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.
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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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