It seems to me that without any initial intent or formal plan I have spent much of the past few months sampling Los Angeles numerous options for Italian food. The most recent of which, is the newly opened La Botte in Santa Monica. La Botte has received some attention on this board in its infancy and as one poster mentioned will likely receive a lot more as soon as the LA Times gets around to reviewing it.
La Botte, is Italian for "Wine Barrel and dining at this establishment is probably one of the best chances you will have to ever eat a meal inside of an oak barrel. From the floor to the wall and from the wall to the wine racks, La Botte is decorated with California's wine country oaks taken right off the aged old wine barrels. I had a chance to speak with head chef and co-owner, Toni Murè and he mentioned that over 250 wine barrels were used for the floors, the walls, the tables and a wine rack that covers one wall of the restaurant. On top of that, the closest thing the restaurant has to an alcove is lined with the wood from what I think is an old 15,000 gallon wine storage barrel.
The room itself is almost square in shape. The dark wood floors and the low lighting levels made you feel like you could be eating in a wine cellar, despite the fact that one whole wall is windows. That feeling may change when we get back to summer and the days start getting longer. For now, the darker ambiance allows you to feel a little removed from the hustle of the city. The tables are comfortably spaced and they had no hesitation about seating parties of two at tables designed four. The wine rack that covers the one wall is elegant and they do have a few riddling racks with empty champagne bottles creatively separating the waiting area from the dining room. The only real complaint I have about the decor is what appears to be boring black T-bar ceiling. I think they could have done something more with that part of the design. Just try not to look up.
I was there with one other friend and we had 9:00 reservations on a Saturday night (the time we actually asked for). When we arrived each table (except for ours) was full, but there was nobody waiting. We were seated immediately. We were given the menus and the wine list immediately as well as served a basket of fresh bread. The bread was very good. There were too different types in the basket, herbed bread with sea salt and a plain rustic white. We were given all the time we needed to order by the polite and friendly waiter.
Since I mentioned the wine list, I guess I will get this out of the way right now. The only thing really lacking from La Botte is a stronger wine list. They have the Ornellaias, Sassicaias and Solaias of the Italian wine world as well as a number of big wines from Gaja, but in between the house wines and the $200 and up bottles there wasnt much of a choice. For our meal, we each started with a glass of the 2003 Pinot Grigio from Abbazia di Novacella ($10 per glass) and finished the meal with a 2001 Fontalloro made by Felsina, priced fairly at $82.00. Unfortunately, I feel that the lack of affordable depth in the wine list would cause me to order the Fontalloro again and again and again. Hopefully the wine list expands as the restaurant starts to move more bottles.
The Pinot Grigio was just what we wanted, a clean crisp way to start the meal, but the whole time I was sipping on the white wine I was looking forward to the Fontalloro. It is one of my favorite attainable Italian red wines. Fattoria di Felsina is situated in the hills northeast of Siena in the commune of Castelnuovo Berardenga, on the southern tip of the Chianti Classico DOCG production region. The estate maintains the majority of the 75 hectares inside the Classico borders with a small part resting in the Crete Senesi. They have been producing their Fontalloro and the well renowned Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia since 1983.
Fontalloro has an interesting story. It is a cuvee of grapes from six hectares of vineyards spread across three sites, two of which rest outside the delineated zone of Chianti Classico. Because parts lie outside of the Classico borders the Fontolloro will never be labeled Chianti Classico, but rather a Super-Tuscan wine. The owner deliberately took the vineyard outside the zone because he felt that the mixture of soils provide the wine with a distinctive flavor and in the end that would mean more than any label designation. The 2001 is a very good year for the wine, comparable to the 2000. It is an intense ruby red color and the bouquet has strong notes of ripe cherry. On the palate, the velvety structure gives way flavors of berry and chocolate with an elegant finish.
On to the food. I think the menu is fantastic. There are so many things that fit my personal taste that I feel I will always find something new to interest me. This depth of choice is the main reason we decided to get the tasting menu, something I usually only do on special occasions. Here, it saved me from making the tough choices as we left our dinner choices in the hands of the Chef. The traditional tasting menu at La Botte is six courses. It starts with a cold appetizer, followed by a warm appetizer, two pastas, an entrée and finally dessert. (Note: we were asked if we had any food preferences or allergies that the kitchen would work into the tasting menu and we were offered the opportunity to request a particular dish, but we decided to fly blind and let the chef have complete control over the menu it should also be noted that we were asked if we wanted white truffles to be included in the tasting menu and we declined.)
The first course was prosciutto danatra. (Regular menu price $15.00) This dish is a home cured duck breast, thinly sliced, drizzled with a mild gorgonzola dressing. The sliced duck was served quite cold, but I do not think it hampered the taste. The duck, itself, was very tender, sweet and delicate and not nearly as salty as I expected. The mild gorgonzola dressing was exactly that, perfectly mild and a great accompaniment. Had the blue cheese sauce been any stronger, I think it would have masked the flavor of the duck.
The second course was asparagi gratinati. (Regular menu price $14.00). This was stalks (five I think) of steamed, peeled asparagus, broiled with some fontina cheese and finished with a porcini mushroom sauce. The asparagus was very fresh and the warm melted cheese was a nice addition of nutty salty flavor. The fresh porcini mushrooms in the sauce were finely diced and went very well with the rest of the dish. Asparagus is something I rarely order in restaurants for some reason, but I am glad I had the opportunity to try this dish.
The third course was what seems to be the Chefs signature pasta, tagliolini rossi con salsiccia di quaglia e salsa di parmigiano. (Regular menu price $17.00) This is the red beet tagliolini that others on the board have mentioned when writing about La Botte. The deep red pasta was served with homemade quail sausage and dressed in a parmesan cheese sauce (what the menu calls a bed of parmesan fondue). This was excellent. The sausage was very good and the pasta was perfectly cooked with just the right bite to the noodles. The cheese sauce was rich and provided the fat to the dish that the leaner sausage made from quail couldnt provide. Finally the dish is beautifully presented as the red color of the beet pasta contrasted perfectly with a simple white bowl.
The second pasta and our fourth course was raviolini di castagne e gorgonzola in pesto di noci. (Regular menu price $17.00). Having read the menu thoroughly, this is the dish my dining partner was hoping would appear on our table. It is simply small homemade ravioli filled with chestnuts and gorgonzola cheese in a walnut pesto sauce. The pesto was a rich brown sauce that beautifully showcases the flavor of walnuts. The ravioli were cooked properly and you could really taste the chestnut flavor in the filling. Unfortunately, I couldnt really taste any gorgonzola in the filling and I think a sharp bit of the Italian blue cheese would have provided another layer to the richness of the sauce. My friend did say that she could taste the gorgonzola in her ravioli.
Our main entrée was costoletta di cervo al moscato (Regular menu price $36.00).
This dish consisted of a seared venison chop served with a red onion Moscato sauce and a saffron risotto cake. For the tasting menu they take a double chop and sear both sides, slicing the meat between the bones and presenting each diner with one single chop rare side up. I am guessing that the regular order would come with both chops. The only thing I would mention about the chop is that I might have used a little more seasoning (just salt and pepper) before cooking. The moscato sauce was very mild and only a highlight to the perfectly cooked and very tender venison. There wasnt much taste of the red onion. Instead the sauce tasted like fresh apricots mixed with a little wine and honey. The risotto cake was nicely browned and crispy on the outside but still soft and creamy on the inside.
Our final course was dessert. We still had enough wine in the bottle for one more glass of the Fontalloro so we didnt get into the dessert wines. Maybe that is something for next time. There is no dessert list as far as I can tell, so I do not know what their other options are, but we were given two different desserts. One, the waiter called a pasteria napoletana. It was described as a layered ricotta cheesecake with orange zest (a traditional Easter dish in Naples, our waiters hometown). The other was rich vanilla custard topped with a thick dark caramel sauce. I appreciated the fact that we were given two different desserts to try. The few recent times that I have had tasting menus at restaurants the dessert course was the same for everybody. This night, however, we were able to try two different dishes. While the custard was a nice rendition of the traditional dessert, the clear winner was the ricotta cake. It was excellent. It was rich and creamy, with the orange zest was wonderful flavoring. At the same time, it was very light at the same time, a perfect end to an extensive meal (I wonder if they are willing to sell whole cakes for special occasions?). I would definitely recommend this dish.
There was one thing that was a little discouraging with the service of the food during the tasting menu that I thought I would mention. It was perfectly timed, with a nice moment to rest in between each dish. We certainly were not rushed. But the food was brought out by a runner and, on a few courses, there was some time between the delivery of the food and the waiters arrival to describe what we were eating. Luckily we had some familiarity with the menu so would could intelligently guess, but we had to wait for a few moments to confirm that the entrée was in fact venison. This is a small, but not necessarily trivial problem. However it is a problem that is easily fixed.
In the end, the tasting menu was $60 per person which brought the meal total to $240 plus tip. In my opinion this seems very fair for a six course tasting menu of this caliber with a bottle and two additional glasses of some nice wine. I do, however, think that some of the appetizers and pasta dishes on the menu are a tad expensive. If this were New York I dont think people would even necessarily notice, but Italian food prices this high are not too common in Los Angeles (a doller or two more on the price scale then La Terza for example).
Nevertheless, I would highly recommend this restaurant. It is very creative Italian food and the menu is unique for Los Angeles. I hope it does well, but doesnt get too crowded, for my own sake.
La Botte Ristorante
620 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Ph: 310 576 3072