The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA (May 2012)

It was the penultimate savory course, a Mangalitsa rib chop garnished with braised mustard seeds, a purée of turnip greens and caramelized cooking juices. All three of us were letdown: while it didn’t look overcooked, still retaining a pastel pink hue, a lot of force was needed to cut through the inch-thick protein, and it didn’t get any easier when it came time to chew.

In case you’re wondering if this was a leitmotif, it most certainly was not.* The reason the pork stands out is because it was the lone spot of commonness–to paraphrase George Eliot–that The Restaurant at Meadowood would reveal in four hours and over 20 preparations.

But before I get to the food, let me briefly note The Restaurant’s outstanding front-of-house. Makayla, their reservationist, couldn’t have been nicer in noting my mother’s dietary restrictions, answering my questions, and accommodating our request for the counter menu in the dining room. And then there’s the service–led by our jovial captain, Olin, who grew monotonically friendlier as dinner wore on–which leaves you without a worry in the world. One example ought to reify my point: the day of our reservation was beset by unmediated rain, continuing on into the latter part of the evening. Upon arrival, my mother was met by an umbrella overhead as soon as she opened her car door (a gesture I have never seen and likely will never see again).  

As for the food, it was mesmerizing. I once wrote of Chef Paul Liebrandt (here) that he possesses a unique genius for persuading proteins into poetry. The same can be said of the humble and hirsute head of Meadowood, Chef Christopher Kostow, with his ability to persuade produce into poetry without bullying or the use of enzymes. Take, for example, his asparagus composition. Placed in front of us were three unadorned spears in a small pond of asparagus purée. What followed was Alinea-like, as three cooks entered our private alcove with a plate of foraged greens and tweezers in tow to finish the dish. The plate went from straightforward elegance to a work of art with the diner–us–getting to witness this behind-the-scenes motion picture of unforgettable spontaneity, skill and gripping complication. And unlike Alinea, it was an overmastering delight to eat.

Then there was the turnip custard garlanded with shredded shiso, which on first glance looked destined to be textually homogenous. Well, I was wrong, for on my first spoonful I was met with a paroxysm of sweetness brought on by cubes of crunchy candied buckwheat. 

Moving to one of the more substantial creations, not since the black bass with Syrah sauce at Daniel have I been more impressed by a fish course: five different parts of salmon–a warm confit, crispy skin, smoky flaked salmon, a luscious salmon belly butter and explosive little pearls of saltiness from the roe–all expertly balanced by acidity from green tomato caviar, rhubarb and early season yellow and white peaches.

During one of his visits to our table, Chef Kostow joked, “Now we’re finally worth a detour.” But when the subject of Meadowood’s snubbing at the hands of San Pellegrino came up, you could see him visibly frustrated. And justifiably so. The fact that Chez Panisse continues to retain a spot in the Top 100 deserves symphonic jeering. In my mind, Michelin’s * to *** interval scale just doesn’t seem sufficiently discriminating. In fact, based on the personalized service and exceptional offerings, The Restaurant at Meadowood appears to be shooting for a fourth Michelin star.

Charger

Pillow on a pillow: bronze fennel-topped cracker filled with fromage blanc

Romaine crème fraîche with freshly picked garden carrot and turnip

Geoduck clam fritter with a chowder-like liquid center
Shrimp toast with horseradish
Chickpea panisse

Whipped turnip custard, shiso, candied buckwheat and black sesame 

Radish, whipped goat’s milk cheese and pumpernickel soil

Sacramento Delta asparagus salad
Pain au lait glazed with goat milk butter
Toro blanketed by venison, osetra, pickled kohlrabi and a rye bun finished with caraway salt
Geoduck claim “pasta,” lardo and green garlic
Agretti poached abalone, shaved fermented black garlic, barley vinaigrette, abalone mushroom
Copper river salmon confit, salmon skin, salmon belly butter, smoked salmon, rhubarb, green tomato caviar, celery, yellow and white spring peaches

Sturgeon wrapped in leek leaf, creamed onion, levant bread

Poppyseed-amarinth-farro cannoli imbued with Hibiscus-cured foie , radish and popped sorghum

 Salted crusted poussin

Grated fat finished with a bouillon of roasted meats
 Poussin, pickled hen of the woods mushrooms, potato and crème fraiche puree

Chysanthium-marinated duck hearts, chickpea hummus, chickpeas, fava beans, cow’s milk cheese
Mangalitsa rib chop, caramelized braising juices, braised mustard seeds, purée of turnip greens

Sous vide and then smoked beef, morels, puree of foraged spice brush with red currant bread glazed with cow fat
Whipped Explorateur cheese, shaved baguette, green almond, salted cherries

Charred raspberry and strawberry wine, effervescence, rose petals
Kiwi, green strawberry, green tomato, puffed rice, kiwi snow, finished with buttermilk

 Tapioca and sorghum pudding with apricot cake
70 percent gianduja chocolate mousse, black berries, blueberries, beet, dark chocolate tuile, crème fraiche ice cream

Mignardises: maple chocolate, rosemary honeycomb, espresso bark and eucalyptus caramel

* To critique a meal like this is to critique a manuscript up for the Booker Prize. Invariably, it’s going to center on the minutest of detail. With that said, the only other (minor) lapse came down to the cutlery for the abalone course. Because there was a fork served alongside the spoon, one might assume one can pick at the ingredients as if it were a salad–with that approach you’ll be sure to find the dish wanting–when in fact the dish and its combination of flavors only came together when piled atop a spoonful of barley vinaigrette.  
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10 thoughts on “The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena, CA (May 2012)

  1. Glad to see that the meal was so memorable, and the cuisine looks terrific. I was expecting a comparison between Meadowood and French Laundry although I suppose it's a testament to how singular Meadowood is that it doesn't need to be discussed in relation to its Michelin 3-star "rival."

  2. Great review! The umbrella service was a classy touch. The food also looks great. The exploration of salmon sounds really compelling and reminds me of the oyakodon concept in Japanese cuisine. The sturgeon course looks so supple and well manicured that I would have mistaken it for a piece of fine tofu. I guess to get the best of Bay Area haute cuisine (this, FL, and Manresa), one needs to rent a car…

  3. Thanks, Rich! Having my brother rent a car certainly helped in getting to places I never could as an undergrad in the Bay Area, but there remain several places in the city — Saison, Coi, Atelier Crenn — doing really interesting food, though in a less breathtaking setting.

  4. I recently visited Saison (will do a write up on it this weekend) and enjoyed the food (less so the service and setting). Otherwise in SF proper, Crenn and Benu interest me; though they certainly don't rank as high on my bucket list as Manresa and the two 3-stars.

  5. Looking forward to your Saison review! We ate at benu on our last night, but I haven't gotten around to a write-up yet. What I would say, though, is that your priorities are dead-on: hit the two three-stars and Manresa, which I'd really like to try on the next trip.

  6. Benu, Saison, Crenn, Manresa, Plum, La Folie, Commis, and so many others put on so much better a show than Meadowood. Seriously, I've never been so bored by a 3* anywhere.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, uhockey. I'm sorry to hear you didn't like Meadowood.We generally arrive at similar impressions of restaurants (Alinea, Corton, Per Se, Chez Panisse, now EMP and others), but on this one we simply had different experiences that led to different opinions of the restaurant. I re-read your review, and it seemed like the pace was off, which is a total bummer. It doesn't sound like you have any interest in returning, but if you did, the chef's counter would probably make for a more exciting experience.

  8. What stunning looking food! I am dining at Meadowood in just over a week's time and your photos and review have made me even more excited.

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