Who says you can't buy happiness? My lunch at Bottega couldn't have been more satisfying; this Yountville bistro is my new favorite Napa Valley eatery. Michael Chiarello, owner and food celebrity, made a brief appearance shortly after I seated myself at the empty bar. A little before noon, the restaurant was about as lively as yesterday's champagne. I was greeted by bartender Fabrice, a transplant from Grenoble, France. Fabrice proved to be my perfect lunch companion, as I am gearing up for a trip to France this spring. He knows French and Italian food and could handle my few French words mixed with Spanish, since he is married to a Mexican woman. It felt like I was already in Europe, listening to him chat amiably in three languages with the manager and other staff.
To start the conversation, I brought a bag of lemons from my overflowing tree, wondering, if they were offered to the kitchen, would they decline for security reasons or accept them graciously? The lemons never made it to the kitchen, as Fabrice and his fellow workers snapped them up to take home for lemon tart and lemonade. My adventure began with a carafe of Fumé Blanc--thank you, Robert Mondavi, for giving your Sauvignon Blanc this special name, making it easy to pick out from the competition. It is my favorite white wine--light, crisp and not too fruity.
The lunch menu is full of tantalizing items--in the Italian style, antipasti, paste and secondi courses. I started with the Shaved Artichoke Salad Two Ways. The lemon olive oil braised artichoke pieces had rich flavor and the roman fried slices on top, with shaved parmigiano reggiano offered a crispy contrast. The balance of the oily artichoke and bitter greens was perfect. Airy, warm bread with a crunchy crust came with a dipping sauce of olive oil, parmesan, garlic and herbs--oh so delicious, and great for one's breath too.
Fabrice talked about his years working in the Côte d'Azur, then as a pastry chef in Puerto Vallarta, where he met his wife. He seemed too young to have three children, one of whom is in the Spanish immersion program at Napa Valley Language Academy, where I have friends on staff. His wife speaks Spanish to the children and Fabrice, bien sûr, talks to them in French.
I was happy to watch Fabrice work the espresso machine, pour wine and wait on three tables near the bar, bending to scoot under the counter each time one of his tables needed something. Definitely a job for a young man. The dining room began to fill up, but I was still alone at the bar.
The pasta menu provided my main course, crispy potato gnocchi mixed with tiny shallots and onions, a Valley Ford Montasio, a cheese similar to asiago, served on a layer of brilliant orange Kabocha squash. Beautiful to the eye, flavored with a touch of nutmeg, the dish had just the right amount of sweetness. What a great way to eat potatoes, onions and cheese.
While I was enjoying the gnocchi, a man seated himself at the end of the bar. I was having too good a time to pay much attention to his newspaper, smart phone and wedding band. Fabrice greeted him, as he had greeted me, "You are having lunch with me?" He then scooted under the counter to clean up a spill at one of his tables, with the kindest demeanor, enticing the embarrassed customer to laugh. What a sweetheart. Maybe I should be looking for a guy in the food service business!
The wine carafe held a glass and a half, more than enough for me, however my pal Fabrice managed to top it off at least once, so I needed some caffeine to finish the meal. I'd never tried an affogato, but decided it would provide a little ice cream for dessert and some espresso to put my head on straight for the drive home. Bottega's affogato is served with a marcona almond cookie, nothing special by itself, but perfect in combination with the rest. It came on a petite tray; a stainless steel cup contained a scoop of caramel sea salt gelato, over which the server deftly poured an espresso shot. My mouth is watering now, remembering the exquisite blend of flavor and sensation--sweet gelato, bitter espresso, crunchy cookie. I was in heaven.
I gave Fabrice my card and told him Bottega's food is better than my memories of the food in France; he couldn't choose between the compliment and defending his homeland, so shook my hand and wished me bon voyage. I'll be back to see him again for some food bliss and another taste of Europe.