Taming Fire at St. Helena’s New Two Birds One Stone Restaurant

Just north of downtown St. Helena, housed in the newly renovated Freemark Abbey Winery, the Two Birds One Stone restaurant has been buzzing since it opened on June 19. The unique menu concept stems from two of the managing partners’ vision: chefs Douglas Keane (Cyrus) and Sang Yoon (Lukshon and Father’s Office in Los Angeles), whose passion for Japanese and California’s wine-country cuisine has merged to create something surprising.

“Sang and I have been friends for years, and when this opportunity came up we were both really excited to bring something completely new to the valley,” Keane said.

So he and his partner brought together an experienced team, including Nick Peyton, his former partner at Cyrus, and together they’ve created a Japanese-yakitori-inspired restaurant that is not typical when it comes to expected Napa Valley fare.

“We think of Two Birds as a fine-casual restaurant that serves California-inspired cuisine that has Japanese influence,” said Yoon. “We didn’t think that the Napa Valley needed another Euro-centric restaurant — there are so many great ones already — and coming from Los Angeles I was a little surprised when I started exploring this area and found there were very few Asian-inspired restaurants.

“Doug and I both think that the proximity of fresh vegetables and other amazing local farm products fits perfectly with the clean flavors and techniques of Japanese cuisine. We also believe these flavors open up a new element in many of the wines made in the area.”

Yakitori restaurants are typically casual eateries that offer small plates of grilled chicken and vegetable skewers, but Two Birds has expanded the concept to include the chef’s variety of influences, creating items such as Wagyu short ribs with Korean barbecue ($17) and chicken thighs with Thai-basil vinaigrette ($10).

The menu also includes fine-dining dishes such as a foie gras parfait with cherry blossom gelée ($12) and warm duck-egg custard with lemon verbena and crab ($14). Many of the offerings have a distinct “farm-to-table” sensibility, like the “Tucker’s Daily Harvest” with edamame puree and aerated tofu ($13).

“I really enjoy growing for these two talented chefs,” said Taylor Tucker, the farmer who has been known as the “vegetable whisperer” ever since his days curating the French Laundry gardens. “It is so much fun providing a palette of produce for them and seeing their creative sparks. Although they may have certain ideas for a dish, they are flexible and adapt to what we may be harvesting on any given day. From a farmer’s perspective, this is a dream collaboration.”

In the main dining room, guests sit at simple but heavy wooden tables that are large enough to accommodate plenty of plates and glasses. The sound level of the room is comfortable with plenty of open space. Food and drink orders are given to computer-tablet-toting waitstaff who encourage sharing items.

“My favorite dish of the evening was the chicken meatballs,” said Brandon Sharp, executive chef as Solbar, Calistoga’s only Michelin-rated restaurant. “They were tender and velvety, and the soigné knife work on the scallions showed off the kitchen’s finesse. Just because something is uncomplicated doesn’t make it easy (try drawing a perfect circle in freehand).”

“I think the flavors of all the food were tasty,” said Staci Printz from Angwin. “Some of the textures were distinctly Japanese (like the foie gras that was creamy), which will take a little getting used to. The scallion pancake and the kale salad were delicious. All the dishes were unique and different and not like the other things you get in the valley, so this is a nice addition.”

“Better than expected — and I expected a lot from this A-level team,” said Dave Yewell, a grapegrower from St. Helena. “My ‘Forbidden Rice’ was perfect — chewy, not crispy. My wife and I ordered five things, but there are 25 more that we want to order. Each of the dishes was complex and rich, full of umami flavors, giving them a distinct Asian element.”

Most of the food is cooked over specially designed yakatori grills that are fueled with a mixture of wood, including binchotan charcoal from Japan.

“Technology has provided cooks the ability to regulate temperature to a 10th of a degree, but what we’re doing at Two Birds is learning to tame fire,” said Yoon. “The Binchotan provides an even heat that is smokeless and is the standard for yakatori. Here we’re adding in some local oak and even grapevine clippings to impart our own special blend of smoke to flavor the food.”

Beyond the unique food offerings and techniques, the wine program is innovative as well.

“We want to celebrate local winemakers and wineries, and not just a few,” said Kevin Reilly, master sommelier and general manager. “So we created a by-the-glass wine program that will rotate 12 different local winemakers’ passion projects, such as Steve Matthiasson’s rose of grenache, syrah and mourvedre made from grapes grown in Napa Valley and Dunnigan Hills (Yolo County).

“Because we can’t carry all the wines from all the wineries, we have no corkage policy for any Napa or Sonoma wine (one bottle per person). That way, if you are local or a visitor you can just bring in your favorite local bottle and we’ll open it for free.

“We do have a few bottles of wines for sale on the list, but these are for the folks that want to try something from outside the region. This also means that we are not competing with our local vintners. It’s a new approach, but our hope is that people get comfortable bringing in their own bottles.”

In addition to the 12 wines, there are 12 beers on tap ($5 to $7), from local craft brewers. Wines can be ordered in 5-, 13- or 26-ounce pours. Prices for the 5-ounce pours range from $9 to $18. The cocktail program focuses on Japanese whiskies and may include accompaniments such as umeshu (a liqueur made from Japanese apricots) and yuzu (an East Asian citrus) honey.

The space is broken into a series of distinct social gathering places: bar, banquette, main dining room, private dining space and the outside area.

The 4,000-square-foot restaurant has been redesigned with SB Architects, along with interior design firm Brayton Hughes Design Studios, the Two Birds team and the building’s owners, Jackson Family Wines. The building retains its historic nature but brings with it a simplicity that has almost a zen feel to it.

“We were tasked with preserving the overall historic look and feel of the building,” said Jim Brenza, project architect. “By keeping the stone walls in place and using the steel columns and trusses, we’ve been able to create a modern update while keeping the original integrity intact. The long, linear skylights in the roof provide openness and light.”

The indoor dining room seats 80, with 35 additional seats on the outdoor patio, which is complete with its own yakitori grill. There is comfortable seating adjacent to soft-sounding fountains and modern fire sculptures that both provide an intimate setting and help mitigate the traffic from nearby Highway 29.

There are many reasons to be excited about Two Birds One Stone. And like all new restaurants, there are sure to be slight modifications and adjustments.

“They have a million great ideas, from the outdoor bar to the tablet POS system,” said Sharp. “And given my experience, the Napa dining public will be more than happy to tell them which ideas work best.”

“We’re not afraid to stroke the cat backwards,” said Yoon. “And we believe people will find Two Birds a wonderful addition to what is, of course, already a fantastic food culture. I’m really looking forward to the road ahead.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2016