I was just in California, and of course, had some amazing meals. There were haute cuisine, pre fixe dinners at stellar restaurants like San Francisco's Quince (so delicious, we had to overindulge and go twice). There were fun, stylish spots like Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, where the pate de terrine and moules frites are perfectly executed classics. And then there were the casual meals one can only get on the West Coast — slurping briny oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company in the SF Ferry Building, feasting on wood grilled spot prawns at Monterey's Fish House or grabbing some cheese and cured meats at the Oakville Grocery in Napa to nibble vineyard-side with a bottle of wine.
With all of these memorable meals, it's impossible to choose a favorite. let alone a favorite dish. One, though, sticks out in particular. It wasn't the best dining experience of them all, and it wasn't even the best dish. What made it memorable was that it was a truly unique concept, and a combination of flavor elements that I doubt many have ever tasted.
The restaurant was Bottega, a recently opened venture in Yountville by Chef Michael Chiarello. Chiarello is a familiar face around Napa as a longtime resident and owner of Chiarello Family Vineyards, and nationally as the host of the popular Food Network Show, Easy Entertaining. Bottega goes the "elegant twist on the classics" route when it comes to the Italian fare, and it twists well. Pasta with clams was enriched by piquant calabrese sausage and a sumptuous whole egg tagliarini. Risotto with braised veal shank was delicious as always, but an easy comfort food with the meat having been pulled from the bone and incorporated into the dish prior to serving.
These dishes were certainly tasty, but what brought the restaurant out of the ranks of "good Italian" was the surprising appetizer. The plate arrived adorned with thin slices of organic prosciutto sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. A saucer of lambrusco, a mildly effervescent Italian red wine, rested at one end. This was all surrounded by what appeared to be pieces of tempura. The waiter informed us that these were actually pasta fritta, a lightly fried dough, around which we were supposed to wrap the prosciutto. The effect was wonderful, as the fritta itself was mild in flavor but crunchy, not distracting from the prosciutto but imparting a palatable texture. After taking a bite of the of the prosciutto-fritta combination, a sip of the lambrusco added a perfect kick to the dish, brightening the savory flavors of dough and meat. It was delicious, and it was fun. I can only hope that my local Italian wine bar in New York wants to play copy cat.