Bottega is different. It’s physically small – at maximum, it only sits 15 people. Getting to eat is not a simple matter of walking in and asking for a table; more often than not, we found out that Bottega’s tables are all booked up at “prime time” and reservations need to be made at least a couple of weeks in advance (even longer if you need a table for more than 4 people!) There are no printed menus – the limited menu (which can not only change day to day but while you’re having dinner!) is on a chalkboard. There’s no bar and it’s BYOB – but doesn’t charge the typical corkage fee – yet treating you and your bottle as if you had paid a hefty corkage fee. The kitchen defines itself as casual Tuscan (though I don’t recall ever encountering anything like what’s on Bottega’s menu in Florence or Tuscany where I live for 6 months). Some of the menu items can be thought provoking if not outright challenging (For example, “Beef Cheeks”?) The location on Maryland Avenue not far from the train station was a gay leather goods shop in a prior incarnation and is an easy stone throw from the Gallery gay men’s bar on the corner. Bottega isn’t inexpensive – our dinner – not including tip or the cost of the bottle of wine we brought – ran about $37 for each of three of us.
When we arrived, we were quickly acknowledged by one of the Bottega team and seated (FYI – the entire team including kitchen and waits staff was four people). Our server saw our bottle of Barefoot blush muscato wine and suggested that it might value from being chilled and whisked it back to the kitchen after we gave our ok to do that.
The menu is quite limited. The evening we dined at Bottega, there were less than 18 items on the total menu (including appetizers and desserts!) Bottega suggests checking out a photo of the menu chalkboard on their web site. In our case, the chicken livers which had been on the website photo of the chalkboard menu at 3 pm had disappeared by the time we were seated for our 7 pm reservation. In the middle of our meal, the Burrata salad “with sunflower shoots” was erased and updated to “with pea pod shoots” (which made us be glad to be probably the last table that got to enjoy the sunflowers shoots that evening!
We decided to order a round of starters. Marty, recovering from the disappearance of the chicken livers from the menu that he had been looking forward to, instead ordered the Zucchini Vichysoisse.soup. Tom went with the Burrata salad with tomatoes and sunflower shoots while John opted for the Crescenza Crustini. (Bottega is definitely the kind of place where having a smart phone to look up stuff from the menu that you don’t understand can be handy!)
The Zucchini Vichyssoise turned out to be awesome – a pale green, it was smooth and light yet rich and tasted delightful with more flavor than we would have ever expected. Later, Tom and I were surprised to find beaucoup recipes for Zucchini Vichyssoise on the internet. Curiously, photographs accompanying more than a dozen recipes all showed a very creamy white soup that looked very different from the appetizing pale green color of Bottega’s version.
The Burrata salad was every bit as amazing as the soup. Tom generously shared a bit of the burrata cheese and sunflower shoots; the shoots had a crunchy texture and peppery taste that was memorable and made for interesting counterpoint to the cheese.
John had ordered his Crescenza Crustini with trepidation (which he quickly appreciated was totally unwarranted). The combination of the crustini bread covered with a layer of the Crescenza cheese (with origins in northern Italy) and topped with paper thin slices of radish and cucumber tasted so good that he secretly regretted to having to share mouthfuls with Tom and Marty.
For our main course, Tom opted for Rabbit with carrots, potato and polenta, John decided on blueberry sauce topped duck breast with mustard greens and Marty surprised the heck out of us by daringly (well with some strong re-assurance from our server!) ordering Beef Cheeks with summer squash slaw.
The “Beef Cheeks” are what they sound like (a muscle from the inside the cheek of the animal that is lean and typically tough but becomes something else after a lengthy lower heat braising. Marty like meat well done; John doesn’t. But the sample of the meat that John had was SO tender and SO moist that all of John’s normal reservations about well done meat vanished. Marty was a big fan of the meat but less so about the summer squash slaw (alternatively, both John and Tom like the slaw and thought it offered an interesting different but complimentary texture and taste to the beef.
The duck was very good – tender, flavorful and not at all as fatty as duck can tend to be. The blueberry sauce relied on the natural berry flavor which (thankfully!) didn’t have a lot of sugar in it. The bed of greens added a nice contrast of color and flavors to the dish (Though I’m still wondering if the placement of the food close to the edge of the dish was intentional or accidental as it moved from the kitchen to our table! <Smile)
The rabbit legs arrived perched on a square of some delicious polenta and a colorful mix of diced veggies added to the “Wow” factor when the dish was placed in front of Tom. The rabbit was tender and tasty and Tom was pretty pleased with the selection of this entree. Again considering the absence of a corkage fee, our server nicely re-filled our wine glasses (The lightly chilled blush muscato ended up being a good choice for our summer dinner and left the three of us wishing that I had brought two bottle to fill more of the half hour gap between our starters and our entrees; we realized that the small kitchen and it’s two person staff were turning out dinners for about 9 people who had all sat down within a tight window of time and rather than annoyed, we remained amazed at the quality of the food that came out of the kitchen!)
For dessert (which there was no way we were going to pass on by this point!), we shared a piece of the salted caramel chocolate pie. A delicious crust was topped by a layer of the goo-iest, thickest caramel which was topped with a layer of sweet chocolate topped with grains of kosher salt. Marty, who has a fascination with caramel, was ecstatic. While the three of got close to the wipe the plate clean trying to savor and enjoy every last morsel, we equally were convinced that dessert was so rich and sweet that it would have been a challenge for anyone of us to finish it off on own in the context of the two courses which preceded it!
With most starters running $7 – $11, entrees costing in the $20’s and a single shared dessert costing $6, our dinner at Bottega averaged about $37 a person. That’s admittedly expensive but all three of us left feeling it was well worth what we paid. Later mentally comparing it to other restaurants where our dinners have cost the same, John felt that the food which Bottega presented us at each course batted the ball out of the park. Decidedly unlike highly touted restaurants Cunningham’s or The Food Market where each course was punctuated with one (or more!!!) expensive disappointments that left us shaking our heads, we found each course at Bottega to be consistently excellent and memorable and leaving us with no reservations what we paid for it. Yet… you’re not going to find filet mignon, lush decor, fine linens and tuxedo-ed servers at Bottega that you’d might find at other comparably priced restaurants; if the absence of those things is troubling, I’d suggest crossing Bottega off your list of restaurants to try
FACTS: Bottega; Station North; 1729 Maryland Avenue; 443-708-5709; http://bottega1729.com ; Closed Sunday and Monday; Open for dinner only Tuesday – Saturday starting at 5 pm; BYOB – No corkage charges; Very limited menu; Limited vegetarian options; on-street parking (Parking in Station North is getting to be a challenge and you may have to fall back to paid lots); “Walk in” without reservation unlikely to get you a table – reservations strongly recommended; dining parties with more than 4 people likely to be problematic; Not handicapped friendly; there’s only one rest room and it is at the bottom of a long steep flight of stairs; convenient to the “The Charles” movie theater and Station North galleries.