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The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, California - 3 Michelin stars

Rating: 99.
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In many European countries with their long winegrowing traditions, the concept of "creating" a first growth is almost anathema. The Californian pioneering spirit is of course completely opposite and when Bill Harlan in 1985 purchased a property west of Oakville, where no grapevine had ever been grown, it took him less than two decades to propel the wines from "Harlan Estate" to world fame and to prices that would not make a Rothschild blush. It was on his search for land on which to create his wine estate, that Bill Harlan came across the 250-acre Meadowood estate in St. Helena in 1979. Being an astute businessman, he saw its potential not as a wine estate but as an upmarket resort and immediately purchased it together with his partners.

(courtesy of Meadowood)

Fast-forward almost thirty years and Chrisopher Kostow enters the scene. Probably the only top chef in the world to have a degree in philosophy, he started his career with Trey Foshee at Georges at the Cove in San Diego and then spent two years in Europe doing stages at restaurants in France, including the celebrated Jardin des Sens in Montpellier (then 3 Michelin stars).

Then back to the States, to work in San Francisco first with Daniel Patterson at Elizabeth Daniel, and later on with Daniel Humm at Campton Place. Before joining Meadowood in February 2008, Christopher Kostow was executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, California, earning him a Michelin star in 2006 (2007 guide) and a second star in October 2007 (2008 guide). A couple of months after he had been awarded his second star it was announced that Kostow would become executive chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood ("Meadowood"), a restaurant that held two Michelin stars at the time under the guidance of Joseph Humphrey. Kostow held onto those two stars and in October 2010 (2011 guide) Meadowood was awarded its third Michelin star.

Meadowood is open for dinner Tuesday through Friday. The restaurant offers one multi-course tasting menu (around 10 courses) for $225. Alternatively there's the Counter menu (around 20 courses) priced at $500 including service charge. The Counter menu can be enjoyed in the dining room or at the chef's counter in the kitchen, which only has 4 seats. I had dinner with my husband at Meadowood on Tuesday 7 April 2015 and we had the Counter menu at the chef's counter.

On the night we were there, there had been a power cut, and the staff informed us that the kitchen was still operating, albeit on a generator, but that the ventilation system was no longer working. The latter also lead to the question: do you still want to have dinner at the chef's counter, as the smell of your clothes will be a souvenir of the experience for at least a week. We decided that we didn't mind and a couple of minutes later we were sitting on two of the four kitchen stools overlooking Chrisopher Kostow's magnificent kitchen. The other two stools initially stayed empty, because apparently those two guests weren't up for smelly clothes, and decided to have their meal in the (exclusively candle-lit) dining room instead. However, after 30 minutes or so, they'd changed their minds and joined us after all.

Tonight's menu featured 23 courses, ranging from bite-size to small or medium dishes. To start there was a lovely bite of puffed kale crisp with a "flavours of chorizo" puree, shortly after followed by some salty and crunchy vegetables from Meadowood's own vegetable garden. The vegetables had been fermented overnight with some champagne yeast.

Next to arrive was a crisp salad of briny oyster leaves with a classic mignonette, elegantly served in an oyster shell, and succeeded by a deliciously unctuous bite of fatty eel, smoked over old Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, and glazed with saba (grape most reduction). The eel together with a bit of beef tongue was wrapped in a crisp grape leaf. Terrific. A couple of minutes later we were served a day lily flower stuffed with moist shrimp, and briefly grilled over the wood fire. Elegant and refined.

Then there was a bowl of pea soup, but not just any pea soup. In the bowl were snappy fresh peas, clear pea shell jelly, pea flowers, and a warm silky pea soup flavoured with cultured butter, and seasoned with a touch of black lime. A delightful dish with very pure and elegant grassy and sweet pea flavours, the butter adding a pleasing touch. Equally wonderful was the next dish of green asparagus "salad" served with fresh and tender surf clams, caviar, miner's lettuce (winter purslane), and finished with some smoked butter. A balanced and elegant dish, with beautifully pure flavours, the smoked butter delivering a touch of charming warmth, and the caviar brought some nice saltiness and creaminess (both in flavour and texture) to this dish.

At this point we had been served the first seven courses, which were all full of flavour and surprise, and also were a great display of fantastic spring ingredients. A wonderful kick-off of this meal and all served in around 25 minutes, which was an impressive but also very intense experience.

Eighth course was "Mackerel Verjus Escabeche". The mackerel is first marinated with verjus, then briefly grilled over fire, and served with the escabeche juices, celery and some celery leaves. A wonderful flavour experience: first you taste the smoky, moist mackerel offset by the sharpness of the verjus, and in the end you get the herbiness of the celery. Great textures too.

This was followed by two other fish courses. First up was a beautifully made roulade of leek and whelk (slow-cooked, then grilled and smoked), that had refined but distinct flavours, and I especially liked the intensity of the whelks. The roulade was garnished with some nasturtium leaves and flowers and served with a delicious whelk and leek oil. A superbly executed dish.

Next was perfectly tender abalone covered with some melting onion/abalone jelly, and served with some beans and a smooth bean puree to add some substance. A perfect match and the jelly had wonderful complex flavours.

The meal continued with potato cooked sous-vide with beeswax, and served with potato puree, a fanatstic potato and nori crunch, and garnished with a few sorrel leaves. An exceptional dish with amazingly delicious potato flavours, and with a hint of beeswax in the background, which gave the dish a nice edge. The humble potato refined to its most exquisite representation.

Another exceptional dish followed. Ridiculously juicy and flavoursome kohlrabi (cooked in its own juices) was served on top of some rye porridge, and complemented by clear, lightly smoked and jellied kohlrabi juices, seasoned with finely chopped garden herbs. On top of the kohlrabi were some soft mustard seeds and some mustard powder, delivering some lovely sharpness. Best of all though, were the kohlrabi juices, which had a lovely meaty (ham?) character.

On the thirteenth course, ocean trout covered with a buckwheat and vegetable "ash" crust and accompanied by a succulent and shiny turnip and a bright green turnip top sauce. Wonderfully tender sea trout, the crust creating a lovely textural counterpoint, and a hit of bitterness and peppery sharpness coming from the turnip. An elegant and quite restrained dish with a great contrast in flavours and textures.

The next three courses revolved around duck, starting with a so-called duck "tea", a broth made with duck bones and served with a some red dill tops, that had a fabulous depth of flavour. The second duck dish was duck foie gras marinated with fresh herbs and seared with white hot Josper oven coals, simply served with strips of rhubarb and some soft milk bread. The foie gras was absolutely exquisite and the searing delivered an outstanding flavour experience - beautiful firm texture too. Last in line was duck fillet (aged for 2.5 weeks) successfully paired with soft and sticky duck "fudge", roasted yam puree, and cultured cream. A spectacular duck dish, refined, balanced, everything being splendidly cooked.

Then there was beef. Incredibly flavoursome grilled bavette (aged for 3 weeks), with a silky texture, and served with finely chopped shiitake mushrooms, a delicious bavette jus flavoured with black fermented garlic, and decorated with some mustardy cress flowers. A very pleasing dish and the cress flowers balanced the dish out perfectly.

After the beef the first of five dessert courses was served, starting with some lovely goat's cheese. Half a medium crottin-shaped goat's cheese (kept in apple leaves), was served with dried apple, some sour leaves and a slice of bread made with sake yeast. An elegant dessert of sheep's yoghurt sorbet with preserved strawberries, flowering hibiscus and wild rose followed.

The third dessert and twentieth course was a more complex dish of cured egg yolk, rosemary-molasses crumble, and a piece of pomace-cured pear. Lovely richness from the egg curd and the crumble, the rosemary adding nice pine-like flavours, and the fragrant and juicy pear brought a lovely touch of juicy freshness to this dish. Alongside this we were served a concentrated date puree (served with a few drops of walnut oil), that delivered lovely coffee notes and nice touch of spiciness in the finish.

Next was a dessert of nice and chewy chocolate nougat twigs, served with candied sliced walnuts, a few spice bush leaves, milk granita and some burnt milk. An excellent dessert striking the right balance between sweetness, creaminess, and freshness, with lovely contrasting temperatures and textures.

To conclude this meal there was a delicious roasted chocolate and chestnut cream treat.

The Meadowood Resort & Spa has been dubbed "Napa's Premier Luxury Hideaway" and "the region's top luxury resort". You might expect its prestige, three Michelin starred restaurant to focus on luxury ingredients and classic French cooking, on lobster and caviar, turbot and foie gras. You couldn't be further from the truth and from Christopher Kostow's ethos. His aim is to give us a New Napa Cuisine. It is the title of his 2014 book, in which he quotes Miles Davis: "don't play what's there, play what's not there". He writes: "Above all else, I will keep working and listening to the things around me" and "Here in this small American valley, I will strive to construct a perspective that is both personal and universal. I hope to keep holding the thread".

What's on the plate, reflects this philosophy very accurately. In his quest to represent and reflect the Napa Valley in his cuisine, Kostow is obsessive with ingredients, but his natural approach does not prevent him from delivering surprisingly luxurious flavours. His food is characterised by a minimalist presentation, the duck dishes being a triumph in simplicity. Dishes are served in the most elegant fashion and the chef's focus on the quality of the ingredients is only enhanced by his willingness to embrace technical complexity. I had the opportunity of enjoying this meal in the inner sanctum at Meadowood and I was very impressed with the totally relaxed and experienced kitchen team. It was an expensive meal, but one also pays for the privilege, and generally speaking the pricing at Meadowood is not out of step with other three Michelin starred restaurants in California. Christopher Kostow clearly is a chef on top form and Napa Valley is fortunate to have this truly extraordinary chef.

Posted 23-08-2015


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