“Turn right at MEE-dowood lane” the robotic GPS voice chimed as we turned onto a small road in quaint St. Helena, a beautiful, walkable little town in Napa that’s home to many excellent restaurants, wineries, and shops. We chuckled that the voice did not recognize such as well-known name. Didn’t it realize we were visiting one of the most famous, highly-regarded restaurants in Napa Valley, and even in the U.S.?
Soon, we drove up to a small gate-like structure where an attendant greeted us.
“Have you ever been on the property before?”
“No, it’s our first time. We’re visiting the restaurant.”
He pointed us the way to go, and off we went. We drove past an outdoor swimming pool, several tennis courts, a spa, and lots of green, wooded areas. It felt like we were at some sort of retreat center – a place where once could stay for days just enjoying the various leisure activities.
We drove past the Inn (where guests can stay) and up to the deceptively simply-named “Restaurant and Grill.”
As soon as we walked up the steps, a friendly man came out to greet us. He saw I was struggling to take a photo of the front of the restaurant (while trying not to drop my handbag and coat), and he kindly offered to not only to take a photo for us, but also have his colleague hold my coat for me.
After the photos, we entered the restaurant. Vanessa, our warm, cheerful, and knowledgeable server, greeted us.
At The Restaurant you buy tickets in advance for the tasting menu. As a result, the ordering part of the dining experience is almost eliminated, except for drinks. This means they can start bringing you food almost immediately, since they already know what you’ll be having. In fact, several small dishes started coming out as soon as we ordered our wine.
It was like a well-timed orchestra.
We started out with several “finger foods”, small bites that we picked up with our fingers and finish in one bite.
I loved this first bite – a tiny pea crepe wrapped around baby pea tendrils. The pop of flavor from the single bite tasted so natural and so intensely real at the same time. We were tasting the pure essence of the vegetables from the farm.
Next came two tiny sunchoke beignets filled with sunchoke cream and dusted with mushroom powder. The beignet was warm to touch as we picked it up and popped it into our mouths. BAM! Inside was a warm cream “filling” of sunchoke and mushroom that exploded in umami goodness. It was fantastic, with just the right level of salt.
Finally, out came Miyagi oysters from nearby Tomales Bay (near Marin County) served with kohlrabi. I loved the sweetness of the west coast oyster. The kohlrabi together with the oyster brine reminded me of a delicate cucumber. It was perfect.
We moved from tiny bites to slightly more substantial courses, starting with a decadent creamy cauliflower custard topped with sturgeon caviar, a crunchy sheep’s milk topping, and a whipped emulsion of olive oil.
I loved how the salty pop of the caviar balanced out the creamy cauliflower. The fruity, olive oil added an fragrant finish. This was truly an excellent dish.
Next was Japanese mackerel from Hokkaido marinated in “sel gris”, a grey salt from France. The fish came with local vegetables including broccoli, kale, and napa cabbage in an escabeche sauce. The dish really allowed the beautiful, natural flavors of the vegetables to shine. Crispy leaves from the slightly charred kale and broccoli added a nice toasted flavor as well as a crunchy textural contrast.
Dungeoness crab was next, served on top of a gelee made from the crab’s head (!) together with almond milk, and shaved almond dust. The description of the “head” weirded me out slightly – I’ve always had trouble sucking out the “brains” in a prawn head even though my friends all tell me it’s the most flavorful part – but MAN, was the gelee out of this world.
There’s a reason why head soups are so delicious. All the flavor is in the head! This clear gelee was packed with deep, rich seafood flavor which went surprisingly well with the almond milk.
We were absolutely blown away by this next dish, simply described as a lightly poached trout served with a “skin” of vegetable and buckwheat “ash”. The texture of the fish was unlike any poached fish I had ever had. It was firmer, seemingly compressed, yet still retained a sushi-like raw quality. It’s hard to describe. Bryan thought it was almost like dense gelatin. In any event, the entire dish was incredible. I felt like I was eating sashimi, even though it was cooked.
The next course was a whelk pasta served with nasturtium leaves, onions, and arugula wasabi flowers (wait, this is an actual thing??), in a horseradish dressing. The whelk shell had been replaced by a similarly shaped piece of pasta, while the whelk meat was lightly cooked, chopped, and stuffed back into the whelk-shell shaped pasta.
The pasta texture was great – super al dente and chewy. We were amazed at the soft texture of the whelk. In the past, every time we had enjoyed whelk (mostly in Maine), we founds its texture to be tougher, more on the chewy, crunchy, or rubbery end. This whelk was incredibly tender, reminding me more of raw shrimp or fish rather than of raw squid, octopus, or clams.
The pasta was lovely, with hints of mustard from both the horseradish sauce and the fragrant “arugula-wasabi flowers” (which, I found out later, does exist and you can buy seeds to grow your own, hee hee).
The next course consisted of a radicchio and chicken fat cooked egg served in a trumpet mushroom sauce. This was rich and deeply flavorful.
A Few Meat Courses
Baking chicken inside bread has been a signature dish at Meadowood for some time now. They have done many variations of it, whether it be baking a whole chicken inside a large loaf of bread, or baking de-boned chicken inside smaller loaves of bread.
This particular version was chicken thigh baked into bread. We enjoyed a slice of this unique bread with a chicken fat cooked egg served with radicchio and trumpet mushrooms. The sauce was quite nice, rich with unctuous umami (some sort of jus), chicken fat, and egg yolk. We sopped up the egg yolk with the chicken-in-a-bread. All in all, the flavors were very nice, though more traditional than many of the earlier, more creative dishes.
The last course was a dramatic presentation. First the server came with a bone cut in half length-wise, marrow fully exposed. He carefully scooped the marrow out, table-side, and toss it together with some black lime and greens from the garden.
He placed the “salad” on top of a slice of lamb neck, which had appeared on a plate in front of us. A final sprinkling of mustard flowers from the wild completed the dish.
Frankly, neither of us like this dish, though for very different reasons. Bryan really didn’t like the flavor of the greens from the garden. I personally found the gamey flavor of the lamb fat to be overwhelming. The neck was fatty, and the salad was fatty too from the marrow drippings. Bryan actually loved the lamb neck (he likes the flavor of lamb), He just really didn’t like the greens.
Honestly, the rest of the meal was so phenomenal we weren’t too fussed. It’s pretty rare to have multiple “wow” dishes in a tasting. Almost every dish in this meal this far had been a “wow”, so we were still quite pleased with the overall meal.
Oftentimes I am crazy full by the time dessert comes around. Here, I felt just right. I was tickled that I had been able to truly enjoy the entire meal without ever wanting it to stop. They had paced it perfectly, not only in timing, but also in the amount of food.
Our first dessert was quince poached in olive oil served with sheep’s milk yogurt gelato, meringue, and a hibiscus dust. I loved the unexpectedly refreshing and creamy quince in the center. I was expecting a whole fruit, but it was more like a fabulous quince ice cream. I loved how it was refreshing, tart, and not too sweet. It was the perfect palate cleanser.
This dessert was a REVELATION. This cute little parsnip tart is topped with white truffle ice cream. Yes, WHITE TRUFFLE ice ream. I tried a bit of the ice cream by itself, and that alone was already out of this world. I also tried some with the parsnip tart, which was great as well. I tried different combinations, deliberately savoring the rich fragrant flavors from the white truffle ice cream.
Sooooo worth it. They need to sell cartons of that stuff. I would be first in line to buy some (!).
Finally, the mignardises came. I usually have lower expectations of mignardises, which I find are often a level down in sophistication compared to the earlier full desserts. Here, I was equally impressed with the small bites on the mignardises plate.
What made these mignardises unique is that they showcased the fruits and vegetables from the garden. Everything was really, really good. We enjoyed beet caramels, chocolate covered figs, apple “stones” filled with a paste made from vegetables in the garden, and brioche with a candied exterior brushed with crushed nuts and filled with a gooey, fruity apricot center. We munched on a cherry leaf nori from the drawer.
General Thoughts – The Restaurant at Meadowood
We were both, for good reason, extremely impressed with the entire dining experience. There’s no doubt that this place deserves its three Michelin stars and other accolades. The food is thoughtful, creative, and very sophisticated. I loved how each course really showcased the ingredients “from the garden.”
Seasoning was creative yet not crazy. Things worked impeccably well together, and virtually every single dish (with the exception of the lamb dish) was top notch.
I loved this place and would not hesitate to come back for another special occasion. Yes, it’s expensive to dine here, but I think it’s worth every penny.
The Restaurant at Meadowood Napa
900 Meadowood Lane
St. Helena, California 94574