To start the new year off right, the Vegetarian and I left the east coast for a vacation to the west coast, specifically the Bay Area. Prior to a week long stay with family in Berkeley, we took a few days to ourselves in the Napa/Sonoma Valley. Vineyards and wineries are only one of the two major attractions (as far as I’m concerned) in the area — the second being restaurants. It is hard to think about this area and not immediately think of The French Laundry (and no, that isn’t when a French lady washes your clothes), Thomas Keller’s magnificent culinary achievement located in Yountville, California. While the French Laundry was closed during our visit, the street it occupies is filled with many other delicious restaurants.
Of the restaurants located on this magnificent stretch of culinary wonder, the Vegetarian and I were told we must eat at Bottega. Michael Chiarello opened Bottega in 2008, and has been receiving high acclaim ever since. The vegetarian gave me one of Chiarello’s books back in 2007, and I’ve since watched his past cooking shows and his appearance on Top Chef Masters, in which he was just edged out, finishing second. Watching Top Chef, and seeing his delicious Italian dishes made me want to try his restaurant even more.
The restaurant itself is enormous. Sitting at our table for two, the Vegetarian couldn’t help but joke that the same table in Manhattan would sit four people — not to mention the fact that in the main dining room, there was enormous amounts of space between tables. Our table was next to the wine room, which was being rented out for a 14 person bachlorette party. The restaurants decor and design gives you the feeling of being in a large cottage in Italy somewhere, making the meal even more enjoyable.
Aside from the food, the second star of the night was our waiter. I discovered later that he has been at the restaurant since it opened. He was extremely knowledgable of every technique, ingredient and intricacy of the menu. Add to that his humor and spirit for the food, and we knew we would be in for a treat.
While the menu features more than ten appetizers, I was so fixated on the pasta dishes that I opted for a pasta to start my meal. The selection was difficult, but I chose the black pepper bucatini alla carbonara soft cooked hen egg, broccolini, guanciale & parmigiano brodo (seen below). The egg was sitting atop the delicate and perfectly al dente pasta until the waiter quickly mixed it up to create the “sauce.” The dish was exquisite and actually, as crazy as it sounds, my first time ordering a carbonara at a restaurant. The vegetarian ordered the roasted baby golden & chiogga beets, Point Reyes blue cheese spuma & pistachio vinaigrette. The blue cheese “spuma” was local blue cheese mixed with heavy cream and applied to the plate using a whipped cream canister. Our waiter proclaimed “you can make it at home!” Everything about this dish screamed “California” from the fresh beets to the local made blue cheese. It was a nice light dish with nothing to complain about.
For our entrees, the Vegetarian selected the pan roasted potato gnocchi autumn root vegetables, heirloom squash pesto, Valley Ford Montasio. Again, another flawless dish. The gnocchi were soft and tender, though I only wish I could have tried to ricotta gnocchi to compare. I went with the waiters favorite dish, the wood grilled loin of grass-fed lamb saffron braised potatoes, green onions, pistachio pesto & rosemary scented lamb jus. The lamb jus could have been added on top of anything, and I would have eaten every last drop. The lamb was served a perfect medium-rare (the only way the chef prepares it) and the potatoes were not overly heavy or over powering the dish. They were almost like the ultimate “home fries.”
We opted not to order dessert, but while we sat enjoying our coffee, I noticed that Michael Chiarello had emerged from the kitchen. I noticed him standing about 15 feet away and maybe it was my unabashed staring that he noticed and brought him to our table. He came by and asked us how our meal had been and thanked us for coming in. We shook hands and maybe because I was surprised by the visit that I didn’t ask for a picture with him (for proof, you can see his later tweet to me). He wasn’t actually just stopping by our table, but visiting the bachlorette party that I mentioned before. Regardless, he was a extremely nice and welcoming and it was a nice way to finish the meal.
Overall, I was impressed with everything the restaurant had to offer. The food was excellent and the service was equally as impressive. No small detail was overlooked and ever staff member we encountered was friendly and helpful. I would definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting the area, and in comparison to some of the other restaurants in town, it is a bit more reasonably priced. Italian food with hints of California, perfect.