Saturday, October 9, 2010

the restaurant at meadowood

As of August 16, I've added another restaurant to my "Best Meals of All Time" list.  The French Laundry has been at the top since 2007, with Cafe Boulud and Le Bernardin a few spots below.  But I've found a new #2: the Restaurant at Meadowood.

Deciding where to eat dinner for our second anniversary was a matter of choosing from among several highly rated restaurants in the Napa Valley.  But it wasn't until I checked the Napa area on my "Restaurants to Try" Google Map that I remembered Meadowood as an option.  A few months before, I had read Michael Bauer's SF Chronicle review of the restaurant.  I had never heard of it, but there he was, giving the restaurant four stars—his highest rating.  So I saved it to my map and promptly forgot about it.

When I finally remembered it, while planning the trip, I went to the restaurant's website.  It's part of a resort, so the website is not your typical flashy restaurant page.  Nevertheless, I was able to watch a few videos about the place, look at sample tasting menus, and read more about the chef.  Christopher Kostow was one of Food & Wine's best new chefs of 2009, and the restaurant has two Michelin stars.  It's not the three stars of the French Laundry, but it's still really impressive.  I showed Steve, and he agreed that it would be a good place to eat for our anniversary.

It was about a 15-20 minute drive up Silverado Trail from Yountville to the resort, around St. Helena.  We turned off the main road, went through some vineyards, and found ourselves in a wooded area at the resort.  Steve thought it reminded him of the resort we stayed at in Hawaii during our honeymoon, probably because of the guardhouse at the entrance.  The rest of it reminded me a little of the Inn at Otter Crest, where we stayed a few years ago in Oregon.  The guard gave us directions to the restaurant, and we drove along, past some tennis courts, to the main parking area.  With a little help from the person at the main desk, we found the restaurant, tucked away to the side.
We made our way inside and were seated in the dining room, next to a window.  Since we were the first ones there at 6pm, I didn't feel bad about pointing my camera at the rest of the room for a couple pictures.  It was elegant, but somewhat small and just cozy enough.  With lots of windows on one side of the polygon, there was plenty of light.  And when the sun dropped a little, they opened the shade next to us so we had a nice view of the golf course and surrounding pine trees.
flower & dining room
I didn't look very much at most of the menu.  At places like this, we usually just get the main tasting menu and trust that the chef knows what he's doing, considering he's been this successful.  Here, they offer prix fixe menus with choices for three or four courses, in addition to the chef's tasting menu.  If we were to go again, we'd probably do the smaller one, but we had to go all out for our anniversary.  Luckily, nothing had to be adjusted to accommodate my allergies, since we know now that almonds and mushrooms are both safe.  It was nice to know that I wasn't missing any components, so I could enjoy the dishes as they were meant to be.
We also ordered one full wine pairing to share, which they split between two glasses for us.  It was good that we did that, because even half a taste of seven wines was a lot.  They may have been extra generous with their pours, though, knowing that it was a special occasion. 

The first bite to come out of the kitchen were just perfect.  It was brought to us on a little brown velvet pillow (one for each of us, actually), but I put mine on my bread and butter plate for the picture.

gourmet cheese cracker
It was a pillow itself, but the outside was crisp like a cracker.  It was filled with fromage blanc and topped with little herbs.  It tasted great and it was just so pretty.

Next was another canapé... or two. 

more canapes
There was something with squid and perhaps potato (on the right) and there were baby carrots and radishes served with an herb infused snow (on the left).  I have a bad memory for things I don't see in writing, so that's the best I can do for a description for those.  The vegetables and snow were certainly memorable, though.  I've seen pictures of other versions of this served with "dirt," but the snow provided an interesting temperature difference in addition to the whimsy.

The last of the "first bites" came in the form of a baked potato parfait.

baked potato parfait
There were layers of various potato flavors in custards and purees, including one layer that tasted like potato skins.  According to Chef Kostow via the restaurant's website, there are actually "six layers of potato goodness in each bite." On top were oysters and caviar.  In some ways, it reminded me of "Oysters and Pearls" at the French Laundry, but this dish was clearly showcasing the potato flavors rather than the oysters.  The one problem with it was that the whole thing was a little on the salty side.  (By mistake, I'm sure.)  Unfortunately, that eclipsed some of the subtler potato flavors.

The first regular dish was next to arrive, however, and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Wagyu Beef Cured in Meadowood Pine
Hamachi, Scandinavian Flavors

wagyu beef cured in meadowood pine
I didn't quite know what to expect from the "Scandinavian flavors," but the dish worked very well as a whole.  There was a thin strip of the cured beef, with a smaller strip of hamachi down the middle, and sea beans, caviar, dill, and other things from the garden on top.  I didn't notice much of the pine flavor in the beef, but its contribution was probably pretty subtle, like everything else.  Part of the charm was the presentation, with the tiny leaves and bits of herbs.  It was served with a small steamed pumpernickel bun, which was also pretty cute.
Beans, Fresh and Dried
Smoked Avocado, Cumin, Squid

beans, fresh and dried
The second course was an interesting presentation of heirloom beans, featuring a few varieties from Rancho Gordo.  Upon hearing the description of the dish, Steve asked which varieties they were.  Our waiter returned a few minutes later, after asking the chef, and told us that they were Good Mother Stallard, Rio Zape, and Santa Maria Pinquito.  (They probably don't get that question very often.)  The beans were paired with some subtle squid (the name of my next album btw), and some smoked avocado, which was a novel twist.

The next dish was one of the most curious for me:
Red Abalone and Local Chicken
Black Garlic, Mendocino Seaweed, Grated Foie Gras

red abalone and local chicken
Having never had most of these ingredients before, aside from chicken, I had no idea what to expect.  In fact, I even had trouble identifying which ingredients were which on the plate.  There was a black tortellini, which might have contained the chicken and abalone.  The pasta itself was, perhaps, made with the black garlic.  Then, there were chewy pieces of seaweed and slices of mushroom.  The textures and toothsomeness were just as interesting as the flavors themselves.  This is the dish that I'd be most interested to try again in an effort to wrap my head around it better.

But there were still more courses to experience, and the subsequent one was pretty cool too.

Salad of Lamb Neck and Tongue
Compressed Melon, Dried Lime, Turmeric

salad of lamb neck and tongue
The container reminded me of a TV dinner, but its contents were about the furthest thing from it.  There were a lot of components, and many of them were... different.  The lamb tongue was probably the rarer-looking piece of meat, which was flavorful and tender.  I believe the neck bits were the pieces that looked a little like bacon, but they weren't really crisp like bacon.  The texture was closer to pork belly.  The light green strip and the orange diced bits were compressed melon, which I had never had before.  They vacuum seal the melon to compress it, trapping in all of the juices.  The result is something that's more dense and has more concentrated flavor than actual melon.  I really liked it, since I've never loved the texture and wateriness of melon.  I think the darker green dice was gelled mint, and the bright orange crisps may have been something like sweet potato chips.  To round it out, there were a couple dollops of creme fraiche and some leaves.  I'm not sure where the dried lime came in, but it was all good.

"Charred" Bavette
Morels, Snap Peas, Foie Gras Butter

"charred" bavette
This was amazingly dainty for the heaviest meat course on the tasting menu.  Then again, each dish we had had so far had been presented in a way to emphasize the sophistication and the freshness.  The main component here was the "charred" bavette steak, again with the Wagyu beef.  The quotes around "charred" referred to the fact that its dark color came from a rub of mushrooms—simultaneously sweet and earthy.  Underneath were lines of the foie gras butter and most likely a balsamic reduction.  Accompanying it was "laminated potato" with herbs between the thin layers.  Under the strips of potato sat a couple of morels.  Perched on top were snap peas, a tiny onion (probably cipollini), and some tiny chive flowers.  The whole presentation was lovely, but I was losing steam.  And by "steam," I mean appetite.  Steve was happy to finish my dish for me, although I was sad to miss out on eating most of it.  During a smaller meal, I would have happily eaten two of these.

Unfortunately, there was still one more savory course to go: cheese.  (I know, poor me.)

Mimolette Cromesquis
Padron Peppers, Pizzo Leaves

mimolette cromesquis
These were the chef's take on jalapeño poppers.  The cheese was cheddary, and the peppers that accompanied them were little padron peppers, which are usually not very spicy.  This course was actually served with beer, rather than wine.  It was a fun twist, but I'm still more of a wine person than a beer person.  Also, I was already at the point where I couldn't take any more savory food.  Again, Steve performed his public service and ate my last couple bites.

Finally, it was time for sweet.  This I could handle.
Lemon Sorbet
Nasturtium, Tiny Licorice

lemon sorbet
It was a simple presentation of light and refreshing lemon sorbet, but it was kicked up a notch (bam!) with a candied nasturtium petal and subtle licorice—the micro greens on top, maybe?  I hadn't had candied nasturtium before, but I had had the regular flowers in a soup.  They're naturally kind of sweet, so it worked well to candy the petal and pair it with slightly tart lemon.

Then, the main dessert:
Chocolate Almond Fudge
Olive, Brioche, Tomato

chocolate almond fudge
It was certainly an interesting idea, putting olives with chocolate and almonds.  I'm not sure it made the most satisfying dessert, though.  I'm not a big fan of olives, so even though its marriage with the chocolate kind of worked, it wasn't my favorite combination.  I think the tomato element was the clear gelee, but it didn't assert itself very much.  Anyway, points for originality.

Final bites came in the form of little coconut macarons and chocolate truffles.

Unlike our meal at the French Laundry, we weren't subjected to a parade of lovely desserts after the two that were already included on the printed menu.  Those were charming, but excessive and almost depressing, since I was already quite full by that point.  The macaron and truffle, on the other hand, were just enough.  What's one more tiny bite, especially if it's a light-as-air coconut macaron?

As we were looking at the check, we got a visit from Chef Kostow at our table.  He was probably doing his nightly rounds to greet the diners, and we were most likely the first ones to finish our dinner.  He seemed like a really nice guy—and relatively young too.  He thanked us for dining at his restaurant, and we thanked him for the wonderful food.
While each course was amazing and beautiful on its own, part of what made the meal such a memorable experience was the service.  It was the typical wine country fine dining style—easy and comfortable, yet refined.  A couple of the service staff remarked on my camera, but it was always in a welcoming way, and I never felt awkward about taking pictures of the food.  We also bonded a little with our waiter, after he asked where we were visiting from.  We soon learned that he had once lived in our neighborhood, in the house next to the one with the really ugly paint job.  He used to shop at our usual corner produce store and get burritos from our favorite place.  He was friendly and engaging, but he also was very articulate and polite.  He seemed to fit in perfectly.

The Restaurant at Meadowood was only slightly less formal than the French Laundry, but that was probably the main reason for having one less Michelin star.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed it just as much.  The meal was relaxed, well-paced, and pleasant all around.  It really was the perfect place to spend our anniversary.
When it was over and we could eat no more, we left Meadowood and drove back to Yountville to exchange anniversary presents.  It was our "cottonversary," so Steve got me a stuffed corduroy elephant to go with the corduroy pig that we already had.  I got him a random t-shirt from the pirate store that said "Mercury Cougar-Rama Muscle Car-'Splosion" and a dish towel from Anthropologie that actually listed the traditional anniversary gifts for each year.  Who knows what we'll find for year three—leather or crystal—but hopefully, we'll find somewhere good to eat.

Side note: Steve and I saw Christopher Kostow compete on Iron Chef America less than a month after our dinner.  It was Battle Oatmeal against Cat Cora and—Spoiler Alert!—he won.  :)

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