Restaurant Review: Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, Napa Valley

As a former Napa Valley cook, I had been anticipating the opening of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega for quite some time, and for many different reasons. Of course, the primary reason was Chiarello’s outstanding track record; great new restaurants are always welcome, anywhere. When Chiarello was the executive chef over at Tra Vigne in the 1990s, long before he began to appear on the Food Network, the restaurant ranked as one of the Napa Valley’s top destinations, remaining wildly popular among tourists and locals alike. These days, Tra Vigne continues to trade on its former reputation, even years after Chiarello has departed.

With Bottega, I wondered if Chiarello could regain his stature in the kitchen. The restaurant business, after all, is difficult at any level — and once you leave the stress and the long hours behind, merely thinking about going back and actually going back become appreciably different. From that standpoint, Bottega presents a very compelling story arc (to borrow the television metaphor): Chiarello’s return to the kitchen is not only about a passion for professional cooking, but perhaps about ego as well. After all, if you don’t actually own a successful restaurant, then you’re not really in the game, are you?

Given the success of his NapaStyle stores (there are currently six locations in California), I wondered if Chiarello might have mellowed out during his kitchen hiatus. As a chef, he has a notorious professional demeanor, going all the way back to his days at Tra Vigne. Traditionally, folks in the hospitality industry remain quite well-connected, and they love to share their horror stories with empathetic listeners. Over the years, I have heard several different people mention that Chiarello could be a legendary SOB in the kitchen. From what I can tell, those people who managed to stand up to Chiarello would often work with him for years, while those with thinner skins would naturally quit.

Having worked under a couple of chefs with short tempers, I wondered if time and age could have changed Chiarello’s personality, or if he would still be prone to bouts of shouting from time to time. Interestingly enough, without even really fishing for details, I have already heard some second-hand murmurings regarding Chiarello’s temper at Bottega, so I suppose the honeymoon is now officially over. As long as there are successful restaurants, there will always be chefs who scream and yell. So it goes. Knowing what I know, I’m not even convinced that Chiarello is the loudest chef on Washington Street. But I would still never work for him.

• • •

Beef short ribs have been on my mind for weeks now, ever since the weather in Napa turned cold (or brisk, by East Coast standards). My last short rib was at Jardinière in San Francisco, and it was so delicious that my memory of it has helped fuel this most recent craving. If Jardinière was any closer to Napa, I would have already returned, but I wanted something local, and possibly less expensive. I had expected that more restaurants here in the valley would be running short ribs by now, but I turned up far fewer than I thought, which was surprising. Already, Bottega had gained a small advantage in my book.

The short rib at Bottega is billed as “smoked and braised,” which presents an added element of preparation, as far as this dish is typically concerned. The smoke component is subtle, just barely there, which is a good thing. In terms of how this dish measures up to other short ribs I’ve had, I look for four basic criteria with any braise: it should be served warm, spoon-tender, succulent, and well-seasoned. The short rib at Bottega was all of these, although it was on the verge of needing just a pinch more salt, at least to my tastes.

I began the meal with the evening’s special, which was a sausage and fennel risotto. This dish was terrific, and perhaps the highlight of the evening. I really enjoyed this one. The risotto was perfectly cooked, rich and creamy, and garnished with shaved fennel that was sauteed to its very essence. The sausage, which was sliced and sauteed from links, was tender and flavorful, though a little spiciness would have been welcome. The risotto proportion itself was generous, but then again, it was an $18 rice dish.

Although the risotto and the short rib were an extremely satisfying combination, I also ordered dessert. I chose the Meyer lemon rice tart with huckleberry sauce, since I am always a proponent of these two flavors, especially when they share the same plate. The tart was pleasant, not overly sweet, and in some ways, almost reminiscent of an old-fashioned doughnut in terms of its texture. I had hoped for more lemon flavor, however, with the kind of potency you might find in a top-notch lemon pound cake.

As I had expected, Chiarello was in the building tonight, since the newness of Bottega must certainly keep him at the restaurant for the time being. Despite the things that I had heard this week, the atmosphere seemed positive from where I was sitting, although I didn’t pay that much attention to the kitchen. Bottega was bustling, which is nearly unheard of this time of year (and with this economy), so I trust the chef was probably in a good mood, holding court in the kitchen and making appearances in the dining room. I suspect that television has helped Chiarello polish up his table-side manner: he certainly seemed confident and at ease as he chatted up his guests tonight, as if he had already reclaimed his full stature as a preeminent Napa Valley chef.

•••

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10 comments to Restaurant Review: Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, Napa Valley

  • M. Chiarello

    I am thrilled you had a good experience at Bottega. We are all working hard to create a warm and tasty place.

    You are quite right…I was a hard charging Chef in my earlier years. Expectations are high but the kitchen tension is quite mellow at Bottega. I plan to keep it that way. I am sure slips will be made but true intentions are now known.

    MC

  • John

    Over the years I’ve heard several cooks (yes, cooks) say they wouldn’t work for Mr. Chiarello. In my experience, it isn’t anything they have to worry about.

  • thirstyreader

    Touché. Thin skin and cooking chops rarely go hand in hand.

  • Will

    Having worked for Michael Chiarello for a number of years, I suppose I am one who has never had an issue with his temperament. I have always regarded a sharply worded comment as a valid management technique, especially if you “let it go” literally moments after the “jab”, as Chiarello always does. It’s never personal, it’s about uncompromising excellence. The analogy I’ve settled on is the 19th century orchestra. In those days, it was much more common to have the composer of the piece also double as the conductor, and they were often very fierce with the players. But if you knew your part and weathered the occasional storm of the composer/conductor’s temper, you had the priviledge of being part of creating a really extraordinary experience for the audience based on the creative vision and high standards of someone you deeply respect. I think that captures why so many of us have remained so loyal to Michael for so long as a chef, a mentor and a friend.

  • As a customer, my experience with him was one of the utmost charm and intelligent affability.

    Plus, excuse my feminine flutterings, he is SERIOUSLY hot !!

    And the cooking was so good. How can you not fall in love with a man who not only looks like that but can make food taste like that ???

    Will’s comment above sounds like a reasonable perspective.

    Loving Annie

  • Side of Poppadom

    Well, he is certainly acting like a pompous rump roast at the buffet challenge on TCM. Funny, all the rumors about him being gay from his demeanor on his TV show. Who would have thought he was just a jerk?

  • sherim

    I have to say, I have always been a big fan of Michael Chiarello…he seemed talented but also with a gentle demeanor… but his behaviour on Top Chef Masters was really difficult to watch. I think the sous chef was definetly out of line as well but I can see how Chef Chiarello’s behaviour throughout this challenge got some of the sous chef’s riled up. I certainly have changed my stance on Mr. Chiarello, and I am truly dissapointed because I always felt like he was a decent person. :/

  • Michael Fox

    I have had a 3 or 4 brief encounters with Michael Chiarello when he was at Travigne’s and each time I was struck by his charm and graciousness. Unsolicited he would go out of his way to say hello and chat with incredible charm. The food at Travigne’s while he was there was robust. Since his departure the food has lost some of it’s punch though I still enjoy eating there. As for Top Chef Master the sous chef Dale is notorious for his little man complex and the behavior he displayed toward Chiarello is typical of him. One would have thought he would have been a bit more respectful but I guess he is under the illusion that he is on the same level of Chiarello. I know it made for good TV but I honestly wouldn’t have displayed the same level of restraint as Chiarello did. I’m looking forward to eating at Bottega. Like his chef Will stated eloquently above, I am convinced Chiarello is a passionate and loyal friend and teacher, beside being a great chef. You can’t fake his sincerity.
    Michael Fox

  • Michael

    Shall we judge food by a persons management style. Clearly it works for some and not others. As it happens I am a heck of a guy and a better than average culinary hobbyist. People like me. So maybe you should come to my restaurant.

    The acclaimed Chiarello had a thing with up and coming Dale who is not known for working well with others and has a serious temper and what appears to be a security problem that has him responding to imagined insults. He seems to have some talent, but I would never hire him. Chiarello used a form of address I am sure he feels is friendly and uses wit many people. Dale CHOSE to take it wrong and unprofessionally disrupt a kitchen trying to be a tough guy. I would have had security remove him and go one man short. My guess is Dale sits at home laughing hoping he was the difference between Chiarello winning and losing. That has come to my mind.

    The whole cheaters and people who undermine team on Top Chef is the reason I seldom watch it and love Chopped. That and the absolutely unfair luck of the draw in I believe it was Season6 when Kevin got cheated by the knife draw. Finales should not be left to chance. High drama and maybe ratings, and zero credibility,

    Having dined at Travigne’s while Chiarello was there made me aware of his amazing talent. That he still kicks a little ass makes sense to me. He seems to have people stay and perform at a high level.

    The bottom line is the food, and he clearly shows he is a master, and any place he creates in should be a destination for those who love amazing food.

  • Great points and great comment! Thanks for reading!

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