routine.
Minestrone featured tender green chard, flatleaf spinach, nettles, and wild vineyard mustard, served in a prosciutto broth with potato and a slab of bread. Tasty, earthy, and violently rich in nutrients, this nevertheless struck me as not fancy enough for the setting — the sort of thing I’d probably be able to whip up some simulacra of in an afternoon in between bouts of pretending to write. You’re paying Napa restaurant prices — in my mind, you might as well try something that involves obnoxious procedure and cutting tiny things into even tinier things, thanks to the efforts of some poor prep cook who is perennially being shouted at for breathing.
I ordered the duck three ways because I have always been highly susceptible to duck. I will say right now this was a monumentally enormous restaurant dish, the sort of thing that you look at and think “Did they make some kind of mistake?”
But no, this is half a duck — the breast is roasted until tender and juicy, the leg prepared in a tender confit, and the liver (presumably deriving from a different duck) smeared on a sidebar crostini. Accents were watercress and a strawberry compote garnish, although these serve somewhat as afterthoughts for the duckfat-dripping main event. I managed to finish it. It might have been poorly advised. I did leave a small piece of pate on the crostini, which I looked at with both embarrassment and dog-like lust as it was taken away at the end of the meal. (This is probably a metaphor for something). This is not delicate or particularly sophisticated food, but you will be absolutely good on the duck front for a long while to come.
Less deliciously egregious was a pasta made with corn meal and mushrooms. It sounded rather interesting on paper but was too sweet in practice, producing a rather cloying effect. I don’t like overly sweet cornbread, and I resent it in my pasta as well.
Cavatelli was served with a sea urchin sauce and hefty head-on prawns. A delicate white bowl was provided for the little remnant crustacean skulls. It was almost as if they knew us. The sauce was delicate, had a bit of saffron in it, and had that delightfully buttery and of-the-sea essence that defines all fine seafood pastas. Would order again. Definitely the most refined dish of the meal.
No dessert. Both because we’re not really into that, and because I had just eaten half a duck with accompaniments. The existential shame was already complete.
The sizing of the portions is smallish but not quite on point if you’re hoping to do a true Italian-style meal, with a small starter, a pasta course, and a main dish — judging by the quantity of the duck, this would induce almost instant gout and possible death. I am not sure if this is a bad thing.
Inexplicably, there is no pizza oven here. There is a large wood-burning oven, but I remain unsure what it is for. Maybe creating rustic clay pots.
Would I return again? Yes. Celebrity chef foolishness aside, the food was good and the menu items interesting, and I’d like to poke around what they’ve got on offer to a greater extent.
Also, they sell black truffle potato chips in the store next door. You want to get those. Eat them slowly while you read Piketty and contemplate what has brought you to this place.