While I was in college in the early 1990s, I made frequent visits to Napa Valley–not to drink wine but to eat. Whenever our class schedules would permit, my partner-in-crime (aka best friend) and I would take to the scenic wine country road and spend the afternoon catching up about our school and work loads, always over good food at Mustards Grill, Tra Vigne or at any of the other trendy restaurants. This was well before I became familiar with the merits of locally-sourced produce, a practice that the aforementioned restaurants had long followed. I never thought beyond the fact that the food simply tasted good.
At that time, Yountville’s star was not yet as bright as those of fellow Napa Valley cities, Napa and St. Helena. It would be a couple of years before Tomas Keller would flip the light switch through The French Laundry and Bouchon. And despite several visits in the intervening years, it was my short stay in Yountville this weekend that allowed me to see the town and enjoy it from a different perspective: through my food blogger eyes.
The beauty of the town goes far beyond what the eyes can see. Sure there are countless quaint storefront displays, hotel courtyards that entice with the look and feel of a Mediterranean villa and of course, the endless parade of blooming flowers. Out of all the senses, Taste seems to have the most to enjoy around Yountville; it’s no wonder food-minded folk flock here. The draw is not only for the high-end restaurants but I discovered that a humble taco truck can have a place alongside its Michelin-decorated cousins.
The taco truck to the right was parked across the street from Hotel Luca, our home for the weekend while a group of us celebrated a friend’s milestone birthday. Though our friends had enjoyed a day of wine tasting and fun dining before our arrival on Saturday, all talk was about the best, freshest-tasting tacos you can get for only $1.50, meat and herbs piled high on top of two fresh corn tortillas. So despite a late sit-down lunch and dinner to come, I made a taco date with my friend Logan. Dressed for dinner, we met at the hotel’s courtyard at 6 pm and promptly walked across the street. The pork belly tacos and the lengua tacos are worthy of all I heard about them. I was told by a local later that Tacos Garcia is a bit of a hidden gem in Yountville, but some searching on Google reveals that it may not be so hidden anymore. I borrowed this image from the Sacramento Bee who published an article on this mobile eatery sometime ago. I was too excited about eating the tacos to even think about taking a picture–bad food blogger, I know. I missed showing you the stretch limousine parked next to it whose passenger must have had the same thing in mind: Pork!
The highlight of Saturday evening was the celebration of our friend’s birthday at Bottega, another bright star in Yountville’s gastronomic lineup. Owned by Food Network personality, Michael Chiarello (also former owner of aforementioned Tra Vigne) Bottega is full of Napa Valley charm with its wood beams and brick walls and an appealing California-Italian inspired menu. Upon arriving at the restaurant, I spotted Mr. Chiarello hosting a cooking demo (I think) at his Napa Style store (furnishings, wine, food, books) across the breezeway. I snapped a distant shot from the Bottega entrance and that was that. Moments later I learned that the the birthday celebrant and her husband had booked a private party and that it would be held inside the Napa Style store, Bottega menu.
Our friends and the Bottega staff planned a very nice party but the food shared the limelight with the birthday girl. I’m a picky Italian food eater and I will admit that most times I’m disappointed by what I get at Italian restaurants. I judge a restaurant by its carbonara or bolognese sauce and if it doesn’t pass, my disappointment is big.
I’m happy to say that Bottega passes with flying colors. Their trenne pasta with bolognese ragu was spot on. They even use porcini mushrooms like I do. The gnocchi was perfect; no other word to describe it and I’m not normally a gnocchi fan. Their calamari with nero aoili? How clever to use squid ink (love it) in the condiment! By the time I got to the generously portioned short rib, I was almost full (the tacos were partly to blame, I suppose); I, of course, made room for the gold-dusted, white-chocolate walled birthday cake. And guess what turned out to be a great surprise?
During dinner, Mr. Chiarello paid a visit. Earlier, I asked the party organizer if it would be possible to get my Bottega book signed to which she nicely said that she would see what she could do. I had my back to the door so imagine my surprise when THE chef himself came up directly behind me! Ever charming, ever gracious, Mr. Chiarello chatted and laughed with us. I’m not normally prone to being star struck (well, except for meeting Pluto and Goofy at Disneyland as a child) but you can see from my big smile that I had fun meeting someone who cooks for me on television everyday. These candid shots are not the best but I appreciate one of my friends quickly grabbing my phone to take them.
There’s something for everyone at Yountville but most of all, there’s a lot of wonderful food. If you haven’t tried Bottega, I highly recommend you do so soon. I can’t wait until my next visit.
Note: My apologies for the poor-quality, camera phone images. Will remember to take my real camera next time!