The Restaurant at Meadowood - St. Helena, CA

Dinner - Saturday, June 16, 2012

We arrived at Meadowood with high expectations after a smashing dinner at Manresa the previous night. Since it's recent renovation, the restaurant has done away with fixed tasting menus (and also eliminated their shorter prix fixe option), and now "customizes" the meal to seat each table. As usual, we gave the kitchen free reign to design the progression as they saw fit.

Upon being seated, the first thing that catches your eye is the sturdy, handcrafted white charger set in front of each person - Chef Kostow has been interacting extensively with local potters, who made many of the bowls and plates that bore our food. I asked our server about the direction of influence, and she confirmed my suspicion that it was a symbiotic relationship of sorts. This seems not unlike the Achatz-Kastner collaboration. However, where Kastner's pieces are delicate and dynamic (all white china, steel and glass), the Meadowood creations are grounded in the earth, with a (dare I say it) more organic character, reflecting the restaurant's intentions (as is evident in the courses below).

Canapé 1 - Fromage blanc, rice cracker pillow
Excellent beginning - a crispy, airy crust filled with creamy fromage blanc and the faint funk of chèvre. Served warm, it was a tantalizing bite that set a fine stage for the courses to follow.

Canapé 2 - Meadowood garden crudités
Canapé 3 - "Clam chowder"
A delicious play on New England clam chowder, consisting of a geoduck fritter topped with lemon zest, served on a bed of saltine dust. The fritter was creamy and briny, a superb recreation of its inspiration - my favourite of the canapés.

Canapé 4 - Shrimp toast, housemade mustard, chive
Canapé 5 - Brown butter rock, huckleberry jam
Whipped yogurt
Shiso, umeboshi, kuro goma
The housemade yogurt was quite mild, mostly serving as a canvas for the other bold flavours. This was stupendously good, striking a perfect balance between the shiso, pickled plum and black sesame. I wonder if the Meadowood team has considered packaging this for sale - I suspect it would be a huge hit in Asia.

Grilled cuttlefish, Rancho Gordo beans
Smoked avocado, epazote flowers, toasted buckwheat
Harmonious flavours, tied together by a cumin-spiced bean broth that was poured tableside. I particularly enjoyed the spectrum of textures presented by the cuttlefish, beans, avocado mousse and buckwheat.

Spot prawn, lily scape, Osetra caviar
Beautifully presented, but we had issues with the prawn poached in ocean stock (stuffed into the lily blossom) - it was mushy and mealy for a number of us at the table. On the other hand, the various parts of the day lily (petals, blossom, bulb, stamens) were fantastic - such a variety of flavours from one plant. In fact, when paired with the caviar, the prawn almost became an unnecessary distraction.

Monterey Bay abalone, abalone mushrooms
Barley, black garlic, agretti
This was something special - a dish truly worthy of trois étoiles. The components sat in a pool of barley vinaigrette, whose complexity was astounding. The sweetness of the mollusc and the mushrooms, the earthiness of the barley (in both sprouted and toasted forms), the grassy agretti, the pungent garlic - everything worked. It left me stupefied.

Coal-roasted sturgeon, leeks
Creamed onion, chive blossom vinaigrette
Bouillon of roasted meats, beef fat
The bowl contained powdered beef tallow, over which the hot bouillon was poured - it was as good as you would imagine. Rich-tasting, but with a surprisingly clean finish (especially given the amount of dissolved fat).

Roasted guinea hen
Pickled maitake mushrooms, tiny greens
My poor photo above belies how well the skin on the fowl was cooked - it was paper-thin and impossibly crispy. We were each served a section of the breast, thigh, and leg. All were succulent and incredibly flavourful. The sourness of the pickled mushrooms and the mild bitterness from the assorted greens balanced the salt from the hen. Bravo.

Wagyu rib cap, spicebush, morels
Another interesting preparation - the beef was wrapped in madrone leaves and smoked over its wood, lending a peculiar spicy fruitiness to the meat. Paired with the spicebush purée, it produced quite a pleasant (albeit hard-to-pin-down) flavour. Morels, always welcome, greedily soaked up the rich sauce, and were in turn consumed with fervent hunger.

Andante Dairy Etude
Radish, compressed pumpernickel
An excellent composed cheese course. Etude is an aged goat's milk cheese made in the style of Ossau-Iraty and other semi-firm Pyrenean cheeses (although those typically use sheep's milk). It was nutty and almost floral, with a creamy finish - as usual, Soyoung Scanlan does not dissapoint. Hidden under the cheese, there was a compound butter made of goat's milk and nori, an unexpected (and enjoyable) burst of salt.

Intermezzo - Citrus snowball, verbena
Chocolate, beet, blackberry
Valrhona chocolate presented in various forms, served with a quenelle of crème fraiche ice cream (which was good, but not as good as the one we had at Manresa the night before). The beets and blackberries really completed the dish, drawing in bitter and tart elements to round off the richness of the other two components.

Mignardises - "Forest"
To finish, we were presented with the forest floor - green tea and white chocolate rocks, espresso twigs, leaves of Blis maple syrup, rosemary honeycomb, and eucalyptus caramel nibs.

The night was not without its flaws - service was too rushed at first, an uninterested sommelier, a napkin not replaced (shock!), some items were forgettable (the prawn, as well as the sturgeon). Still, when they scored, the team knocked it out of the park (see abalone above).

I'd certainly like to revisit in a year or so, when the restaurant has settled into its new incarnation and has had more time to mature. In particular, I'm excited to follow the evolution of the kitchen's relationship with their local potters - the back-and-forth dialogue has great potential, and hopefully, will help bring an end to the curse of ubiquitous white dinnerware.

The Restaurant at Meadowood
900 Meadowood Lane
St. Helena, CA 94574
Phone: (707) 967-1205