The Restaurant at Meadowood
St. Helena, California
Date Visited: 5/21/16
Meal Length: 2 hours 15 min
Why should you be interested?
Though it’s tucked even further up into wine country than Thomas Keller’s legendary laundry, the Restaurant at Meadowood has earned its own reputation as a fine dining destination. After spending time in France, chef Christopher Kostow worked under Daniels Patterson and Humm in San Francisco before moving to Meadowood in 2008. He immediately earned two Michelin stars there at age 32 and made the proud jump to three in 2011 (which they have held since). They won a James Beard award for service in 2014, and Kostow was a semifinalist for “Outstanding Chef” just this year. Additionally, Meadowood was named #67 in the world on this year’s “World’s 50 Best” list (it will always be the San Pellegrino list to me). Normally that rank means little to me, except that Eater devoted coverage to their “trolling” of the awards via a series of snarky Instagram posts. I’ve rarely seen culinary excellence (as judged by awards) mingled with such snark. Could Meadowood embrace the very same irreverence towards high gastronomy I try to embody? I booked my reservation eager to experience the vision of this (comparably) young, brash chef–originally from Highland Park, IL no less.
How easy is it to locate?
The restaurant is located 68 miles from San Francisco on the well-kept grounds of the Meadowood Resort, where you’ll have the honor of dining among middle-to-late-aged couples on wine country getaways. I say that with warmth, of course. It’s a secluded place with winding roads and warped wood signs–no doubt stunning is you’re lucky to walk to dinner from your private cottage on the property. Others should keep their eyes peeled on the GPS and look for a small cul-de-sac with stone steps leading up to a gazebo-like structure with a proud wooden door.
How do you feel when you enter?
Generally relaxed but a bit confused as you realize there’s no host or hostess to be found. We navigated around some seated septuagenarians and settled on a pair of seats in one of two lounges. “The Restaurant” (as they call it [and I will only term it once]), simply, is stunning. It’s the most effortlessly enrapturing lodge I’ve stepped foot in. Every piece of polished wood, an endless array of well-appointed leather chairs, and an assortment of outdoorsy ephemera that’s now so overdone but here looks oh so right.
How should you order?
Meadowood offers a standard menu of 9 to 10 courses for $330 (service included) with a matching wine pairing available. They also offer an extended menu at the kitchen’s chef’s counter for $500 (service also included). Wine pairings start at $225 and range up to $350 and beyond, though the wine list and by the glass selection are impressively reasonable. Given the preciousness of our time in San Francisco, we opted for the lengthier menu (arranged in advance) and arrived giddy at the chance to guzzle down a meal of such impressive excess. Those looking for a less involved experience can opt for a three-course menu in the restaurant’s bar ($90) or a still smaller “snack menu” for $40.
What are the notable dishes?
Brown Butter Bourbon: Incorporating “oaked” maple syrup, sarsaparilla [the quintessential “old style” root beer/cowboy drink], and aged balsamic, this pre-meal cocktail was rich and deeply, sweetly satisfying. The vinegar was syrupy sweet like only decades of time can develop–the kind of balsamic you serve simply over vanilla ice cream or strawberries. Yet the abundance of ice made it rather nicely refreshing. The maple syrup and ice reminded me of a simple Canadian treat (where a popsicle stick is thrust between the two).
Okra Caviar: The “caviar course” (a later course paired the real thing with avocado, meh) came in the form of pale seeds from the okra plant. They were lightly dressed and texturally quite pleasing (yielding yet firm). Accompanying yam pancakes were magnificent, flush with the deep sweetness of root vegetables though a bit too cakey and fell apart in use. The accompanying piece of fish (I forget what) and spreadable (sorry again) were unremarkable, almost muted in flavor. But man, those yam pancakes…
Potato Cooked in Beeswax: “Something simple raised to its highest form.” That’s what I wrote on the spot. I’ve enjoyed Robuchon potatoes before (which famously demand a 2:1 potato to butter ratio) but stand in awe of what Meadowood achieved by cooking theirs in wax. Without the help of all that dairy, the puree slides across the tongue with the mouth-filling richness of milk from the gods. And you’re not tasting butter (however good it often is) but potato. Like 100 baked potatoes roasted and wrought together. Or that stolen handful of fries as you sit in the passenger seat. Really impressive.
Local Halibut: Served with a squeeze of unripe peach, I found this dish quaint and enjoyed dripping the nectar onto the already-gleaming slice of fish. The halibut had an impressive, glossy mouthfeel but tasted of nothing. The juice of the peach was subtly bitter–interesting but unpleasant as the only assertive flavor.
Cod, Cabbage: Quite the opposite of the halibut, the cod was juicy and served with tender cabbage hearts that, like the yams, had an impressive depth of vegetal sweetness. The sauce, made from whey and featuring chunks of oyster, was thick, savory, and good enough to lick off the plate.
Grilled Duck, Duck “Fudge”: The duck breast had an impressive crust and was well (but not perfectly) cooked, yet it lacked seasoning and thus succulence. An accompanying rhubarb mustard was fine yet limited to a scant dollop. The chunk of “fudge” brought the intensity that was missing but only for a couple bites. A clever and well-executed idea on an otherwise underwhelming plate.
THE BREAD BASKET
Brown Rice Bread: This was very, very good. In texture and taste among the best breads I’ve had–and it was part of what I will confidently say was the best cheese course I’ve ever had. Intensely crispy yet boasting a dense, hearty beyond all belief crumb, the singular slice was paired with black truffle-streak Brillat Savarin (75% butterfat) and local honeycomb. As a simple, timeless pairing, and I don’t see how any of the three pieces could be any better.
Chocolate Babka: A nice treat to end the meal. The chocolate was softened and creamy, the bread itself dense and sweet.
How does the service make you feel?
Generally very good. The team cooks with the comfort their beautifully appointed, spacious kitchen allows them. The mood evoked landed somewhere between Manresa and Saison: they’re peppy and positive they’ll please you (but they expect a certain wonder in return). Unfortunately (and rather markedly), we found the sommelier to be curt and cold. This was across multiple interactions and rather perplexing given the cheer the rest of both the front and back of house treated displayed. Upon being asked regarding the rest of our plans, we told the sommelier that we’d be ending our trip to San Francisco with dinner at the French Laundry. At Manresa, that elicited joy and excitement from our server, who went on to praise the rival restaurant and even soothe some of our skepticism that TFL couldn’t possibly meet our expectations. The sommelier’s reaction at Meadowood, instead, was flippant to the point of discomfort, as if we had told her we were driving straight to In-N-Out after dinner. I’ve heard that Meadowood gets the reputation of being “where all the diners who can’t get into TFL go.” Given the restaurant has earned its own reputation and stars, I always found that jest a little mean-spirited. But that exchange, perhaps to my own detriment, really marked the meal and gave credence to the thought. The sommelier elicited shame instead of excitement and pulled the air out of the room, as if to say that eating at Meadowood when you have a French Laundry reservation really is a waste of time. Though the chef’s table menu costs more than nearly any other restaurant in the country, the sommelier somehow managed to cheapen our experience, a real feat.
Was the meal satisfying?
No. And frankly I can’t remember a less satisfying fine dining meal since my salad days. The food throughout was remarkably fresh and fussed with in forward-thinking ways. Now that I’m writing, I realize though I strongly disliked my experience, the dishes were very strong in technical ability and, yes, cleverness. So what happened? The flavors were humble–and I quite like that–but lacked conviction. We were told and sometimes shown how the ingredients were prepared in elaborate and theatric ways, but the flavors (save for the potato) did not merit the fuss. It was very intellectual food–and I’m certainly glad I tasted it–but we were left scratching our head as to where exactly our value was. We couldn’t believe we reached the midpoint of the meal so quickly (1 hour) and with so little food (it’s beside the fact that I consumed two double-doubles [two fries] on our ride home, but my guest–who has a famously modest stomach–ravished 1 double-double and one order of fries). That’s a MEAL. After a $500 “menu.” Perhaps it’s an effort to keep the resort guests drinking and eating (not) well into the night. As we left and deigned to use the restroom, we found it occupied by one of the aforementioned geriatric couples (with our arrival, the line swelled to three, and the pair–upon exit–stumbled out and into a darkened side room to lay low for a moment slinking back towards the bar). I’m not naive of the passions that ignite with the spark of overpriced food (and affordable wine) on a resort property no less. And perhaps that’s the sort of dining and delight Meadowood is best suited for.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
It’s the French Laundry for those who couldn’t get a reservation–“fine dining” for the resort and 2nd honeymoon crowd who don’t know any better. The Restaurant at Meadowood is almost certainly the #1 ranked restaurant on the Meadowood Resort (I say “almost” because I imagine their room service must be pretty good).
Would I go back?
Though the flavors were generally nice–and I really am fine parting with a bag of cash for those flavors–it’s hard to see the price of the menu as anything but a disappointment for the amount and quality of food. Even at half the price, I’d hesitate. The kitchen can clearly make some superlative dishes, but pricing and service reveals an establishment that’s ultimately out of touch. If you’re staying at Meadowood itself or planning on spending significant time up in wine country, the restaurant—particularly given the more modest options—is a worthy destination. But it’s not, itself, a destination.
How hard are reservations to get?
Reserve a couple weeks planning if you are looking for a prime reservation. Given the resort setting (and, I must say, the kind reservationists), callers will likely find some flexibility, particularly if they stay on site. For those looking to book the chef’s table, again, put your money and effort towards a trip to Yountville instead.
Reservations, directions, and other information can be found at www.therestaurantatmeadowood.com