It’s not every day you get invited to dine as a guest at a Michelin three-star restaurant in the Bay Area.
It’s a rarity — especially because there are only two restaurants in the region that have attained that coveted honor, the highest ranking that the Michelin guide book bestows.
For years, there was just one — the French Laundry in Yountville, not surprisingly. But two years ago, it was joined by another establishment — the Restaurant at Meadowood, which not only achieved three stars but has managed to hang on to them, too, for the second year in a row in 2011.
When you have a chef as talented as Christopher Kostow, though, that’s little surprise.
After all, Kostow, who started cooking at age 14 in his hometown of Chicago, already had racked up two Michelin stars at his previous post at the charming Chez TJ in sleepy Mountain View. That’s no small achievement when you consider that it was his first head chef job on his own, too.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the chance to enjoy his cooking four times, most recently in December 2011, just before the restaurant closed for renovations. It will reopen March 12.
Over the years, his food has become more refined and confident, and even playful in the most elegant of ways. It reflects the 35-year-old chef’s personality — tough in the kitchen, but full of humor all other times. As I snapped his picture that day, he fumbled with the prep apron worn over his chef’s jacket, joking that it was not very flattering. “You think they make Spanx for chefs?’ he asked with a chuckle.
You know you’re in for a special time when you head to this restaurant. After all, it’s located in the luxe Meadowood resort, a stunning 250-acre estate in the hills of St. Helena. As you drive up to the entrance, the guard at the gate will welcome you and point you up to the winding, tree-lined road that leads to the restaurant.
You pull open the heavy door and step inside an intimate dining room bathed in golden light.
The four-course seasonal tasting menu is $125 with wine pairings another $105. The chef’s tasting menu is $225 with wine pairings an additional $205. Your server will be kind enough to ask you if you’d like your own copy of the menu to take home with you, which will be presented at the end of the meal.
Kostow offered to just cook for us so that my husband and I didn’t have to make any choices. Naturally, when a Michelin three-star chef so kindly proposes to do that, you don’t even think of saying “no.”
Dinner started with half a dozen amuse bouches, including a “Pillow on a Pillow,” a tiny crisp square cracker that did indeed look like the world’s teeniest pillow. After one bite, that was replaced by a clear vessel with baby radishes and carrots from the restaurant’s garden peeking out of fluffy “vinaigrette snow” that you picked up and dipped into romaine cream.
Next, puffs of crisp kale that looked like seaweed undulating in an alabaster bowl with chorizo for a bit of surprising heat.
Beer-battered geoduck fritters with espelette were designed to mimic the taste of clam chowder and were just downright fun to eat.
Next, a teeny, golden crisp square with a dab of horseradish that tasted like the most sophisticated version ever of Chinese shrimp toast. That was followed by Kostow’s riff on a baked potato — only this was a little golden ball of dehydrated potato that oozed liquidy cheddar when you bit into it.
The final amuse was something I long to try to recreate at home — goat’s milk yogurt with amaranth grains and a tangle of shiso cut almost as finely as hair. It was like everyday yogurt with granola made into something far more special with sweetness, savoriness, tang, creaminess, crunch, nuttiness and an explosion of herbal minty-ness all in one bite.
And would you believe, after all of that, dinner, itself, had yet to start?
It began with “Fruits de Mer,” shellfish, sea beans and Osetra caviar with peppery cress hidden under frosty “ocean ice” that tasted cold and briny.
Grilled octopus was smoky with a bit of chew to it. It also brought an unexpected preparation of hazelnuts, which were cooked like chickpeas so that they were soft and tender.
Next, a still-life of baby turnips with puffed seeds and house-cured salmon roe that gave a burst of salinity.
Cabbage soup has never looked or tasted like Kostow’s “Cabbage Fondue” version. Made with cabbage juice and melted cabbage, it was a glorious taste of winter — creamy and subtly sweet with the bite of bright yellow mustard flowers and added earthy complexity from puffed, crisp rye shards.
A white bowl filled with white froth and a large slice of black truffle followed. As you dug a spoon in, every bite was a surprise as you unearthed more and more — smoked cockscombs, bits of prune, creamy farina and an oozy poached egg — that came together to create pure sumptuousness.
Fleshy, delicate red snapper came signed, sealed and delivered in a delicate wrapper of impossibly thin potato slices that you could practically see through.
Guinea hen was baked in salt, leaving its flesh moist and its skin nearly as crisp as Chinese roast pork.
The final entree was Wagyu beef cheeks glazed in Perigord truffle that were slow-cooked until the rich meat barely needed a knife.
That was followed by the world’s fanciest looking cheese course. Four square plates arrived at once, holding impressive tastes of Colombier des Pigeons, Le Jeune Austise, Taleggio “en croute” and Abbaye de Belloc — each with their own accompaniments. Alongside was a most Zen-looking bread plate with crisps, puffs and rolls in an array of organic shapes.
A palate cleanser of buttermilk sorbet, banana puree and puffed cereal whimsically recalls your morning bowl of cereal.
If someone told you they were going to serve you hearts of palm in dessert, you might blanch. But it works — so much so that you’ll finish every spoonful. Little rings looking for all the world like cut hearts of palm arrive on an artsy plate with strawberry meringue, toasted caraway, dates and piloncilla sugar. Of course, you expect the rings to be crunchy like hearts of palm. Instead, they are springy and bouncy, having been made into a gelatinized custard with the delicate sweet, grassy flavor of hearts of palm. It’s pure genius.
Chocolate bon bons arrive in a small glass cloche along with an array of cookies cleverly arranged on real “Meadowood moss.”
After a meal that soars to the stars and beyond, it’s a tacit reminder that you do have to come back down to terra firma when the last bite is gone.