At Napa Valley’s Restaurant at Meadowood, chef Christopher Kostow rose to fame with a brilliant modern California menu that starts at $275 a person, before wine pairings. Guests who snag a place at the four-seat chef’s table have an even more outrageous experience, for which they pay $500 each. Think of the tiniest pea plants - roots, pea, and sprout - in a crepe made from more tiny peas, with puffy green kale chips served on the open pages of a cookbook annotated with notes about when and where the kale was picked.
Kostow’s newest project, the Charter Oak, is not an extension of his Meadowood ethos. He won’t be experimenting with ever-more-expensive, avant garde tasting menus. His one-word mission statement here is “simplicity” - at least as a three-star Michelin chef would define it.
“Napa visitors represent every level of sophistication,” he said, while taking me on a tour of the under-construction space. “People with the most refined palates - and then, people who heard there’s a wine train here. Everyone can revel in the simplicity of this food.”
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The Charter Oak is slated to open in May, after about a nine-month delay, with 100 seats in the dining room and more outside on a tree-lined patio. A mammoth black steel bar winds both inside and outside the light-filled space. Final design will be be sparse and raw, yet elegant, all naked brick with a huge black-and-white photo of a train derailment that felled a giant tree near the place in the 1800s (the restaurant's name is meant to evoke something elemental and primary - something lost, like that oak).
It's a far cry from the building’s former life as the iconic Tra Vigne. Once the epitome of Cal-Italian cuisine with mozzarella made table-side and a laundry list of pastas and pizzas, the St Helena restaurant was the culinary equivalent of Madonna, comfortably settled in a stone villa-styled building. “The first thing we did was take the peach paint off the bricks,” Kostow laughed, surrounded by scaffolding and construction workers.
All that manpower has cost a good amount of money; Kostow won't give specifics beyond acknowledging a price tag of “several million dollars” (one of the investors here and at Meadowood is William Harlan, whose Harlan Estate Cab can go for $1,000). “We knew the building needed a lot of work,” said Koslow. “We far underestimated the amount.”
A Preview of the Menu
The focus in the dining room will be a hearth rising almost 20 feet tall, based on the fire-driven cuisine Kostow saw while in Uruguay. “The hearth will be the primary source of cooking or finishing dishes,” he said. In other words, to achieve his aims of simplicity, Kostow will spotlight fire, the most fundamental aspect of cooking.
For starters, he’ll offer such dishes as grilled potatoes stuffed with Marin brie and trout roe and fire-roasted oysters with chanterelle butter. For a main course, he’ll serve grilled pork shoulder in acorn miso and, maximizing his Napa Valley location, beef rib grilled over cabernet barrels, with beets dressed in the rendered fat.
In visual affirmation of his commitment to the hearth, Kostow will hang over it beef shanks, as well as ducks, octopus, and plenty of vegetables such as cauliflower and cabbage, visible from all over the room. “It’s gonna be bananas,” he predicted.
The spirit of Tra Vigne will get a nod with a spate of fresh pastas, such as a veggie bolognese made with hearth-roasted vegetables and preserved tomatoes.
The menu will be à la carte. For what Kostow calls his more adventurous guests, however, he’ll offer a set menu that might include a lobe of foie gras cooked over the fire, or a mutton chop. Dessert carts will make their way around the dining room dim sum style, stocked with such options as a meringue pavlova topped with preserved strawberries from Kostow’s nearby farm. To make service efficient, there will be self-service drawers of silverware within each table.
Another innovation: staff Meal, which will consist of what the Charter Oak crew ate that day. It will go for about $10, or roughly a fiftieth of what you’d pay if you were sitting at the counter at Meadowood Restaurant and Kostow were cooking for you there.
“Meadowood is a place where you say ‘no’ a lot,” Kostow explained. “It’s a very special world. That means that if someone asks, can I have ketchup, the answer is ‘no.’ The answer at Charter Oak will be ‘yes.’ ‘Can I have a burger?’ ‘Yes.’”
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland