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Meal Report -- The Restaurant at Meadowood [Saint Helena]

degustingdiary | Jun 2, 201203:09 PM

Just got back from a four-day trip in the Bay Area and thought I'd share my thoughts about The Restaurant at Meadowood (photos are on my blog: http://degustingdiary.blogspot.com/).

It was the penultimate savory course, a Mangalitsa rib chop garnished with braised mustard seeds, a purée of turnip greens and caramelized cooking juices. All three of us were letdown: while it didn't look overcooked, still retaining a pastel pink hue, a lot of force was needed to cut through the inch-thick protein, and it didn't get any easier when it came time to chew.

In case you're wondering if this was a leitmotif, it most certainly was not. The reason the pork stands out is because it was the lone spot of commonness--to paraphrase George Eliot--that The Restaurant at Meadowood would reveal in four hours and over 20 preparations.

But before I get to the food, let me briefly note The Restaurant's outstanding front-of-house. Makayla, their reservationist, couldn't have been nicer in noting my mother's dietary restrictions, answering my questions, and accommodating our request for the counter menu in the dining room. And then there's the service--led by our jovial captain, Olin, who grew monotonically friendlier as dinner wore on--which leaves you without a worry in the world. One example ought to reify my point: the day of our reservation was beset by unmediated rain, continuing on into the latter part of the evening. Upon arrival, my mother was met by an umbrella overhead as soon as she opened her car door (a gesture I have never seen and likely will never see again).

As for the food, it was mesmerizing. I once wrote of Chef Paul Liebrandt that he possesses a unique genius for persuading proteins into poetry. The same can be said of the humble and hirsute head of Meadowood, Chef Christopher Kostow, with his ability to persuade produce into poetry without bullying or the use of enzymes. Take, for example, his asparagus composition. Placed in front of us were three unadorned spears in a small pond of asparagus purée. What followed was Alinea-like, as three cooks entered our private alcove with a plate of foraged greens and tweezers in tow to finish the dish. The plate went from straightforward elegance to a work of art with the diner--us--getting to witness this behind-the-scenes motion picture of unforgettable spontaneity, skill and gripping complication. And unlike Alinea, it was an overmastering delight to eat.

Then there was the turnip custard garlanded with shredded shiso, which on first glance looked destined to be textually homogenous. Well, I was wrong, for on my first spoonful I was met with a paroxysm of sweetness brought on by cubes of crunchy candied buckwheat.

Moving to one of the more substantial creations, not since the black bass with Syrah sauce at Daniel have I been more impressed by a fish course: five different parts of salmon--a warm confit, crispy skin, smoky flaked salmon, a luscious salmon belly butter and explosive little pearls of saltiness from the roe--all expertly balanced by acidity from green tomato caviar, rhubarb and early season yellow and white peaches.

During one of his visits to our table, Chef Kostow joked, "Now we're finally worth a detour." But when the subject of Meadowood's snubbing at the hands of San Pellegrino came up, you could see him visibly frustrated. And justifiably so. The fact that Chez Panisse continues to retain a spot in the Top 100 deserves symphonic jeering. In my mind, Michelin's * to *** interval scale just doesn't seem sufficiently discriminating. In fact, based on the personalized service and exceptional offerings, The Restaurant at Meadowood appears to be shooting for a fourth Michelin star.

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