"Can you call?" My dad asks, as he pushes the accelerator to hurry our pace.
I sigh. "They don't answer the phone. It's far too popular for that."
We're on our way to Chef Michael Chiarello's Bottega Ristorante in Yountville for my dad's 70th birthday dinner. We'd taken more time than we should have drinking wine that afternoon in Healdsburg, and we are now dangerously close to being late for our 8:30 reservation -- a reservation that I had secured a month in advance. After waiting on hold for nearly ten minutes.
There's a collective sigh of relief in the car when we finally ease into the parking lot at 8:32.
We made it. We're here.
We're actually going to be eating at Bottega.
I'd heard from many different people that the refined, modern Italian restaurant was the one "must dine" in the area if we didn't want to break the bank at French Laundry or Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc. My friend Danny had boldly declared it his "favorite Italian restaurant to date," another friend sang praises about the gnocchi, and I was well aware that Esquire had also named Bottega one of the top twenty new restaurants in the country in 2009.
It's a big kind of place deal. And we are all excited to be celebrating my dad's milestone in such gastronomical style.
After the difficulty I'd experienced reaching someone on the phone at the restaurant, I am half-expecting a stiff and curt greeting when we enter. Maybe a once over, a narrowed eye directed at my feet that are in flats rather than heels, or a blank stare when I give our name. Instead, warmth descends upon my shoulders from every corner of the at-capacity restaurant that rivals a Cheesecake Factory in terms of size. Everyone and everything in each of the dining rooms and bar area seems to glow with energy and life. The hostesses and servers are no exception.
Our table is ready for us immediately upon our arrival. A jug of water, warm rustic bread and an addictive parmesan, garlic and olive-oil spread are presented without request. The restaurant staff seems just as pleased to see us as we are to see them. I want to hug the moment tight and not let go. And I want the evening -- my family's last night in the Napa Valley together -- to go on forever.
In honor of the occasion, we go boldly forth with our own appetizers. My mother opts for the Insalata del Bosco with organic greens, balsamic vinaigrette, sliced pear, candied hazelnuts, and Pecorino -- a choice that inspires me to chortle in protest.
"I can't believe you're ordering just a salad!" I sputter. To my eyes it's the least interesting starter on the menu that includes items like "Polenta Under Glass" with caramelized wild mushrooms; and house-cured proscuitto with pasta fritta and a melon soup that takes the place of the typical melon balls.
My mom is not one to flounder. She stands by her selection, declaring, "It's the best salad I've ever had."
I roll my eyes, but don't completely disbelieve her sentiments. It certainly looks far superior to the typical leafy green affair that can be spotted on less ambitious menus. I am content, however, to keep my fork within the confines of my own plate of wood grilled octopus with olive oil braised potatoes, pickled red onion and salsa verde. It was an easy choice for me. Like my mother who finds comfort in leaves of green, I find comfort in charred cephalopods. This incarnation is no exception. While I would prefer a lighter application of olive oil, the octopus is undeniably tender and the flavors are clean and exact. I love the use of salsa verde that gives the dish the herbal tang that's normally achieved through the use of celery. I clear my plate without casting an eye in the direction of my dad's heirloom tomato salad with burrata and basil olive oil that he enjoys with similar sighs of pleasure.
For our entrees, my mom and I both select the crispy potato gnocchi with English pea and taleggio fondue, summer vegetables and a prosciutto crisp. It's a beautiful dish to behold -- with the flourishes of squash flowers, it's far more artistic than any gnocchi dish I've ever encountered at an Italian restaurant. Bottega has refined the humble potato dumpling with unexpected touches like the delightfully salty prosciutto crisp that seems to enhance the brightness of the pea fondue and accompanying vegetables. The gnocchi itself is well-done, albeit a bit on the soft side. I typically prefer gnocchi that has a bit more of a chew to it – one that lingers a bit longer on the tongue than Bottega’s version, which effortlessly melts into the palate without much prodding. This is not necessarily a bad thing – there’s plenty of textural juxtaposition with the crisp prosciutto and al dente squash. My only real reservation with the dish is the prodigious amount of butter that the entire plate seems to be sauced in.
At the recommendation of our prompt and attentive server, my brother and dad opt for heartier entrees – the wood grilled rack of lamb with figs and polenta, and the smoked and braised short ribs with preserved Meyer-lemon spinach and smokey jus, respectively. My fork is most tempted by the sight of the generous heap of Meyer-lemon spinach, and quickly meanders over to my dad’s side of the table for a sneaky bite. It’s as good as I imagine it to be – the sweet lemon brightens up the spinach turning it from a ho-hum side to a delicacy in itself. My dad is less enthusiastic about his short ribs, but still clears his plate. It’s tough not to compare any short rib dish – even the well-executed ones -- to the version my mom makes for us at home using Suzanne Goin’s recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques.
We end the night the only way one can end a birthday dinner – with dessert. Tonight it’s the chocolate hazelnut soufflé that captures our eyes. It’s a fairly standard version of a classic -- not too sweet, not too dense, not too anything. We take a couple bites each, are satisfied, but don’t feel necessarily compelled to take the relationship further.
It’s no matter that the soufflé and some of the other plates weren’t the knock-outs we’d anticipated when we strode through the doors two and a half hours earlier. None of us seem to care – it’s the moment itself that matters. We’re together, my dad got the birthday he wanted, and we’re in Napa. With a set-up like that, it’s almost impossible not to view the world – and our Bottega dining experience – through only the rosiest of rose-colored glasses.
6525 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599