Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Group Dining, Bottega, Napa

Large group dining (as in, 30-50 individuals) is tricky.  No matter what restaurant you pick, it will never measure up to the experience of when you go with only a few others.  It just isn't possible.  I know this.

Over the past few years, I've helped organize a number of dining events for my group at work. Last year, for our holiday party, we went to my favorite restaurant in the city (Alexander's, duh), and they did a fine job, but again, it couldn't live up to the small group experience.  A few years before that, when our group was only 24 members, we went to Fleur de Lys, and again, it was all good, but not remarkable.

This year, we decided to plan a trip out of the city, up to wine country, to enjoy a great lunch, sunshine, and wine, obviously.  There is no shortage of great restaurants in wine country.  But ... which of them do large groups well?  I anticipated 40-50 people.  Many restaurants in the area have great sounding group dining packages, complete with private areas.  They are accustomed to holding private events, as they are often venues for wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners.  This made doing my research far easier than I expected. Rather than just reading Yelp reviews, focused on standard dining experiences, I could read on wedding recommendation websites, tailored towards groups.  Perfect!

Once I dove in, it took very little time to narrow down on my choice: Bottega, in Yountville.  I've seen Chef Chiarello give cooking demonstrations in SF before, and I have been wanting to try his restaurants for a while, so it was a natural pick, particularly once I read all the raving reviews.

Long story short?  It was the perfect venue and the food was fantastic.  If you are looking to host a group event in wine country, I highly recommend you check out Bottega.  It is located adjacent to V Marketplace, a specialty shopping area, on a winery estate with stunning grounds.   We arrived early and didn't mind at all; it was a beautiful day, and we frolicked in the courtyard enjoying the sunshine.

Once our dining time arrived, we were invited into the private bar attached to the private dining room to begin our experience, and were encouraged to take our glasses of wine back out into the sunny courtyard before being seated for lunch.  Such a perfect way to begin!
Private dining room.
The experience continued to impress as we entered the private dining room, set up with 3 tables.  The decor was rustic and comfortable, yet refined.  We all felt at home as we settled in.

I really appreciated the seating being broken into 3 tables, rather than trying to fit everyone at a single table.  With that many people, you can never talk to everyone anyway, and this setup made it feel more intimate.

The only negative thing I have to say about the venue itself is that it was freezing inside.  It was a big shock after coming in from the warm sunny day, but the initial shock didn't really go away during the few hours we were there.  I would have been more comfortable if it were warmer.
Kitchen through the windows.
I also liked that you could spy through the windows from the private room into the kitchen.  I watched one chef painstakingly roll pasta through the pasta machine all afternoon long.

Speaking of the food, it was really impressive.  This was the best executed group dining experience I've ever had.  They managed to serve the large group all at once flawlessly, with hot, fresh, well prepared food, plated nicely.  I had no idea it was possible to achieve these results with such a large group.

Some of the dishes, and in particular the ones that I expected to be hardest to execute, were very, very impressive.  I would have been impressed even if I was dining with just one other person, much less in a group event.  The salmon was better than what I've had at many nice restaurants, and the gnocchi was mind blowing.  If they do this well with groups, I really need to go back for a regular dinner sometime.

The staff were all friendly and professional.  The only flaw I experienced is my decaf coffee was forgotten.  Besides that, they handled all our special requests seamlessly, although, some of the special diners were served a bit later than the rest of the group.

I'll certainly return for a regular dinner, but I highly recommend Bottega for large events.  You'd be hard pressed to do better.
Custom Menu.
Since we were a large group, we had to arrange a menu in advance, from the special group dining menu.  I of course had a major hand in picking our menu.  There were several options for format, but we went for the standard recommended group experience, composed of 3 antipasti to start, followed by two pasta dishes, all served family-style.  After all those family-style courses, which were certainly enough for a full meal anyway, there was a plated entree (diner's choice, from a pre-selected set of 3), and then dessert.  For only $85 per person.

It was definitely a great value, particularly given the quality of the food, and the ridiculous amount of food served.  There are smaller "luncheon" menus available as well, which, if you aren't feeding an army of hungry software engineers, might be more appropriate.

Immediately once we were seated, we were brought loaves of sourdough bread, served with melted butter with parmesan and herbs.  Since I dislike sourdough, and knew how many more courses were coming, I didn't try any, but my co-workers all loved it, particularly the cheesy, herby butter.


The meal began with antipasti.  In advance, we selected 3 items (out of 6 choices), all of which would be served family style to the whole group.  We narrowed down the selections quite easily, eliminating the salads and charcuterie platters, as those didn't seem very unique.

To please the folks who wanted something a bit healthy, we started with the Roasted Baby Golden & Chioggia Beets: La Tur espuma / pistachio vinaigrette.  I felt no need to try this, again, knowing how many more delicious options were about to be headed our way.  My restraint however, ended here.
Burrata Caprese: creamy mozzarella / heirloom tomatoes / basil leaves / basil oil / balsamic “caviar”.
Next came my top pick from the antipasti list: burrata!  This dish is also served on the regular menu.

It came on huge platters as expected, but, interesting, the servers came around and served us all individually from the large platters.  I actually really would have preferred to serve myself, since there were a slew of stunning looking tomatoes in assorted colors, and I would have surely gone for yellow or green, rather than the reds I was given.

The burrata was delicious, as I hoped.  The center was super creamy.  Served perfectly ripe.  You might say that of course it was tasty, it is burrata after all, but, sometimes, it isn't served at its peak, like at Auberge, where we had disappointing burrata just a few weeks prior

The tomatoes were just ok.  We were nearing the end of tomato season, so it is to be expected that they aren't as awesome as earlier in the summer.  They were well seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and garnished with basil.  The balsamic caviar was flavorful, and a fun, way to add the standard vinegar component to the dish.

Overall, a very solid execution of a classic dish.  Bonus points for using burrata instead of mozzarella in the caprese too!
Monterey Calamari Fritti: lemon / parsley / aiolo nero.
The third antipasti we choose was the only hot option: calamari fritti.  It came on a huge platter, but, this one was passed down the table rather than being served individually, which I preferred.  This id is also available on the regular menu as an appetizer.

It was ... just ok.  It was served piping hot, which is impressive for such a large group, particularly for fried food.  The calmari was not chewy, a good assortment of rings and bodies, was nicely breaded, and was not oily.  I can't quite pinpoint what I didn't care for, as these all sound like winning attributes, but it just wasn't that flavorful.

I think the real problem was the garnishes, and the family-style setting.

Each platter had a single grilled lemon on it, which was awkward for group dining.   What if one person just ... took it?  Were we all supposed to squeeze it with our questionably clean hands over our own dishes and then put it back?  It certainly wasn't just for show.  A little acidity would have brightened the calamari up considerably.

Likewise, there was aioli nero, which I certainly wanted since I'm all about sauces and dips, but, there was only a artful smear on the platter, no extra provided, nor any drizzled over the dish.  For utensils, we had only serving tongs, so there was no real way to even attempt to get some of the decorative smear onto your individual plate.

This was my least favorite of the antipasti, and the only example throughout our meal of the large group dining format not working well.


Next we moved on to the pasta courses.  The group menu contained three options: vegetarian gnocchi, traditional bolognese, or a rabbit pasta.  We had the option of picking just one for everyone to enjoy, which would be plated individually, or two, served family-style.  Since two is better than one, we went for the family-style.

We needed to included a vegetarian option, so the gnocchi was an easy pick.  The bolognese is a dish Bottega is known for, so it was easy to pick that one too.  Like the calamari, they were served on large passed platters, so we could help ourselves.

Our gluten-free and non-dairy diners had a risotto instead, individually plated for them.  The timing did seem a bit off on their dishes, as they arrived long after our pasta.
Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi: blistered cherry tomatoes and summer squash / English pea - Meyer lemon fonduta /11 month Valley Ford Montasio.
The first pasta to arrive was the vegetarian gnocchi.

It was the hit of the meal.  Absolutely everyone loved it.  Of all of the giant platters we received throughout the course of the meal, this is the only one that was actually completely emptied.  I went back for seconds, and thirds, and then, doh, it was gone.  So much food was provided throughout this meal, but, I totally would have had more of the gnocchi.

So, what made it so delicious?  First, the gnocchi was ridiculous crispy.  I loved the texture.  Next, the cherry tomatoes were incredibly flavorful.  Anything that was lacking from the heirlooms in the caprese did not apply here.  Perhaps it was the blistering that drew out even more flavor?

And the, the summer squash.  Yes, it was late summer, and I stopped being interested in summer squash long ago, but this was probably the best summer squash I've ever had.  Seriously.  Absolutely bursting with flavor, and, presumably, sautéed with plenty of oil.

Finally, there was the English pea-Meyer lemon fonduta.  It was on the bottom of the platter, and I'm glad I took the extra effort to scoop some up when serving myself.  I didn't taste the Meyer lemon, but the pea flavor was there, and it was very creamy, making for a quasi-sauce.  You know I'm a sauce girl, so it was a bit strange for me to love an almost sauceless dish, but honestly, it didn't need it.  The gnocchi was just absolutely remarkable on its own.  The dish was finished with grated Montasio cheese too.

I was shocked by how good this dish was, on every dimension.  They nailed the crispness of the gnocchi and the flavors of the vegetables, in a way that would have been impressive when served individually, much less on a giant platter.  It was also served piping hot.

I'd return to Bottega, just to get this dish.  Unfortunately, it does not appear on any of the regular menu.  A ricotta gnocchi (I think flour based rather than potato) is available, with pomodoro sauce, but, that is obviously an entirely different dish.
Trenne alla Bolognese: veal, pork and porcini mushroom sugo / rosemary / Parmigiano Reggiano.
The second pasta dish was less successful, Bottega's famous bolognese.  When served as part of the regular menu, the pasta is taglierini, but otherwise, I think it is the same dish.

I don't really like pork, but I think even the pork lovers found this dish to be a bit lacking, as they all went back for more gnocchi instead.  The pasta wasn't particularly remarkable, a bit mushy.  It was pretty oily, and the serving dish was left with big pools of oil on it.

We had a lot of this left over, and no one wanted seconds.  We all just kept looking around wistfully for more gnocchi.


And finally, the main course.  Because, you know, 3 appetizers, bread, and two pasta courses wasn't enough already!

The main course was a plated affair, and each diner was able to select their choice of entree at the start of the meal.  Diners were able to choose from 3 options that we had pre-selected, out of a list of 5.

Since we had vegetarians in the group, we had to select the single vegetarian dish, Lasagnette di Zucchini al Forno: crisp potato / zucchini and tomato torta / shaved mushroom and celery insalatina / broken tomato vinaigrette.  No one at my table ordered it, so I don't have anything to report on that.

For a meat choice we went for the Costolette Brasate e Affumicate, aka, Smoked & Braised Natural Short Ribs: Calabrian chile broccoli rabe / smokey jus.  A number of diners, Ojan included, picked this, and seemed to really enjoy it.  I of course snuck a bite of Ojan's dish.  The short ribs were fine, moist, tender enough, but, short ribs are never something I like.  Served over a mediocre puree.

The meat options that we decided not to offer were roast chicken (boring!) and wood grilled lamb chops.  For an additional fee, we could have offered a veal chop or steak for $15 more per person.

Our final selection was the single seafood choice, salmon.
Segudi: Salmoni del Pacifico: sweet corn mostarda / smoked and marinated baby beet insalata.
I obviously picked the salmon.

Just like the gnocchi, this was really impressive, not only in general, but particularly for large group dining.

I asked for mine medium rare, and, it actually was.  No one else specified how they wanted theirs cooked, and several others commented on how it was more cooked than they'd like, so, it was definitely a good idea to specify this when ordering.  The most impressive part was that it somehow had perfectly crispy skin.  Seriously, how did they pull this off for a large group?

The sweet corn mostarda was absolutely amazing.  The corn flavor was strong, as was the tang from the mustard, it was incredibly creamy, and went perfectly with the salmon.  I've always had fruit mostardas before, but, the sweetness of the corn worked just like fruit would here.

Well dressed greens perched on top added a bit of lightness and freshness.  The marinated beets were fine, but, like I mentioned when skipping the beet appetizer, I find beets rather boring.  However, the little tiny cubes of pickled beets were incredible, and I'm glad I tried them.  I loved how they complimented the mostarda in particular, so much tanginess.

This was just crazy impressive for large group dining.  We were all served at once, the food was all hot, the crispy components still crispy, nothing was overcooked and dried out, everything was plated beautifully ... I still can't fathom how they did this.

The salmon was clearly the winning entree, and I loved every bite of it.  I was shocked at how much I was able to eat at this point in the meal, after all that gnocchi.  I'd gladly order this again.


Finally, we approached the end.  The group menu allowed us to pick only one dessert, individually plated and served to everyone (our dairy-free diner was offered a sorbet instead).

The options that we didn't pick for the group were tiramisu, semolina cake, chocolate hazelnut cake, cookies, or gelato.  Instead, we went for the semifreddo, since it sounded the most unique.
Dolci: Ricotta Semifreddo / Stone Fruit.
You know how much I love dessert, so I was quite excited for this finale, even though I was completely satisfied by the burrata, the gnocchi, and the salmon.  Sadly, it was the weakest dish of the meal.

The semifreddo didn't taste like ricotta to me.  In fact, it didn't really taste like much of anything.  It also stayed far more frozen than I expected, even with time, it didn't get a creamy melty consistency.

The crumbled cookie bits on top just seemed like hard, stale cookies.  Slightly buttery, but really not very good.

The stone fruit however was delicious, fresh peaches.  I think they may have been sweetened additionally, or perhaps they really just were that awesome.  I also enjoyed the fruit puree on the plate.

But overall, this was not very good.  Great presentation though, particularly for a large party.

Along with dessert, coffee was offered.  I ordered decaf, it was forgotten.  Regular coffee was brought in carafes for the table.
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