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Christopher Kostow’s ‘Casual’ Napa Restaurant Isn’t Really Casual at All

He keeps things simple—in the way of a Napa Valley fine-dining chef.

Chef Katianna Hong tends to a lamb shoulder cooking on the hearth.

 

 

When I tell you that the Charter Oak, in St. Helena, is the easygoing and accessible sophomore project from Christopher Kostow, remember that everything is relative. Keep in mind that Kostow is the three-Michelin-star man behind the Restaurant at Meadowood, where he wields tweezers like a natural appendage and where the price tag on a dinner for two people routinely includes a comma. Take note, too, that we’re talking St. Helena, a city that projects an “easygoing” image that’s as set-dressed as a Brooks Brothers catalog.

Kostow himself seems clear on these caveats. He says the Charter Oak is not exactly a “casual” restaurant, as many in the media have proclaimed it. Elemental is the term he favors, with a menu drawn from impeccably sourced products that the kitchen knows enough not to meddle with too much: great shopping, that is, but good cooking, too.

If I had a nickel for every chef who pledged allegiance to that kind of simplicity, I could afford a lot of meals at Meadowood. But I’d set some cash aside for the Charter Oak, too. The place makes good on its ambitions, though I also need to point out that when a chef like Kostow gets down to “basics” in the Napa Valley, a charred avocado still runs you 16 bucks.

A salad of broccolis, puffed grains, and ricotta.

One glance at the Charter Oak serves as a reminder that the kick-back posture of wine country requires a lot of work. The restaurant occupies the building that used to house Tra Vigne, a sentimental favorite that operated for more than 30 years and had the vine-covered exterior to prove it. Those vines were removed. A pair of stone lions from the Tra Vigne days remain on the stairwell, and their presence, combined with a refurbished redbrick facade, lends the stately first impression of a New England library. The interior reads differently, with dark wood tables and a black steel hearth blazing in plain view, a cornucopia of herbs and olive branches arrayed around it. You get the picture: meticulously curated farmhouse chic. The menu is divided into three sections: $6 starters, $16 vegetables, and $18-to-$26 entrées “from the hearth” (all prices include a 20 percent gratuity). In charge of the cooking is former Meadowood chef de cuisine Katianna Hong, whose less-is-more approach produces, more often than not, something better than the pristine stuff she starts with.

A gathering of raw and blanched vegetables from the Meadowood garden (pea shoots, baby summer squash, and so on) is so cute and farm-fresh it should come with an Alice Waters doll. What it comes with instead is a dip of whipped crème fraîche, with a dash of soy sauce and a drizzle of chive oil, and that turns out to be a fine idea as well. Summer squash assumes a more prominent role in a showstopping mid-course of fresh cheese malfatti. Here, the yellow gourds are cooked down with their blossoms into a delicate broth, which in turn provides a bath for the malfatti, or fresh goat-cheese dumplings dusted in semolina flour. The flavors are a medley of sweet squash and mild curds, with breadcrumbs tossed on top for percussive crunch and a distant hint of thyme playing somewhere in the backdrop: familiar notes, but not the same old song.

Though the Charter Oak falls shy of being insufferably earnest, you know this is a restaurant that is serious about its produce because it uses the word broccoli in the plural form, as in a salad of broccolis—a mix of brassicas that includes fire-crisped broccoli leaves and broccolini. With the help of puffed grains and ricotta, it’s a singular dish. 

A number of the entrées are similarly distinctive. One is the large grilled beef rib. Cooked with saba to give its flesh a cabernet flush, it is presented Flintstone-style, large bone rising from an earthenware bowl, with beets slow-roasted in rendered fat, and charred rosemary that informs every bite. Another standout is the roasted duck leg. Seasoned with cumin and turmeric, lacquered with honey, and flanked by salt-roasted sweet potatoes, it rests nicely on a smear of yogurt, a domestic bird returned from an exotic flight.

Treat ingredients with care and they’ll respond kindly, but not so cauliflower when it’s “treated like a piece of meat.” That’s the menu description for the kitchen’s lone vegetarian entrée, which arrives looking and tasting lonely, unaccompanied except by a bowl of mushroom jus. Never mind that it is cut into a steak and grilled. This is an $18 side dish forced to stand in as a main course.

Other misses come off as misplaced, too. Grilled cucumbers, flecked with dill and sea beans, are listed as a starter but aren’t interesting enough to be much more than a garnish. Roasted and chilled cabbage is said to harbor clams but has little evidence of shellfish washing through it. It’s a stab at elevated peasant cooking that yields poor returns.

Certainly, that cabbage would come off as less stingy alongside an entrée, and if I could do it over, I’d ask the kitchen to course it out that way. This is a restaurant, after all, that solicits your involvement. The tables have built-in silverware drawers, so when you need a knife or napkin, you grab it yourself.

You’re asked to engage again toward evening’s end when a server comes rolling a dessert cart. You pick and point—a wedge of moist, dense date cake; a pavlova ornamented with strawberries. It’s a playful punctuation to what the restaurant bills as relaxed “family-style” dining (there is also an option for an $85 family-style prix fixe). It might even feel like a family meal to you, if your last name is, say, Coppola.

But not all of the valley is made up of landed gentry. One night I was grazing at the bar (housemade potato chips with a dip of whipped brie with trout roe), which looks out on a trellised patio. Beside me sat a tourist, an otherwise cheerful woman who had come to taking umbrage at an avocado, charred and strewn with cilantro, chrysanthemum greens, and shaved rhubarb, a dollop of mayonnaise buried somewhere below. I’d had the dish before and found it delicious, if expensive.

The woman looked at me but pointed her fork accusingly at the bowl before her. “Can you believe $16 for an avocado? At a casual restaurant?”

Actually, I could.

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at the Charter Oak

Vegetables from the farm, fermented soy dip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $6
Charter Oak bread and cultured butter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $8
Salad of broccolis, puffed grains, ricotta . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Fresh cheese malfatti, summer squash and their blossoms, sourdough crumbs . . $16
Beef rib grilled over cabernet barrels, beets dressed in rendered fat . . . . . . . . . . . $26
Duck leg, spiced honey, sweet potato . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $26
Gin-and-cucumber cocktail . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Cade sauvignon blanc . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Pavlova with strawberries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $8
TOTAL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $136

  

The Charter Oak 
1050 Charter Oak Ave. (At St. Helena Hwy.), St. Helena, 707-302-6996
2½ stars

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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