Friday, April 10, 2009

Dish on Dining: Bottega

Working Out the Kinks … NapaStyle
6525 Washington St., Yountville
Napa Valley
PH: 707.945.1050
Lunch and dinner daily (except closed for lunch on Monday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

This food-loving community, flowing freely with the wine, loves the latest hot thing. And for the last few months, that’s been Bottega Ristorante by celebrity chef and NapaStyle guru Michael Chiarello.

It’s been awhile since Chiarello has headed a kitchen, spending the last decade in front of the camera with his cooking shows or writing cookbooks or opening gourmet food stores celebrating the bounty of Napa Valley. So there’s no surprise that people have been flocking to see if Chiarello still has the cooking chops.

The restaurant, right across from — of course — a NapaStyle store, is designed to reflect the charming style of wine country in Napa and Italy, with an outdoor wood oven at the front and wine bottles stacked up along the walls of the private dining room. Bottega is actually quite spacious, with a bustling bar at the front, a communal table to the side, and a large dining area that faces the open kitchen. (There’s also patio seating that’s probably popular during lunch.)

Even before I stepped into the restaurant for my dinner reservations, I spotted Chef Chiarello outside talking to what looked like a few business partners or associates (they had that moneybags look to them). After I was seated, I could still see Chiarello buzzing about the place with his trademark charming smile. He wasn’t necessarily greeting customers or fans, but mostly chatting up old friends. (Here is my poor attempt at trying to shoot a photo of him as he talked to a big table in front of me.)

While the restaurant walks a fine line between casual trattoria and a fine-dining establishment, there’s still a sense of newbie jitters among the service staff. While things were brought to me on an orderly basis, I got the sense from watching the staff that they were still figuring things out. My server, in particular, seemed rushed and didn’t really pay attention when I was placing my order. (As I was still speaking, he was scribbling and said “that should be enough for you.” I don’t know why but people look at me and think I don’t want to eat a lot.)

So my dinner started with the wine. Bottega has an impressive list of Californian and Italian wine. They don’t sell wine by the glass but in what’s called “quartino” portions, which they estimate to be 1.5 glasses. It’s brought to the table in a small decanter (I’ve seen this a lot at Spanish tapa restaurants like Laiola and the new Barlata.)

On my server’s recommendation, I got a quartino of the Goldeneye Pinot Noir from Mendocino. This turned out to be a bit too tannic for my taste. But more unappetizing was the fact that I scribbled down the price as $12, but when I looked at my tab recently I realized I paid $25. I don’t know if I scribbled down the wrong price or I was overcharged, but that wine was not worth $25 for just 1.5 glasses.

So lesson learned about wine at Bottega: check the fine print! (Remember, I was there for my birthday so I blame it on my aging eye sight, too.)

For the food, Bottega follows the Italian tradition of antipasti, first course (typically pasta) and second course, along with a few side options or contorni.

I started with the Burratta with artichoke two ways ($12). The burratta, hand-made fresh mozzarella spun into a big blob, was indeed fresh and chewy and refreshing to eat. It was served with a few pieces of toasted bread and decorated with tiny little crisps. I was a bit confused about the concept because the menu said the artichoke was served two ways: lemon-braised and crispy. But all I could find on my plate was the lemon-flavored artichoke, which was a nice counterpoint to the burratta. I didn’t notice any fried artichoke, unless those thin tiny pieces garnishing the plate was supposed to be the artichoke?

Even though I’m not a fan of deep-fried foods, I was expecting a play in textures. In a way, I felt cheated.

Next up was my pasta dish, which was the Garganelli with Balsamic Rabbit Sugo ($19). The garganelli was similar to ziti and was served in a bowl that allowed all the sauce to settle on the bottom, leaving the top pasta pieces tasting a bit dry. One word immediately came to mind when eating this sugo: salt. It was so salty that it made it difficult to enjoy the overall dish, and the rabbit wasn’t as tender as I expected. Asparagus tips for the season were thrown in but the flavor didn’t seem to mesh with the overall taste of the rabbit sugo, so it seemed like the asparagus was more of an after thought.

Then this is when my dinner got sidetracked. After I finished my pasta, my server brought me the dessert menu. But earlier I had ordered a second course, the Quail with Honey-Balsamic Glaze ($26). Apparently, my server thought the burratta and garganelli would be enough to fill me up, and I admit that might have been a sufficient dinner for some. But I wanted more, and had ordered more, and was a bit upset at this point that my server was determining how much I should be eating.

To his credit, he didn’t argue with me and quickly put in an order for the quail. My dish arrived a few minutes later, so it wasn’t a long wait. But that made me wonder whether the quail was cooked the way it normally would be because this quail tasted a bit undercooked. There wasn’t enough of a sear to the skin, leaving it more mushy than crisp. And the honey-balsamic glaze was imbalanced, leaning more on the sweet side. The quail sat on some bitter greens that had been sautéed and the combination of flavors seemed off to me.

After my experience, and what I just wrote, you’d probably be surprised by my final score. You’re probably thinking I would have scored it lower. (I think it is lower compared to some glowing reports I’ve read elsewhere.)

I feel the service needs to be more engaging and less rushed, but I did find the environment enjoyable and the menu interesting. I think Bottega has potential to be great if more care is given to the balance of flavors in the dishes instead of what seems like a rush by the kitchen to meet the unexpected crowds. If Chiarello doesn’t pay more attention to the sophistication in the execution in the kitchen, I’m afraid Bottega may be like any hot thing … passed up for someone younger and hotter.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Style over Substance)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Bottega on Urbanspoon


foodhoe said...

dang chef ben, did you come here after the wine tasting? the quartino sounds like a terrible deal and a really confusing way to serve the wine... if they price it by the glass and only serve it at 150% and charge 200% that is just messed up. On the artichoke dish, I bet the crispy things were the fried artichoke too. From your description alone, this is not on my long list of places to try since there are so many other great spots I haven't yet tried in the area...

Single Guy Ben said...

LOL, Foodhoe, I got to Bottega after happy hour at Brix! Don't worry, the tastings were just a bit of wine, and I only had two cocktails, I was fine by the time I drove home. Yeah, I wouldn't put Bottega on the top of my "must try" places if I were you. There are definitely a lot other more tastier places to try. It might be OK for lunch, though.

Passionate Eater said...

I am sorry Chef Ben, I am just catching up with your posts now and realized that it was your birthday. Happy belated! And I thought with a name like "Chiarello" associated w/the restaurant, it would be good. Sigh, sometimes celeb chefs are overrated.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I won't be dying to try it after this damning review.

Just so you know, burrata isn't exactly a big mozzarella ball. It's a product made with the by-products of mozzarella-making. When mozzarella is made and shaped, a lot of little pieces are cut off to make the requisite shapes. Burrata basically takes a mozzarella ball, but during the shaping process, the mozzarella ball is wrapped around cream and the little mozzarella pieces. It's delicious, but I have trouble believing they make it in-house at Bottega, because it requires the waste pieces of large-scale mozzarella making.

Buon appetito

Anonymous said...

Interesting review. Just went for lunch with some friends and had a similar experience. Some menu items were great, some so-so. My server was a bit under-educated in the dishes he was serving. I actually preferred the guy who poured water and cleared plates. Living in Napa and loving the restaurant scene in the Valley, I'll give Bottega one more try and then make up my mind.

Anonymous said...

I went with three friends to Bottega for a second time, after my first experience was mixed. I will not be back nor will the three people I went with. We had a reservation yet had to wait half an hour out in the cold. There was no room at the bar. The hostess said we could wait in Napa Style, but it was closed. When we were finally called, we squeezed into a corner table that was so close to the other tables that every time a server or bus boy walked by, off went our purses or our coats or our neighbors purses or coats onto the floor.
Our server seemed to spend most of his time in inviso-land. He'd disappear for long periods, especially when we wanted something. Two of the dishes we ordered didn't arrive at all, but our server wasn't the one who brought any of our menu items so after a while, we gave up asking about both. Two of our main courses had to be sent back because they were flat out awful - not only unappetizing in appearance, but awful tasting. On the plus side, the server graciously took both off the bill, plus he didn't charge us for the two dishes we never received. The pacing was terrible - with inordinately long waits between courses - which I assume is the reason we were seated late. The dessert, which we all intended to share, arrived ice cold - actually frozen in the middle, making it very hard to eat, but our server had vanished, without asking if we wanted coffee, and once again, we had no luck flagging anyone down to ask either about the dessert or coffee.
The four of us discussed this later - a restaurant like Bottega should never serve anything that is even just good. The food at a restaurant like Bottega should be great or outstanding. We had one dish we all agreed was great, the burrata cheese antipasti. That was it. The rest of the meal was a major disappointment.