The Restaurant at Meadowood | St. Helena, CA | Apr ’14 | “leaves of grass”

29 Apr
  • Address: 900 Meadowood Ln, St Helena, CA 94574
  • Phone: (707) 967-1205
  • Price (after tax + tip, excl. drinks): $288
  • Courses: (15 main/20 total) 3 amuse / 12 savory / 1 cheese / 2 dessert / 1 bread / 1 mignardises
  • Price/Main Course: $19
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining Time: 140 minutes
  • Time/Course (total): 7 minutes
  • Chef: Christopher Kostow
  • Style: Vegetable-focused
  • How I got here: Zipcar from San Francisco (2 hours to the restaurant, 1h20 min back)
  • Michelin Stars: 3

 

2014-04-28 21.18.39

FOOD

First of all, credit where credit is due. I thought the flavours at Meadowood were very strong, and certainly there was bold use of grassy flavors in the first half of the menu, to a degree I have not seen before. It was rarely perfectly harmonious, but this is a direction that not many kitchens are taking. I can certainly understand the rationale of 3 Michelin stars, for the cooking here is quite unique, relying strongly on fresh plants and grasses (uncharitably, weeds). The menu transitioned seamlessly from grass-garden to seafood to red meats, and had a strong finish with a memorable coconut+olive oil dessert, and a comforting custard. The kitchen is doing some really interesting things with fresh-plant (and esp. grassy-type) flavors, and they succeeded convincingly with dishes like “peas and cheese”, though less so with the others.

A bit less convincing was the theme of “vegetables playing the meat”. Neither the third dish, “chorizo” kale, nor the 17th dish castelfranco “ham”, were successes. Indeed, the most successful dishes were the heartier ones, like “peas and cheese”, “potato in beeswax”, “bavette”, “olive oil and coconut”. The experimental vegetable-forward dishes, like “lardo+fava bean dumplings” and asparagus with hints of grass, in addition to the small vegetable snacks are generally weaker than the non-vegetable dishes. But those vegetable dishes are clearly where the kitchen is putting time into improving, so it will be interesting to see in a couple of years if Meadowood does manage to master the fresh-plant flavours on a more consistent basis.

My reading of the menu I was served is that Meadowood was serving strong if conservative fare (aforementioned potato, bavette, pea and cheese dishes), but has chosen to innovate in the herbaceous direction. It is a credit to the kitchen that they were able to fuse the traditional and modern strands into a seamless menu.

The most similar restaurant to Meadowood in the United States I’ve tried is probably Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. There is a similar focus and attempt to haute-ify vegetables. But the difference is that while Blue Hill (when I went in winter) attempted to haute-ify the root vegetables (kohlrabi, carrot, beetroot), and the less-intense leafy vegetables (cabbage), whereas Meadowood is trying to elevate the weed flavours of grass, chlorophyll and non-traditional herbs. In fact, of the two, I would say Meadowood is more innovative in terms of flavour profile.

Of the meal itself, I look for the ‘wow’ factor in my visits 3* Michelin restaurants. Meadowood on my recent visit lacked this spark. I think the meal I was served was certainly worthy of a solid 2* Michelin restaurant, but to me the restaurant’s dishes as they currently are, are not the finished product, and they will need a bit more time to experiment with the various weed-grasses and unripe plants they are playing with, to master their flavors. But if they manage to do so on a consistent basis, this will be a restaurant of the very top rank. The ambition is clearly there, and innovating towards fresh plant flavours, letting a thousand flowers _and_ weeds bloom, is a fairly unique direction in American gastronomy.

Rating: 18/20

Memory: “Moroccan black olive meringue”, “peas and cheese”, “potato cooked in beeswax”, “bavette, koji, parsnip, rice”, “olive oil, coconut, borage”

[I have much less complimentary things to say about the service, and will say them after my dish notes. You can skip them if you’re here only to find out about Meadowood’s gastronomic offerings. I don’t usually talk at length about service (and it doesn’t figure in my rating scores), but I left the restaurant feeling disappointed for non-food related reasons.]


2014-04-28 21.24.46 2014-04-28 21.25.29

AMUSE

2014-04-28 21.34.191. moroccan black olive meringue, whipped olive oil, cress flowers (5/5)
a real fruity (from the olive) sweetness in the meringue, remarkable clarity of olive flavors.

2014-04-28 21.37.51

2. crudites fermented in champagne (3.25/5)
left to ferment overnight. the radish was the best, possessing a surprising savory note. the (literal) turnip was, well, a (metaphorical) turnip.

2014-04-28 21.42.33 2014-04-28 21.42.45

3. chef’s garden (puffed kale with chorizo seasoning) (3/5)
the start of a common theme at Meadowood, vegetables dressed with all the pomp of meat. I did not find this convincing.2014-04-28 21.45.34


 

2014-04-28 21.47.49 2014-04-28 21.48.36

4. peas and cheese (4.5/5)
a ode to pea, cut by cheese. a pea broth gelee, with pea shells, pea tendrils, and baby peas. and cow curds from black beaut cows in Pedroso farms, in Sacramento CA.
very good. flavors of peas were very clear, and enhanced by the 4 different textures of pea. very impressive. a clean, clear idea.
to be picky though, they were a bit more starchy and harder than the ones I had at Manresa (still the top peas I had on this California trip)

2014-04-28 21.53.49 2014-04-28 21.54.17 2014-04-28 21.54.365. whelk “conserva”, wild and cultivated grasses (4.25/5)
whelk broth and brine from pickling, green garlic
I doubt I’ve had whelk in America before, but this was a dish of contrasting flavor, the slippery texture of whelk, with the peppery tastes of grass and baby asparagus. Good.

2014-04-28 22.00.39 2014-04-28 22.00.506. asparagus, surf clam, smoked goats butter (3.5/5)
A third dish in a row emphasising the taste of fresh greens. Here surf clams from Monterrey Bay, CA. (Peeled) Asparagus from the Sacramento Delta, raw grain sprouts from barley, and smoked goats butter. Here, the taste of wild grass formed a course pair with the previous. I did not like this course very much, because the grass flavors tended to dominate.

2014-04-28 22.04.517. adductor muscle of surf clam, walnut (3.25/5)
the “scallop” (adductor muscles are what we eat of the scallop) of surf clam had a taste akin to dried scallop, and the texture of dried scallop. topped with shaved walnut. okay.

2014-04-28 22.07.17 2014-04-28 22.07.438. potatoes cooked in beeswax, assorted sorrels (5/5)
http://www.cuesa.org/food/corolla-potatoes
this was a dish I really enjoyed. potato, poached in beeswax, small yellow, the poached potato had almost the consistency of mashed potatoes.
a puree of potatoes beneath, and potato bits (fried with sorrel leaves). amazing, to find almost two textures of mashed potato (the solid, actual corolla potato), and the potato puree co-existing on the same dish.

2014-04-28 22.13.26 2014-04-28 22.13.34

9. parker house rolls (4/5)
tasted more like Chinese buns (mantou), but not bad. Pales in comparison to the Saison version though.

2014-04-28 22.13.58 2014-04-28 22.14.07

10. lardo, fava, sea lettuce, caviar, avocado (3.5/5)
Verdant tastes again, with a quenelle of osetra caviar dropped into a green fava-bean+immature-chickpea puree
Lardo + fava bean dumplings.
I did not like this dish much, because there it was unclear what lardo served in the dish besides a binding agent for fava beans, and the caviar taste did not pair especially well with the verdant fava bean+chickpea puree. (I understand the commitment to the taste of fresh-greens at Meadowood, but it was hard to forget a truly harmonious preparation of caviar with sturgeon bone gelee at Saison a few days early)

2014-04-28 22.21.59 2014-04-28 22.22.05

11. day lily (allium), San Diego spot prawn (4/5)
Good sweetness from spot prawn

2014-04-28 22.24.30 2014-04-28 22.24.36 2014-04-28 22.26.25

12. sea cucumber, wild onions, whipped bean, brown butter, seaweed (4/5)
sea cucumber from Santa Barbara, seaweed from Mendocino coast, wild onion, whipped Rancho Gordo bean

2014-04-28 22.35.28 2014-04-28 22.35.45

13. aji, unripe tomato, artichoke, green almond (3/5)
Here, cured in juices of unripe tomato 5 hours (akin to ceviche). And then lightly grilled on one side. I did not like the grilling. I did not smell the delicious scent of charcoal, and what it did was merely made the fish chewier and sinewy on one side.
the sauce was a (artichoke) barigoule, with juicy green almonds (that I liked), and served with really large pieces of bonito. I learnt there is a reason why bonito tends to be served in flakes, and that’s because the bonito here was really chewy, like bad jerky.

2014-04-28 22.42.04 2014-04-28 22.42.17 2014-04-28 22.43.01

14. squab “tea” (4/5)
squab consomme (made from jus), with fennel, thyme, rosehips, and spicebush (tasting of melon & peppercorns), growing around the property of Meadowood. Micro-local terroir, if you will.

2014-04-28 22.50.22 2014-04-28 22.50.3115. squab curds, green strawberry, celery (4/5)
The rest of the squab breast, from Paine farms (dir: next to Fremont Diner). Unripe strawberries (surprisingly sweet) and celery (fermented, and also the leaves), and (I believe) paprika. Another solid dish that I could see possible improvements in. The celery had no synergies with the strawberry, other than a bland slight saltiness of the ordinary celery we’re used to. Neither did the salad have much synergies with the squab breasts. Resolutely separate.
I had tried, the previous day, some truly special herbs and vegetables at Manresa, especially those with an anise/licorice flavor, but many of the Manresa herb tastes, I will confess, are ineffable to me. Instead of bland celery, I could envision this dish much improved by including some stronger tasting herbs.

2014-04-28 23.03.52 2014-04-28 23.04.00 2014-04-28 23.04.21

16. bavette, koji, parsnip, rice (4.5/5)
Chopped bavette (from the flank), dry aged 21 days, seared in oven. Cured beef shavings on top.
Brown rice koji (brown rice inoculated with the spores of Aspergillus oryzae) http://www.clearspring.co.uk/blogs/news/8024723-koji-the-culture-behind-japanese-food-production
Beef = American wagyu, Snake River farms
Morels, roasted in butter. I enjoyed very much the flavorful beef which complimented the earthy morels.

2014-04-28 23.13.39 2014-04-28 23.14.28

17. contralto, castelfranco, “ham”, bread (3/5)
Contralto cheese from Andante Farm, Petaluma, CA. Fermented rye (Geechi Boy)
Again, there was an attempt to dress castelfranco radicchio with ham seasoning. It was playful but not especially delicious
http://radicchio.com/castelfranco-radicchio/

2014-04-28 23.24.39

18. olive oil, coconut, borage (4.5/5)
frozen coconut cream with Hudson ranch olive oil (peppery) and gooseberry sauce+lime juice, borage sprouts
I thought was a very good dish, with the peppery olive oil going well with sour gooseberry and sweet coconut tastes.
the borage had a fishy taste

2014-04-28 23.32.15 2014-04-28 23.32.26 2014-04-28 23.32.3519. silken chocolate, panettone (4/5)
Chocolate broth, and roasted dates, custard, with chocolate panettone (sweet bread loaf) panettone was a bit dry. But the custard was good, emphasising complimentariness of the earthy-sweetness of date and of chocolate

2014-04-28 23.40.30

20. praline (3.25/5)
almond praline, standard.2014-04-28 23.57.19


SERVICE

Now that the objective part of the review is done, let me explain why I was disappointed: I was seated about the same time as a couple when I finally drove into the Meadowood resort at 6pm. Our tables were about 1 metre apart, and as a solo diner, I was looking forward to catching up on some reading.

About half an hour to an hour in, it becomes clear that the couple next to me are starting to argue. Whatever, everyone has their differences right? Maybe they’ll stop after 10-15 minutes. Half an hour later, it becomes clear that they are going to be the story of dinner.

This basically went on until the end of dinner, despite my increasing discomfort at being stuck 1 metre away, as the passive-aggressive-ness just kept increasing at the other end of the table. Basically, at the end of the night, I was pissed off that no one had noticed that for 90 minutes I was increasingly uncomfortable with the scene unfolding beside me, shifting my body away, trying to discreetly cup my facing ear so I wouldn’t have to hear their arguments (giving the couple besides me some face).

No doubt, that such an unpleasant experience should occur is like an act of God. No one really wants it to happen. Yet I believe the Meadowood team could have significantly reduced the unpleasantness for all parties around.

My two complaints with Meadowood’s service: (they’re related)

1. I don’t remember my captain, whom while pouring the opening glass of champagne had indicated she would be my server for the night, approaching my table again after the 60 minute mark. Whoever was in charge of my table, did not do a good job. I never felt I had a point person for service.

2. What would have been exemplary service, since the staff had noted the argumentative couple next to me, would have been perhaps to inquire discreetly about my situation (being seated 1 metre from them as a solo diner, with no distractions except their constant argumentation as my backdrop), and offer to reseat me somewhere, perhaps in a private dining space or even at the bar. We were not in a metropolitan area, and certainly space is no constraint out in Wine Country, and I’m sure some other spaces exist for Meadowood. Anywhere else would have been preferable to 1 metre away from a squabbling couple. I think about how Blue Hill SB, a paragon of great service, was able to shift me (a solo diner) around 2 dining spaces (the bar and the kitchen). Why could Meadowood not have done the same?

The irony is, I had read a piece last week about Meadowood building a service culture:

Oftentimes in a restaurant they don’t allow the staff to talk to guests. I want to build relationships. Dining is so much more. [Guests] come here to eat, but they come here to have an experience. They come here to have conversations with the people they come to dine with. They come here to have conversations with the staff [at a] restaurant that is approachable and sincere. When a guest leaves and says, “Tell Olan and Sam and Chris, ‘Thank you,'” I know we’ve accomplished our goal. Because, again, it’s about the food, but it’s about the chairs, the aesthetics, the conversations, the people …

Right, that’s all important.
For instance, when you left the restaurant, maybe there was a specific item you remember that you really enjoyed, but it’s more or less the feeling you got when you left.

Exactly.

And, 10 years from now, that’s what you remember is the way you felt on your anniversary with your husband, or your babymoon. You remember what you felt, not exactly what you had.

Right, so you’re looking to create that feeling above everything else.
Yeah, it’s to create memories. So many people Google to find out interesting things about their guests. We Google to see if we can connect on different levels with guests. Maybe they have a baby, maybe they’re from Scranton, PA. Maybe I’ll put them with a waiter from Pennsylvania, too, so when they’re here and they normally don’t dine in restaurants like this, they have some type of a connection that will get them to relax and forget about the fanciness around them.

http://eater.com/archives/2014/04/22/nathaniel-dorn-meadowood-interview.php

That article was published on 22nd April, 2014. My experience with the service at Meadowood 6 days later, 28th April, 2014, was quite different indeed. To sum the service in a word, “disappointing”.

2 Responses to “The Restaurant at Meadowood | St. Helena, CA | Apr ’14 | “leaves of grass””

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