How do you jump-start a long-empty 1907 mansion in St. Helena and bring it into the 21st century?
You hire San Francisco Chef Chris Cosentino to showcase his patented blend of the bold and the finessed to a glorious new restaurant there, called Acacia House. That’s just what the developers behind the new Las Alcobas Hotel did when it opened earlier this summer on Main Street.
The property, the first by the Mexico City-based luxury hotel group, blends Old World with New World in a posh setting that still somehow manages to feel grounded and unpretentious. That’s what I found when I was invited as a guest of the resort one night last month.
The restaurant is housed in the original mansion, once a private residence, then a B&B. It still has a sense of grandness with its wrap-around porch, where diners can enjoy a drink or a meal.
The big white house is still what you see from the front of the road. But venture to the back of the property, and the look becomes strikingly more modern with the hotel part done up in sleek steel, stone and wood.
The rooms are quite expansive. But you’ll be forgiven if you open the door to one only to have your mouth fall open in awe. That’s because the rooms have a stunning view of the Beringer estate vineyard right next door.
In fact, if it were not for a slight trench that dropped off from my room’s patio — presumably built that way to discourage trespassing — I could have taken a few steps right into that vineyard. That’s how close it is.
Instead, I just basked in the vista from my patio outfitted with upholstered rocking chairs and its own fire pit.
The dining room of Acacia House is casual and comfortable, sort of countryside chic by way of Martha Stewart or Restoration Hardware. A wall of windows gives a view into the kitchen, where you’ll find Cosentino about two days a week, when he’s not at his San Francisco restaurant Cockscomb or Portland one, Jackrabbit.
How good is the food at Acacia House? I’m still swooning over a couple of dishes, even weeks later.
A cocktail is a must. The Acacia ($13) is a summery floral sip of gin, honey, creme de violet and sparkling wine, garnished with pretty petals. The Margarita Las Alcobas ($15) will spoil you for any other version. Vanquish any thoughts of the slushy or on-the-rocks standard that you normally just throw back with chips and salsa. This margarita grabs your attention from the first sip. It was perfected at Las Alcobas’ Mexico City resort, and transplanted here. It’s the perfect balance of bracing and boozy. What really makes it is the salt foam that replaces the traditional salt rim. It adds a whisper of salinity — just the right amount — before disappearing like a dream. I don’t even drink margaritas very often, but I would order this one again in a heartbeat.
Dinner began with a one-bite amuse of a yellow cherry tomato balanced on a curl of seeded cracker with fluffy goat cheese.
Hamachi crudo ($18) brought thin, raw slices of the rich yellowtail done up with fresh strawberries, slivers of Serrano, and a drizzle of housemade rosé vinegar. It was at once sweet, spicy and fruity-tangy, making you want to take bite after bite, especially with a cocktail.
A special that night brought more strawberries — this time in a decadent tender upside-down toast crowned with seared foie gras.
Local baby radishes with their green tops ($10) are arrayed on a thick swoosh of creamy sea urchin butter. When I’ve had sea urchin butter in the past, it’s mostly tasted of butter with just a hint of sea urchin. Not here. This is sea urchin butter with a heavy emphasis on the urchin. The first taste that hits you is of the sweet sea, not of the butter. Mark my word, you will scrape up every last bit of it.
A whole hamachi collar ($20) was another nightly special. It is grilled, then roasted. A profusion of chilies, capers, mint leaves and orange zest are strewn over the top before warm extra virgin olive oil is drizzled over it before serving, releasing the fragrance and flavors of all those ingredients all over it. Like with Sichuan dishes, the dried red peppers carry a potent kick, and they can be pushed to the side if you want a decidedly less scorching eating experience. The collar may take more work to eat than a boneless fish fillet. But you will be richly rewarded with the silkiest flesh on the fish.
For entrees, Napa Valley Lamb ($38) brings tender slices done up with a little fermented chili that doesn’t overpower the meat, alongside charred smashed carrots.
Striped Bass ($36) is light, most and flaky with a vibrant herbal sauce verte that’s a little like pesto but with the salty punch of capers.
Prosciutto-fat roasted carrots ($12) is definitely no diet dish. It’s like confit carrots with the root veggies coated and dripping in porky fat. It’s a heavy tasting preparation, so you’ll probably want to share it rather than eat the entire portion yourself.
Desserts ($12 each) are hard to resist. So much so that we ended up with three of them between the two of us. A tres leches cake is a fancy version of the Latin homespun classic. It’s plenty creamy and milky sweet. The peach tart spotlights local stonefruit in flaky puff pastry with green peach leaf ice cream that tastes like the love child of peaches and almonds.
The “Classic” dessert is surely going to become a signature. Who can resist a plate of not one, not two, but three dainty eclairs, each one different? They are beautiful to behold: honey bourbon peach, blueberry cheesecake, and chocolate almond joy. They are also surprisingly light and airy, like crisp troughs holding fillings that are indulgent but none too sweet.
Because this is a hotel, Cosentino is responsible for all the food, including room service, private events, and breakfast.
I started the next day off with the Acacia Breakfast ($39) with my choice of French press coffee, juice, pastries, and a satisfying Greek yogurt parfait with summer fruit that was actually served in a shallow bowl rather than the usual upright glass.
My server let me substitute one of the specialty juices for the regular OJ. I chose the Turmeric Shot ($9), with the color of a marigold, and a dusty earthy taste from the fresh turmeric root.
Another server came by with a big basket of fresh-baked pastries to choose from, including mini croissants, mini pain au chocolate, scones and slices of blueberry coffeecake that were wonderfully fluffy and full of fruit.
Even after my last bite, all I wanted to do was start the experience for a second time — from dinner to breakfast to enjoy it all over again.
Acacia House is not a clone of Cockscomb in any way. It’s very much a restaurant suited to the Napa Valley. Indeed, Cosentino heard from folks as he was planning the restaurant who said that “they wanted fun, playful and big.”
He’s delivered exactly that.
More: Dinner at Cockscomb