I eat: Bottega Ristorante Napa Valley

Michael Chiarello.

I never thought much of him. I would occasionally watch his show, “Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello”, but he never held my interest for an entire episode. It wasn’t until he appeared on Top Chef Masters that I truly started appreciating his culinary expertise.

Michael Chiarello is currently the Chef and Co-owner of Bottega Ristorante, located in Yountville, CA, where worthy competition such as Redd, Ad Hoc and The French Laundry are just right down the street. He was previously the Executive Chef/Founder of Tra Vigne in St. Helena. He has published numerous cookbooks, owns a small family winery as well as a catalog/retail store, NapaStyle. Even with all his success, Chef Chiarello has still managed to stay humble. When I told him that I LOVED his food, Chef Chiarello was quick to point to his Chef de Cuisine, Nick Ritchie, and teasingly said, “It’s his food. I just take credit for it.”

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We started off the night with two appetizers: “polenta under glass” and “wood grilled octopus”. The polenta was highly recommended by Page Buehler (of Buehler Vineyards), and well, THANK YOU Page because the polenta was absolutely AMAZING! It arrived in a glass container (hence the name “polenta under glass”) topped with a parmesan crisp and caramelized wild mushrooms. Drizzled with a little balsamic game sauce, this dish was to die for! The polenta was rich, creamy and very well flavored. The caramelized mushrooms added a sweet, earthy element and the balsamic sauce complimented the mushrooms in sweetness while asserting its own presence with a bit of tartness.

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The octopus was amazing as well. I loved the grilled flavor and I can’t believe how tender the octopus was!!

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When our waiter took our order, we decided to have a “regular” entree and a “lighter” entree since we were also eating two appetizers. The “lighter” entree we chose was the Adriatic Seafood Brodetto (monkfish, mussels, rock cod & fresh Monterey calamari, forno-confit tomato broth, olive oil crouton, paprika-saffron rouille). As you can see, brodetto is a fish stew similar to cioppino or bouillabaisse. One difference I noticed right off the bat was that the tomato broth of the brodetto was more rich and dense than a cioppino (which usually tends to be more thin and watery). All of the seafood was perfectly cooked, but the broth was by far the star of the dish.

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Ok, everybody knows I have a thing for duck. I just can’t help myself from ordering it when I see it on the menu. So… what did we order for our “regular” entree”? Yup, Confit of Half Duck (mostarda di frutta, Forni Brown green, red win duck jus). Now, I’ve eaten duck confit at many restaurants and I can say, without a doubt, THIS WAS THE BEST DUCK CONFIT I’VE EVER HAD! The skin was brown and crispy while the meat was fall of the bone tender. Mostarda di frutta is a traditional Italian condiment of candied fruits bathed in a mustard flavored syrup. The duck was great on its own, but even better when eaten with the fruit; the sweetness of the fruit helped cut the saltiness from the duck. This was truly perfection on a plate. If I ever appeared on the TV show, “The Best Thing I’ve Ever Ate”, I would be raving about the duck confit at Bottega. LOVE.

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We were already pretty full at this point, but pass up dessert? No way! We ended our meal with Chocolate Bourbon Tortino (banana brulee, roasted banana gelato, milk chocolate peanut butter bar). Basically, this was a high class Reese’s sundae! Though I found the tortino a little rich by itself, eating everything together in one bite was delicious! Henry loved the chocolate peanut butter bar!

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At the end of the night, our waiter led us to the kitchen where Chef Chiarello was nice enough to sign our menus and take a picture with us. I can’t wait to come back to Bottega.

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Verdict: 5/5
Bottega Ristorante Napa Valley
6525 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599-1300

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Sunny Weekends

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I spent a few hours on Sunday at the Rose Bowl for the Flea Market. This event happens only once a month, every 2nd Sunday of the month to be exact. I should have checked the weather, but I was too lazy to, so I played it safe by wearing a light cardigan over a tube-top sundress. After walking only half way to the entrance from my parking spot, I had to take my cardigan off because it was so damn HOT! Well… bare shoulders + no sunscreen + blazing hot sun = not only a horrible sunburn that hurts on touch, but also a ridiculous tan line from my purse.

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The girls and I mainly looked at purses and shoes since these items were basically at every booth. After awhile, everything started looking the same to me. I did come home with a small black purse that was in great condition for only $15!

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I eat: Ad Hoc

Perhaps I visited Thomas Keller’s restaurants in the wrong order; starting off with the best was probably not a good idea, tactically.

Last October, we made our way to the Foodie Mecca of the West, The French Laundry, and it was one of the best and most expensive dining experiences we’ve ever had.

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This past March, I ate at Keller’s less expensive, more casual restaurant, Bouchon. The cooking techniques exhibited were superb; my duck breast was beautifully seared. The flavors, however, did not come together for me. So overall, the meal wasn’t necessarily bad, but I left unimpressed.

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With these two restaurants down, that only left one more Keller restaurant to try on the West Coast: Ad Hoc.

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Ad Hoc is located in Yountville, along with a few of my favorite restaurants: Redd, Bottega and of course, The French Laundry. Opened Thurs-Mon, Ad Hoc offers a daily changing 4-course dinner menu, served family style; brunch is also offered on Sundays.

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Now, listen carefully folks!! Each night there is only one menu, only 4 courses offered, so if you don’t like what’s on the menu, you’re shit out of luck. I already knew that this was the concept of Ad Hoc, having done my research, and I was actually excited about going to dinner and not having to fuss over what to order. However, there were many people dining at Ad Hoc that night that just didn’t have a clue. I can’t believe how many times I overheard the waitstaff having to explain to diners that there was only one menu offered and that they would be happy to call another restaurant to help secure a reservation if the menu wasn’t to the diners’ liking. Moral of the story: do your research!

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The appetizer of the night was a white shrimp and cucumber salad, dressed with a tomato vinaigrette. The dish was very refreshing and I would have raved about it, if it weren’t for the shrimp. I don’t think I’m being ridiculous by saying that peeling shrimp is a basic skill that every cook/chef should have, especially when you’re a chef at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants! It was very disappointing to have to pull out pieces of shrimp shell as I was chewing. This just shows poor execution and attention to detail, something I’m sure Keller would have disapproved of. What a bad start!

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For our entree, we were served steak with onion rings and roasted broccoli rabe in an All-clad braiser pan along with a side of grits. I was surprised by the tenderness and juiciness of the steak considering it was a hanger steak. The onion rings were perfectly fried with the right amount of batter and I especially loved the crispiness of the broccoli rabe. Not only did the grits have great flavor because of the bacon and parmesan cheese, it also provided a great contrast in texture from the steak, onion rings and broccoli rabe.

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At Ad Hoc, the third course is always a cheese course. We had Cowgirl Creamery’s St. Pat. The edible green rind comes from the cheese being wrapped in stinging nettle leaves (the stinging hairs are removed prior to wrapping). The cheese was soft and creamy with a mild flavor. I usually like stronger cheeses so I wasn’t too fond of St. Pat, at first. But when I paired it with the red onion marmalade, it was delicious! The sweetness of the marmalade really brought out the natural sweetness of St. Pat. Henry didn’t like the taste of the cheese so I basically ate everything!

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Our final dish was a tres leches cake. Moist without being “soggy” and just the right amount of sweetness, this was a perfect end to a meal that started out imperfectly.

Even though the meal recovered from the shrimp mishap, I had to decrement Ad Hoc’s rating from 4 stars. It wasn’t something I could easily forgive or forget.

Verdict: 3.5/5
Ad Hoc
6476 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

I eat: Gary Danko

Currently on Yelp, Gary Danko has an overall rating of 4.5 stars with 2075 reviews. And yes, it’s really THAT good.

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Our first visit to Gary Danko was in August of 2008 and it’s been on top of our list of favorite restaurants ever since. Our second visit was just as wonderful. Everything was cooked to absolute perfection and I was reminded of how great Danko’s sauces are; the only reason we kept eating our bread was to dip into the sauces of each dish! At Gary Danko, you can either order the prix-fixe tasting menu, or you can create your own tasting menu consisting of 3 ($68), 4 ($85), or 5 courses ($102). Last time, we ordered 5 courses each and though a very enjoyable meal, we were overly stuffed. So, we learned from our past experience and ordered 4 courses each this time around.

I’m going to keep the words short and make this more of a picture post. I thought it would be interesting to show side by side pictures from both visits to Gary Danko (left = 1st time, right = 2nd)

Amuse-bouche:

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Appetizers:

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Fish & Seafood:

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Meat & Game Birds:

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Desserts:

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Verdict: 5/5
Gary Danko
800 North Point Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

Cibo e Il Vino, parte due

… continued from parte uno.

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After our first day in wine country, we checked into the Arbor Guest House B&B, located near downtown Napa. We’ve had good luck with B&Bs in the past (Greenlake Guest House in Seattle and James House Santa Barbara) and this time was no different. We stayed in the Bella Vista room, which I believe is the smallest of the rooms available, but it was perfect for us. It was furnished with a comfortable queen sized bed, flat screen TV and a cute claw foot tub in the bathroom. There was a guest refrigerator downstairs in the patio area stocked with water, juice and soda. Hot water was also available in the dining room at night for tea or hot chocolate. Dan and Candy, the innkeepers, were very nice and though we didn’t go downstairs for afternoon wine and hor d’oeuvres (either I was napping before dinner or Henry was watching the Laker game), we heard other guests laughing and talking so I’m sure everyone was enjoying themselves.

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Every morning, Dan and Candy provided us with a delicious breakfast to start our day. My favorite was the sticky buns!!

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We spent much of our 2nd day in wine country around the Rutherford area. The first winery we visited was Cakebread, highly recommended by my coworker. Since Henry prefers red wines, he decided to make an appointment for their red wine tasting. After checking in, we were escorted to the small red wine tasting room. One man tended to 3 other couples besides us, so it was another, “this is such and such wine.. enjoy”. Since we were in such close quarters, it was really easy to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. The couple next to us seriously hyped up the wines too much; after each wine they tasted, we heard, “OMG, I love this”. And as if to confirm, the man pouring Henry’s wine also added, “this is such a treat.. you’ll love this”. Yea well, Henry didn’t love the $106 Dancing Bear Cabernet, but he did like the 2006 Merlot enough to buy it.

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The 2nd winery we went to was probably Henry’s least favorite in terms of wine, but the property was beautiful and the overall experience was very relaxing. Frog’s Leap Winery proudly boasts that they grow all their grapes organically and are committed to the principles of sustainable farming. Tastings are held on the “porch” of the vineyard house. There is a long table that can hold large parties (or several smaller parties) and there are also smaller tables that wrap around the porch.

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The wine tastings ($15) at Frog’s Leap included a plate of cheese, almonds, bread sticks and cranberries. SCORE!! I pretty much ate all of the cheese because I’m a fat ass.

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Unimpressed by the wines, Henry and I left empty handed and we headed to lunch at the Rutherford Grill. I decided on this particular restaurant because it was the only one in or around Rutherford that caught my interest and having a 4.5 star rating on Yelp didn’t hurt. When we arrived at 2PM, the hostess told us that the wait would be about 40-50 mins for a party of 2, but the inside and outside bar were first come, first serve. I put my name on the list and quickly began to scope out the bar area. I was prepared to fight for a spot, but good thing it didn’t come to that because 3 groups actually left the bar at the same time!

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We didn’t want to over-stuff ourselves so we shared an appetizer and an entree. This also helped us save a bit of money since even with just 2 items + drink, we paid almost $50! The spinach and artichoke dip was creamy, cheesy goodness. The ribs were fall off the bone tender, but had an overly smoky flavor. Overall, a good meal to hold us off until our much anticipated dinner: Ad Hoc.

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The last day of vacation is always a sad one. The realization of having to go back to the “real world” left us with an unsettling feeling the whole entire day. We knew we had a long drive ahead of us, but we didn’t want to leave just yet so we made two pit stops: Trefethen and Boon Fly Cafe.

A month ago, my parents, Henry and I went to dinner at Mastro’s Steakhouse. Remembering how he first fell in love with Buehler during a previous trip to Mastro’s, Henry asked our waiter for another wine recommendation. Our waiter suggested Trefethen’s 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and sure enough, it was another instance of love at first sip. So, of course we had to visit Trefethen while we were in Napa!

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Trefethen Vineyards, located in the Oak Knoll District of Napa, is HUGE!! A magnificent gate adorns the entrance and a drive down a lovely tree-lined street transports you to a 19th century winery building that houses the tasting room. Henry had a difficult time deciding between the Estate Tasting ($10/choose 4 of 8 wines) and the Reserve Tasting ($25/5 wines), but he ultimately chose the Reserve Tasting because it offered multiple cabs. Considering it was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I was surprised that Trefethen’s tasting room wasn’t crowded. This totally worked out for us because Henry received excellent service unlike the other wineries we visited; he was also given an opportunity to have a vertical tasting of their 2005 and 2006 Cabernet Sauvignons (the 2006 was only offered with the Estate Tasting). Henry loved the wines and experience so much, he bought 3 bottles: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (1.5L), 2007 O-K-D Five, 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I guess, we saved the best for last? Well, Henry still says that he loves Buehler just as much. Whatever 😛

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I had made up my mind the night before to try Zuzu, a tapas restaurant, for lunch, so imagine my disappointment when we got to the restaurant and it was CLOSED! Stupid me, I didn’t pay attention to their hours listed on the website; they open at 4PM on the weekends. I had to think of a plan B quick and the first place that I thought of was Boon Fly Cafe.

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Boon Fly Cafe is located in the Carneros Inn (so damn pretty, but WAY too expensive for us to stay there). The exterior is absolutely adorable! There are swings outside for people to sit on while waiting for a table and coffee is also available in case anyone needs a pick me up. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait; we were seated right away. Little did Henry know, I already knew what I wanted us to order before we were handed our menus; I studied the menu during the planning phase of our Napa trip. Henry and I generally like the same foods, so with little resistance from Henry, we ordered the “green eggs and ham” and the kobe beef burger.

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“Green eggs and ham” consisted of poached farm fresh eggs wrapped in honey-cured ham on crispy hash browns with lemon leek cream. Oh my gosh, it was so freakin’ good! I love runny eggs so breaking my eggs and having the yolk soak into the hash browns before I took a bite was a real treat. The ham provided the perfect amount of sweetness and the leek cream added a bit of “Napa elegance”. The kobe beef burger with poppy-seed brioche bun was absolutely divine. It was unbelievably juicy and tender, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and was so much more flavorful than a regular burger. And did I mention the brioche bun? I love, love, love brioche; I use it to make my bread puddings. The richness/sweetness of the brioche pairs well with any burger in general, but even more so with a decadent kobe beef patty. Needless to say, we left with happy stomachs.

I can’t wait for my next trip especially since I’ve been averaging 14 hour work days. Le sigh.

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Napa Food & Wine (+our verdict):
Bottega Napa Valley, 5/5
Cakebread Cellars, 4/5
Frog’s Leap Winery, 2.5/5
Rutherford Grill, 3.5/5
Honig Winery, 3/5
Ad Hoc, 3.5/5
Trefethen, 4.5/5
Boon Fly Cafe, 4.5/5
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