My trip to Paris in April led to a renewed faith in the United States Michelin Guides; having dined at six 3* temples of gastronomy and four 2* establishments during our nine days in town I found that on the whole the quality of the food stateside compared favorably with the food of Paris with rare exceptions to the star system on both sides of the pond. With that in mind and having visited all of the US 3* (including the now post-guide Joel Robuchon Las Vegas) except for New York’s MASA and the newly promoted Restaurant at Meadowood it seemed logical that I should visit Christopher Kostow’s St. Helena bastion of local-regional Northern California cuisine during this trip to the Bay and it seemed appropriate that I should expect the experience to be remarkable.
With reservations made months in advance and the better part of my Labor Day spent wandering the streets of Yountville and subsequently St. Helena I arrived at Meadowood Resort just before six and making my way up the steep hill to the largely unmarked “The Restaurant” found parking without difficulty. Exiting my car to the sounds of the forest and subsequently browsing the grounds before making my way up the stairs and through the doors I was greeted promptly on my arrival by a pair of hostesses who confirmed my reservation, offered to take my coat, and led me to a large and study two-top along the entering edge of the restaurant. With a full view of both the room and the outside landscape plus a nearby lamp lending extra light to the table my comfort was assured and after mere moments the first of many servers would arrive to welcome me.
Seated with only one table occupied to my left – a husband and wife clearly involved in the restaurant industry (an interesting coincidence coming from this almost exactly a month later) – I sat for a moment taking in the silence of the room and its subtle palate of wood, white, and subdued lighting; truly elegant in all ways with the sort of design and table separation befitting the restaurant’s 3* status. Greeted next by another young man who would confirm my water selection of still over sparkling and then by my captain for the evening, Andrew, who would present the menus I was left to decide between the prix fixe and the Chef’s tasting while yet another server brought me a collection of magazines to browse throughout the evening; a choreographed parade of service that would continue throughout the evening and without a doubt the best service I’ve seen in Northern California since The French Laundry.
With the menu in hand and canapés starting to arrive at both my neighbors table and mine before I’d made a decision on food or drink, my first taste of Chef Kostow’s creativity would be an excellent one described as “Pillow on a Pillow” featuring a House Made Crisp Cracker filled with fromage blanc topped with basil, and marigold blossoms – a tasty bite not dissimilar to a gougere with the sour cheese filling the palate and then giving way to the refreshing tones of basil and flowers that lingered on the finish.
With a second canapé arriving moments later as I spoke to Andrew about my menu selection the next taste of the evening would be one that many have raved and as it turns out “Crunchy baby carrot and radish crudités planted in romaine lettuce crème fraiche and tomato vinaigrette snow, sherry vinegar, shallots, thyme essence in snow” would be well deserving of the praise. Beginning first with the produce, all reportedly grown on the grounds at Meadowood, everything was at the peak of freshness with vegetal bitters and slight sweetness punctuated by notes of herbs, spice, and a touch of acid. With the process of forming the snow described at length by one of the ancillary servers I was markedly impressed by its lightness – truly like a fresh dusting of snow – and would have loved to see a larger scale version of this dish as raw radishes remain one of my very favorite vegetables.
With bites arriving fast and furious the next two items would arrive less than thirty seconds apart and included first Tempura-battered Geoduck Fritters wrapped in blanched romaine lettuce, beer batter, and esplette pepper plus a Shrimp Toast with Mustard and Chives – both tasty little bites with a slight briny sweetness balanced by the vegetal components and a crispy fried crunch contrasting nicely with the creamy interior.
Rounding out the canapés and this time presented by Andrew my final pre-meal bite would be described as Cabbott Clothbound with potato and parmesan and like a gougere meets a pierogi this tasty little bite was the opposite bookend to the pillow on a pillow, a single bite and then gone; my palate primed after five bites in what felt like five minutes.
With my beverage being readied and just a touch disconcerted by the flow of the meal thus far the amuse bouche of the meal would arrive next with a long description by one of the many runners and titled “The Goat that Got into the Onion Patch” it would prove to be one of my favorite bites of the meal. Unexpectedly balanced for a plate containing so many potent ingredients “The Goat” began with a House Made Goat’s Milk Yogurt atop Onion Jam – decidedly pungent yet mildly sweet – and built on that foundation with a visual and textural composition including dehydrated onions, fresh pea tendrils, pickled ramps, wheat grass, and onion blossoms all contributing to a taste that was decidedly focused yet at the same time never overwhelming; a theme I would see repeated over the course of the next ten dishes.
Hoping that things would finally start to slow down as my water was refilled and my drink arrived – a tasty “Congress Avenue” with Mandrin Vodka, Cherry Brandy, and Lemon ($16) that would last me through the first five courses – the house bread service began next in a “bread pairing” fashion not unlike that at Guy Savoy or Alinea circa-2009 with Pain Au Lait served alongside housemade cow’s butter infused with yogurt and flower petals, both tasty but the butter certainly more so both here and moving forward.
With the service still moving at a rapid pace throughout the room my first course of the tasting menu would arrive no more than twenty minutes after I was seated – a marked departure from my afternoon at Redd – and titled “Japanese Horse Mackerel” I was not sure what to expect since my previous experiences with the fatty fish had been a bit mixed. Beginning first with the Aji itself I will simply note that although not my favorite fish this particular specimen was one of the cleanest I’ve tasted both on its own and as the meaty full-flavored flesh balanced with the combination of bracing unripe Green Tomato Sorbet, sweet halved green grapes and cherry tomatoes. With the flavors of summer still here in full effect the dish was finished with housemade sourdough croutons adding a much needed crunch while the addition of onion flowers and a touch of gazpacho lent a slightly acidic and aromatic finish.
With the pace continuing as it had been I spent perhaps 120 seconds browsing the copy of Food and Wine I’d been provided before the next course would arrive – my second favorite of the evening; “Cucumber Roasted in Pine.” Again described with great detail as the large lemon cucumber was cut tableside with the smells of pine and bay leaf rising forth from the wood plank the almost meaty cucurbit proved quite delicious on its own while an assortment of accoutrements including fromage blanc, borrage, caramelized onions, cucumber flowers, and batons of cucumbers plus “little sour Mexican cucumbers” lent additional sweet and sour notes all tinged by the slight aroma of dill.
At this point actually requesting the service to slow down just a touch as I was afraid I’d be out the door in less than two hours I was told that the next course was already en route but that they would slow the pace thereafter and sure enough less than five minutes after I finished the cucumbers “Foie Gras enrobed in licorice” would arrive. A well known admirer of foie gras, especially in chilled preparations, but less-so a fan of licorice this dish actually proved to be one of the weaker presentations of the evening not due to the licorice, but rather due to the additional ingredients including crispy wild fennel, glazed and pickled cherries, and black walnut “pinch cake” that largely served to overwhelm both the smooth terrine and the airy whipped mousse. Served with a crunchy salted baguette as opposed to brioche and too small a portion to really spread anyhow this would actually prove to be the weakest savory of the night; a shame as the plating was actually quite beautiful and the ingredients all top quality.
Perhaps having heard that I was displeased with the pace of the evening my next course would be presented by Chef Kostow himself after a more appropriate ten minutes during which I finished my cocktail and declined a second despite the interesting list. Listed as “Abalone and Chicken Thigh” and served in a low white bowl along with Geoduck Clam, Matsutake mushrooms, and radish tops plus a clear broth of cress and clam added tableside I really enjoyed the subtlety of this dish as the nearly “chicken soup” tones pervaded the palate on first bite but then gave way to the smooth sweetness of the abalone and slight brine of the clams. Again with radishes utilized impeccably to add just a touch of pepper while the mushroom’s fiber lent a textural variation to the otherwise proteinacious dish everything here was necessary and nothing wasted; a well conceptualized from start to finish.
Again giving me a bit of time between courses the next dish would again be delivered by Chef Kostow and of all the dishes that night this would be the most memorable. Described at length as Lobster Roasted in Sel Gris with wood roasted Nori, White Seaweed, Ossetra Caviar, Lobster Mushroom, Brown Lobster Butter Sabayon, and Sea Beans the only way to describe the flavors is profound. Beginning first with the snappy and sweet lobster – amongst the best I have ever tasted – and then progressing though a variety of vegetal textures from fibrous and earthy to crunchy and brisk the dish was again topped tableside, this time with a light cream based sauce that served to marry all the flavors into one smooth experience punctuated by the intense salinity of the caviar.
Having elected to add an additional course off of the prix fixe menu ($35) simply because it sounded too good to pass up my supplemental dish would arrive shortly after I finished oohing and aahing through the lobster and paired with a Rye Baton imbued with Duck Fat the “Chermoula Rubbed Duck with Raw shaved Rhubarb, Mustard seeds, Celery stalk and Leaf, and sweet mustard oil” would prove to be a bit overpriced for what I received but quite tasty just the same. Featuring two pieces of fowl, one a slice of breast with flawless crackling skin and the other a crisp and gamey slice of confit, the duck itself was good but certainly no better than that at Redd earlier in the day while its plate mates were surprisingly subdued for such strong ingredients, each providing a nice counterpoint to the aromatics of the duck without overpowering it.
Now a mere ninety minutes after seating my final savory would arrive featuring the first ‘substantial’ portion of the evening and to be fair I was actually a little surprised at the 3-4oz of meat and its rather light adornments compared to the small yet ornate plates preceding it. Cooked medium rare and presented by Andrew as “Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Sour Plum, Eggplant puree, shaved Andante Dairy ‘Etude,’ lamb jus, and garden blossoms” this was a nicely prepared dish with the lamb young, succulent, and tender while each accoutrement was well conceptualized and tasty, particularly the aged goat’s milk cheese that added a slightly funky note to the otherwise bright and clean flavor profile.
At this point largely resigned to the speed of service as other tables seated before me were finishing up and heading home the night’s cheese course would feature “Pont-l’Évêque in Soft Pretzel” with Green Tomato Confiture and Summer Garden Sauerkraut along with baby carrots and radishes. Generally unimpressed with composed cheese courses and at this point noting a bit of ingredient repetition in both the radishes and green tomatoes I will note that overall this was a fine course centered by a small ball of the soft Washed rind cow’s milk cheese nested in a sweet and salty pretzel, but all things being equal I’d have simply preferred a cheese cart (or at the very least some flavors I’d not yet seen that evening.)
Moving now from savory to sweet Chef Kostow’s take on the palate cleanser would be a bit of fun in an otherwise serious restaurant – a dish described as “breakfast at dinner” featuring Jasmine Rice Horchata alongside Frosted Rice Flakes coated with squid ink. Served with a spoon and instructed to be eaten just as you would a bowl of cereal the horchata was actually quite delicious with cool almond and cinnamon tones pervading the creamy rice milk while the flakes, another take on rice, were crisp and sweet much like those produced by Kellogg. A fun dish to be sure and overall tasty…but not grrrrreat.
Sated but not full the final course of the tasting menu at Meadowood would arrive almost exactly two hours after I was seated and featuring yet another riff on the ‘tasting of chocolates’ theme prevalent at so many restaurants these days “Milk Chocolate and Hops” featuring milk chocolate daquoise, milk chocolate sorbet, almonds, almond praline, hops sponge, and caramelized powdered milk was pretty much exactly what you would expect from such a dish; high quality chocolate, multiple textures, and just a touch of savory from the hops. Considering the rapidity of progression from dish to dish I will note that I found the partially melted ice cream a bit off putting aesthetically, though admittedly it did not affect the flavors – just not the sort of thing I expect to see at a 3*.
With a copy of the menu requested when I first sat down Andrew would return to collect my dessert plate along with a copy of the menu and asking if I’d like it signed I agreed only to have a different copy of the menu (lacking the duck where the first had it added on) returned with the jacket signed – a small detail, but a detail regardless. Along with the menu I was additionally delivered the bill (including an $8 water charge for what I’m rather certain was merely house-filtered water) and a selection of four mignardises including a Chilled Chocolate with Passion Fruit caramel in the center, Pistachio marzipan with toasted coconut and Giandujia center, Chamomile and Lemon Marshmallow Kiss, and last a Mint Ice Cream Sandwich – all tasty and the marzipan actually better than either of the desserts despite being only a bite.
With the bill paid (the most expensive of the trip by far) I bid farewell to my server and with smiles from each person I encountered on the way to my car I slowly navigated my way down the unlit roads of Meadowood until my GPS landed me on the main road a mere 140 minutes after I’d originally taken a right turn onto the resort property; the fastest I’ve ever been ushered through a ten course menu and less than half the time it took to dine at other Michelin 3* restaurants both here and abroad, and as a matter of fact less time than it took to complete many two-star experiences as well. Never one to complain about the cost of a great meal I will simply end my thoughts by stating that Meadowood is a fine restaurant and Chef Kostow clearly a very talented chef but all things being equal this was not a “great meal” and taking into account the rapidity of service, distance of travel, cost, and water surcharge the only way I’d return would be on someone else’s dollar – otherwise I’ll do the leg work for another reservation at The French Laundry or simply stay in San Francisco and visit a more appropriately praised and priced property.