The Restaurant at Meadowood (St Helena, CA) – Alter and Refine

“The underpinning of my food is always going to be California, but it certainly takes a turn toward European and manipulative technical cuisine. I feel in my heart I need to play with things.” – Chef Kostow on the Meadowood blog 1

Napa has done a great job promoting itself as a bucolic land of food and wine but the fine dining options are often uninspiring. The number of world-class restaurants is seemingly one. With proximity to such great produce and a steady stream of foodies, one would expect more. Are the tourists more interested in the simulacrum of Napa than any content? Does the perfectly manicured The French Laundry set such an impossible standard that other chefs do not wish to compete?

Meadowood is trying to expand the number of options. When Michelin drove through the Bay Area last year, Meadowood and Chez TJ (Mountain View) surprised everyone by earning two stars, outdoing regional local favorites such as Chez Panisse, Gary Danko, and The Dining Room at Ritz Carlton. What happened next? Meadowood’s chef left and, quite shrewdly, Meadowood plucked Chef Chris Kostow from Chez TJ, damaging the hopes of the Mountain View That Could.

Reviews for Kudow’s Meadowood are far and few between. Reports from Chez TJ after earning its second star were not always flattering – “good for Mountain View” being the most common endorsement. See Us Eat ate at Meadowood sometime during the transition and the food looked confused. There were few other reports. Fork and Bottle and I wanted to eat and, after some back and forth discussions, we settled on Meadowood.

The menu is seasonal, local, and succinct – there were just 12 dishes on the menu. You are encouraged to create your own tasting menu or order the chef’s tasting menu of the day. We settled on the tasting menu after a substitution (poached beef did not elicit much excitement.) We began early enough to qualify for senior discounts; the evening sun fell somewhere past the golf course and tree line during the fifth course as we ate.

Cold Smoked Toro and Osetra Caviar – creme fraiche and spring onion
The passing of the seasons from winter (fatty, oily toro) to spring (onions.) The toro was remarkable in its quality, sliced razor thin, completely unexpected as I looked out to the golf course outside (that would be the Napa simulacrum.) The toro was fatty and oily with an intense smoked taste. The dish had a restraint in its balance that felt perfectly natural, a less is more philosophy.

Foie Gras and Apple
The brulee was quite nice – a sweet crust that cracked into the creamy foie underneath. The foie was nearly whipped in texture, very light and ephemeral. The cube of foie was a similar take on the ingredient, albeit sauted. Its crust was thick and it too crunched into a creamy foie inside. Again, the dish had a lightness to it, despite the richness of its main ingredient.

Citrus Cured Spanish Mackerel – olive oil ice cream, shaved baguette, legume escabeche
This dish was beautiful to look at but it was slightly schizophrenic. The mackerel had a pleasant citrus inflection but it was a touch too dry for my tastes. The olive oil ice cream was somewhat icy; preferably, it would have been creamier and exude an oil coating in the mouth. The concept was modern without being forced – the execution just needed improvement – it’s a dish that could impress in the future. Arguably, in its current state, the dish hinted that the chef is still experimenting with a personal style.

Lobster and Sweetbread – hedgehog mushrooms, turnip, biancetti truffle
A wondrous dish where the richness was quelled by the chef’s refined style. The textural confidence of this dish was astounding – each having its own similar, but different, pliability. The various tastes of richness reinforced each other – the lobster to the mushrooms to the sweetbreads.

Crispy Confit of Suckling Pig – caraway scented cabbage, pickled apple, BLis maple syrup
Everything was going well until this dish – it just did not belong in the story to date. It was discontinuous and antithetical to the previous dishes. Where was the light touch to offset the heaviness? Why did the portion size get ratcheted up? The BLiS maple syrup, with its intense bourbon notes, worked well the pig and its caraway hints. However, this dish was a mis-step when taken in the context of the entire meal.

Poached and Roasted Squab – Candied Orange, Foie Gras, Dark Chocolate
A nice decadent finish to the meal with some nods to dessert. We debated whether the shaved dark chocolate masked, or enhanced, the squab; I thought its sweet earthiness complemented the meat and provided a bridge into dessert. Of course, I also feel that dark chocolate is an under-rated, and under-used, ingredient in savory cooking. The orange flavors melded well, complementing both the chocolate and squab. The foie gras ball was a nice parting gift, one final taste of savory richness.

As with previous reviews, the desserts do not get their fair due. The desserts, though I forget them, were good but failed to keep up with the highs of the meal.

It was a surprising meal – Kostow is definitely a talent. The meal was not perfect throughout but there were some great ideas and execution. The food is careful and reserved, almost feeling restrained; you sense that the chef is still developing his style (and/or learning how to incorporate it into the Meadowood resort framework.) He cites Daniel Humm (of Eleven Madison Park (NY) fame) as a mentor, and while I see the influence, I think Kostow has turned a corner for me that Humm has not – he’s got a delicacy that Humm only touches on in his best dishes.

Given the lightness of many of the dishes, and the growing international vegetable movement, I could see Kostow incorporating more vegetables into the meal. Cooking in Napa, close to the produce, might provide the inspiration he needs to solidify this aspect of his cuisine and give it a fuller dimension. I would like to see if the summer bounty impacts his cooking. His deft touch might make a larger impact with the subtlety and variety of the many vegetables he (presumably) has access to.

Overall, I’d recommend Meadowood if you’re staying in the Napa area. A weekend of The French Laundry, Ubuntu, and Meadowood would make for great memories. It is deserving of its Bay Area two-star Michelin rating 2, performing better than any other aside from Manresa. Meadowood easily falls into my Top 10 for the Bay Area 3.

You can read Fork & Bottle’s report here – they’ve got photos and descriptions of a few amuses I missed as well as dessert.

- chuck

1 – The blog seems to be unavailable since the day I grabbed that quote.

2 – I would rate it a high one-star when compared to France; however, it is deserving of its two stars on the “Bay Area scale.”

3 – Manresa, The French Laundry, Sawa, and Quince being the only restaruants that I definitely like better. Marinus, in the Carmel valley, would also get the nod (as you’ll read next week.)