I’m going to get this out of the way up front. If you’re here because you want to know if you should eat at The Restaurant at Meadowood, the answer is yes. You can stop reading, make a reservation, and go. Nothing I write will be able to adequately convey the food and the experience. My barely adequate grasp of the English language will fail me. And even if I had something approaching talent in this area, nothing short of sitting in that dining room, eating the food, and letting the experience wash over you will truly be sufficient. It is, simply, spectacular.
Alright, now that I’ve hyped this experience up to an unreasonable level, let us begin.
Unlike The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood was a bit of an unknown quantity to me. We had 3 reservations for our trip to San Francisco & Napa Valley, and this one I had made last. I’d seen the name when I’d looked through the Michelin Guide for San Francisco – one of two 3 star restaurants in the area – but didn’t look into it any further. We had reservations for Saturday and Sunday, but not yet for Monday, Kendall’s actual birthday. I combed through the James Beard nominations, dozens of food blogs focused on the San Francisco area, anywhere I might find ideas. I couldn’t make up my mind. Then Kendall talked to her friend Anne Marie Canlis, and it came up in the course of the conversation that we’d be staying in Yountville, going to The French Laundry, we’d be there several days. She recommended Meadowood. She would be there not long after us, she was excited to go. A recommendation from the Canlis family is not one you ignore! I decided that was where we’d dine that Monday, knowing nothing other than it came with the Canlis stamp of approval.
I was a bit worried, however, that we might not be able to get in. After all, I’d already been through the ordeal getting a reservation at The French Laundry not long before. This was, after all, another 3 Michelin starred restaurant. Their reservations opened up 2 months in advance. We were less than 6 weeks from our trip. Surely they’d be booked up by now. One very easy phone call later, we had our table! No muss, no fuss, even options on the time! WHAT?
Six weeks later, I turn the car off of the highway onto a small two lane road, lined with old growth vines. The vines give way to trees, two lanes become one. The sunlight fades as we roll into the forest that is home to Meadowood. Several hundred yards further down the road we come to a stop by the guardhouse that marks the beginning of the resort. I roll down the window and am greeted by an employee asking why we’ve joined them this evening. Oh, dining at the restaurant? I’ll call ahead and let them know you’re coming. Just follow the signs!
We slowly wind deeper into the forest. It reminds me of the location they used for Camp David in The West Wing, only with less wooden cabins. We pass tennis courts, short stone walls, and follow sign at a fork that points to The Restaurant. I stop the car in front of a single valet, who greets us and asks if we are the Gamble party. Right up the stairs, enjoy your meal!
We walk up short flight of stairs and enter through the huge, heavy wood doors into a large, round room that looks almost like the lobby of a hotel. Comfortable leather arm chairs, a big fireplace, books lining the shelves built into the walls, two doorways at the far end of the room, and two hostesses . They quickly approach and meet us in the middle of the room. Are you the Gambles? Excellent! No, you’re not too early. May I take your coat Mrs. Gamble? Please, follow me. We trail after her through the right hand opening which leads to the small bar. A few people are sitting at the bar itself, another few at the handful of tables in the corner of the room. They look like they are hotel guests, not people here for dinner. We walk past them, through a curtained doorway and into the dining room.
The dining room as seen on the Meadowood website: http://www.therestaurantatmeadowood.com/about
What a contrast to the night before! The French Laundry had been small and cramped, with low ceilings, tables in every nook and cranny, and a very traditional feeling decor. This dining room was almost cavernous! The room itself was a half circle, with windows lining the curved wall, and mirrors lining the flat one. It had a high, vaulted ceiling, with a pillar in the middle of the room. It felt so light, so airy, so open! Having done so little research into this place before the trip, I was floored!
We were lead to a table at the windows, and after sitting I took a long look out at the scenery. It was magnificent! We were looking out over what must have been a hole on their golf course situated at the end of a small valley. Trees lined the valley walls, wild turkeys roamed the fairway. Everything was beautifully green. I looked back across the table with what I’m sure was a stupidly giddy grin on my face. This, I knew, was going to be good!
One of the few things I did know about the restaurant was that there was only one menu on any given day. When I’d made the reservation, they were careful to ask about any allergies (thankfully none!) or if anybody was a vegetarian (nope!) as you wouldn’t have the opportunity to order. What I didn’t know is that we wouldn’t even be seeing a menu until the meal was over! Our waiter greeted us and double checked on the allergies, then sent over the sommelier. You’re celebrating a birthday aren’t you? Would you like to start with a glass of champagne to mark the occasion? Why yes, in fact we would! Excellent, he’ll be back momentarily with a couple of glasses. In the meantime, I should look through the wine list and see if anything strikes my fancy.
If you haven’t noticed by now, everybody has been very, very friendly. But not the kind of friendly where you’re pretty sure they’re just putting on a happy face for the paying customer. No, everyone was genuinely warm and inviting. Each and every person we would interact with that evening wanted us to have the best possible time. Service at The French Laundry was wonderful, but here they take it to a whole new level. (Actually, this is something I believe Canlis excels at as well, and is one of the reasons I love dining there so much. But that’s another matter for another day). It is no wonder that they just won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Service 2014. These people just understand how to take care of you while you’re dining.
A few minutes pass, and our champagne arrives, followed closely by the first of our amuse: radish fermented in champagne yeast. Delightful! These were quickly followed by our second amuse, which really set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Part 2 of our amuse. Yeah, that’s a book it’s sitting on. And yeah, you’re supposed to look through it!
This incredible bite (pictured on the right), was kale with flavors of chorizo. I could wax poetic about this bite (and if you want me to, come ask me about it in person), but I won’t because I’m sure there’s some poetic waxing still to be had later on in the menu. But by now, you have hopefully noticed that the kale with flavors of chorizo is in fact sitting on the pages of a book. Not very practical, you may be telling yourself. Ahh, but there you are wrong. Because once you have finished savoring your small bite, you are free to peruse the photos they have carefully clipped into the book. There were about 8 photos they had placed throughout the book, all of the Meadowood Garden. We were told when they came back to clear the book away that the pictures will be used for a book that the chef is working on. (If i had to guess, I’d imagine it will be something like the latest book from Rene Redzepi – A Work In Progress.)
The sommolier came back and helped us choose a few half bottles to accompany the rest of our meal, and I went back to looking out the window and talking with Kendall about how this meal was comparing to The French Laundry the night before. The sun dipped further below the valley walls, the wild turkeys slowly paced the fairway, I finished my champagne, and course number one arrived.
Again, it has been two months since this dinner, and my memory is less than stellar, so I will once again refrain from detailing each and every course. For one, I don’t believe you are that interested in reading “It was amazing! Super delicious! YUMMMM!!!,” and whatever other words I dig out of the thesaurus to describe something as very tasty. I’ll transcribe the menu in its entirety at the end of this post. For another, as I mentioned in my French Laundry post, I’m not a food critic! If that’s what you’re looking for, sorry that you wasted the last 1600ish words. There are some great reviews of this restaurant you can find out there.
That said, I will once again take a dive into what was my favorite dish of the evening, and perhaps one of the most creative I’ve ever eaten. About the time we hit our fifth course (12 courses guys! Not including the TWO amuse’s!) a member of the kitchen staff walks up to our table holding a wood crate – the kind you might see produce in at a farmers market – covered in a piece of burlap cloth. Lifting the cloth, he reveals a large loaf of sourdough bread. “This is the chicken for your first meat course.” And he lifts the top off of the loaf of bread revealing a whole cooked chicken nestled inside!
“What we have done is make a sourdough bread dough with nigella seed. Then we put the whole, uncooked chicken inside the dough after it has proofed. Then we baked the loaf with the chicken inside. We’ll serve it with some of the bread as well.” (We unfortunately did not think to take a picture of this. Too busy ooing and ahhing over it all.) My jaw just about hit the floor after he walked off!
The sixth course came, a beautifully rich chicken broth. This is now what I will forever crave when I am sick with the flu. No chicken broth or soup will ever be the same again. It also served to make me even more excited for the upcoming chicken.
It finally arrived, along with two pieces of the sourdough on a plate in the middle of the table. “I have to share the bread???” I thought to myself after taking the first bite. It was sensational. The chicken was even better. The sourdough had imparted it with a very (I’m sorry for using this word, it’s all I can really think of to describe it) umami quality. I don’t remember much else about the dish, but I have never tasted better chicken in my life, and don’t expect that I ever will again. That’s a sad thought, now I come to think about it.
Oh, hey look! I found a video that Bon Appetit did featuring this dish! You should check it out, very impressive. I should note the presentation is different than when we had it, but you will get the idea. And now I’m craving some of that chicken. Only it’s 11:15pm and I’m in Seattle, not St. Helena.
The remaining courses were delivered, perfectly spaced apart I might add, and each was unique and delicious. The olive oil coconut borage – a frozen “bowl” of unsweetened coconut cream filled with olive oil – was particularly memorable. But as all things must, the meal eventually wound to a close. As our waiter delivered our bill, he asked if we would like to view the kitchen before we left. Uhhhhh…..YEAH WE WOULD! (Though hopefully I said it in a manner more appropriate to our setting.)
A few minutes later we were walked to the back of the dining room, and through an automatic sliding glass door into the kitchen. The entire staff looked up as the waiter announced the presence of guests in the kitchen, and we were greeted by warm cacophony of voices. “Welcome!” “How was your meal?” “I hope everything was to your liking!” I looked around the immaculate kitchen. There seemed to be more people working in here than there were dining back in the dining room. Over to my right was *gasp* a table! You could EAT in here! And several people were! I recalled seeing a “chefs table” option on the website, for a mere $500 per person. A small twinge of regret. Behind me on shelves that would have looked at home in my living room were jars full of spices and a selection of cookbooks.
After a few minutes of ogling we were lead back past the bar to the entry way. Everyone we passed wished us a good evening. Our car was waiting at the bottom of the stairs as we exited. As we drove back down the dark, narrow road surrounded by trees, I smiled, and took a deep, satisfied breath. It had been an incredible night. The people, the food, the wine, the view. Everything had been perfect. Every dish spoke volumes about those who had prepared it, about what they believe is important about food. The service had been easy, relaxed, welcoming. Not one misstep the entire night.
As I sit here now, 11:34pm on June 3rd, 2014, a little more than 2 months removed from the meal of my life, I’m having a hard time picking out specifics. I couldn’t tell you exactly what each dish tasted like. I couldn’t describe to you exactly what made that oh so beautiful chicken broth so different from any other chicken broth. But I am left with a feeling. Something about the experience has stuck with me. Only one other time has a dining experience left such a deep impression on me, and that was L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. What these two experiences had in common was that they changed the way I look at fine dining. These two restaurants don’t share a lot in the way of similarities- atmosphere, menu, service, even how you order are all vastly different. But what they do share are wholly unique perspectives, and total commitment to the diner.
As I tried to warn you at the beginning, I fear I have not done The Restaurant at Meadowood justice. But I don’t know what else to say. If you ever have the opportunity, go. It is not a cheap meal, but I can guarantee it will be one you won’t soon forget.
Until next time.
whipped yogurt wild plum umeboshi shiso
raw spiny tail lardo caviar succulents
kohlrabi glazed in its own juice rye porridge mustard
sea cucumber wild onions whipped bean brown butter seaweed
cod okara vegetables of the moment
chicken baked in bread grilled puntarelle yeast
aged beef shiitake fermented turnip
young mimolette apple habanero
olive oil coconut borage
silken chocolate panattone