June 17, 2024

Because a four hour lunch at The French laundry wasn’t enough, I checked into my hotel and headed back out for dinner at Bottega, Michael Chiarello’s restaurant in Yountville across the street from Thomas Keller’s mini-empire of Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Ad Hoc.

Chiarello is a bit of a polarizing figure for anyone who saw his appearance on Top Chef Masters, but ultimately it’s the food that counts.  And the food at Bottega is as spectacular an example of one man’s dedication to craft as is Keller’s haute cuisine across the road.  Showcasing big bold Calabrese flavors, the menu’s refining twist is a focus on the seasonal bounty of the Napa Valley as well as artisanally produced and house-made ingredients.

What further sets it apart is a boisterously convivial come-as-you-are atmosphere and – most startlingly – a price point that belies the kitchen’s extravagant attention to detail.  Bottega is – dare I say it? – a bargain: appetizers in the $12 – $14 range; main courses in the mid-20’s.  The wine list shines, too:  focused mainly on local small-production vintages and a solid collection of Italians.  All are reasonably priced to encourage tastings and many come in quartinos.

I hasten to add that one doesn’t necessarily expect to see a chef of this caliber actually doing the cooking.  Out working the floor, yes; but getting his chef whites dirty? Not so much.  So I was doubly impressed on the night of my visit to see Chef Chiarello in the open-plan kitchen, busy directing traffic and knee-deep in the cooking.  He appeared to be thriving in it.  And that made for an awful lot of happy diners – chief among them me.

Polenta under glass with caramelized wild mushrooms and balsamic game sauce.

Ricotta gnocchi, salsa di pomodoro della Nonna, pecorino.

Smoked and braised natural short ribs, preserved Meyer-lemon spinach, smokey jus.

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