The Charter Oak: A Michelin Three-Starred Chef’s Foray Into Casual

Chef Christopher Kostow at his new, more casual restaurant, the Charter Oak.

Chef Christopher Kostow at his new, more casual restaurant, the Charter Oak.

 

The name references a massive oak tree that was once the focal point of the property before it was mowed down in a train derailment long ago.

Now, what has opened there is creating a big bang all its own.

The Charter Oak, which debuted just over two months ago in St. Helena, is the new hot spot in the Napa Valley. It can’t help but draw all comers when it was opened by Chef Christopher Kostow of the Michelin three-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, and his business partner Nathaniel Dorn, Meadowood’s restaurant director. Katina Hong, former chef de cuisine at Meadowood, heads the kitchen at the Charter Oak.

It’s also enticing tourists, curious to see what has become of the storied stone building that housed the popular Tra Vigne restaurant for nearly three decades.

The hearth, where much of the cooking is done.

The hearth, where much of the cooking is done.

Like its namesake, the restaurant embodies wood throughout — from the polished wood tables to the expansive wood bar to the kindling used in the kitchen hearth where beef rib is grilled over cabernet barrels to the wooden cutlery drawers underneath dining tables to the pocket-sized “The Observer’s Book of Trees” that the bar menu gets tucked into.

The bar menu is handed to you inside a book.

The bar menu is handed to you inside a book.

The restaurant has rustic-refined down pat. It’s food meant for sharing, with starters priced at $6 per portion, vegetables at $16 per portion, and mains from the hearth at $26 per portion.

The entrance.

The entrance.

The dining room with exposed brick wall.

The dining room with exposed brick walls.

When you’re dining solo like I was last month, the bar is a comfortable place to park yourself for a low-key dinner, for which I paid the tab myself.

Because it was a Monday night, when the Restaurant at Meadowood was closed, Kostow was there, expediting dishes.

The Persian Shrub -- potent in flavor but not alcohol.

The Persian Shrub — potent in flavor but not alcohol.

The bar menu is more succinct, but with plenty of options. Since I was driving, I decided to quench my thirst with the non-alcoholic Persian Shrub ($10), made with ginger, cucumber and mint. It was a surprising powerhouse of flavor, with plenty of sharp ginger. In fact, its flavor was so explosive that I didn’t even miss the alcohol at all.

I started with the tartine of summer tomatoes ($6). It was a sizeable portion, so much so, that I ended up taking half of it back to my hotel room. A large, thick slice of the restaurant’s house-made bread is griddled, then smeared with cultured butter before being covered completely with slabs of beefsteak tomatoes from Meadowood’s garden. The bread had that wonderful long-fermented flavor, the butter had a creamy subtle tang, and the tomatoes were summer perfection. Put them all together and it’s one deliriously delicious bite.

Tomato tartine -- simple, yet a total standout.

Tomato tartine — simple, yet a total standout.

Grilled chicken salad with plums.

Grilled chicken salad with plums.

The salad of grilled chicken ($16) featured moist and tender burnished chunks tossed with hearty greens, fresh plums, dabs of goat cheese, and toasted almonds. On a warm night, it hits the spot without leaving you feeling too weighed down.

Date cake.

Date cake.

Because of course, there is dessert. Though there is a dessert cart that rolls to your table if you sit in the dining room, the bar only offers one choice: grilled date cake ($8) with cream made with nocino (a bittersweet liqueur made from unripe green walnuts).

The wedge of cake, griddled on top in a diamond pattern, is sticky soft, almost like fudge in texture. It’s sweet yet not cloying, and reminded me of Christmas.

Like the tree that once stood there, the Charter Oak is a solid endeavor. And I can’t wait to return because that dessert cart is definitely beckoning.

Forget matchbooks, there are mini souvenir soaps in the restroom instead.

Forget matchbooks, there are mini souvenir soaps in the restroom instead.

More: Dinner at Meadowood

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