The Acacia House, the new St. Helena restaurant from chef Chris Cosentino (Cockscomb, Jackrabbit) and partner Oliver Wharton, is now open to the public, and breathing new life into wine country cuisine.
The restaurant opened to the public on May 11, within the new 68-room boutique luxury hotel, Las Alcobas, which replaced the Grandview Apartments on a three-plus-acre property just north of downtown. The restaurant sits atop a small hill in a restored century-old Victorian with six upstairs rooms, the dining room and bar downstairs.
“We believe that Las Alcobas is gorgeous and something the town will be proud of,” said Sushil Patel, founder and managing principal of Presidio Companies. “The design is in keeping with St. Helena’a history — rustic but sophisticated.”
The new hotel is situated on the site that was first a private home built in 1907. The home was converted to a hotel called St. Gothard’s Rest in 1911. In 1921 the hotel became a hospital and then transitioned back into a hotel called St. Gothard Inn in 1938. Rumor had it that the hotel may have included a brothel. Eventually the inn became a Christian Science home for the aged and then morphed into low-rent apartments called the Grandview in 1963. Now Las Alcobas, a restaurant and boutique hotel, has rooms that cost from around $700 to more than $3,000 per night.
The entire site has been completely renovated through a collaboration with the hotel group’s CEO, Samuel Leizorek (Las Alcobas, Mexico City), and partners Guneet Bajwa and Sushil Patel of Presidio Companies (The White House Inn, Napa, and others).
“Our whole approach toward hospitality and food is directed toward our guests’ enjoyment,” Leizorek said. “If they walk away feeling taken care of and happy and smiling, then we’ve done our job. We interviewed many chefs, and Chris Cosentino is something special. He cooks from the heart and reflects our shared commitment toward providing our guests something exceptional.”
“This isn’t about getting stars or building our own egos, this is about providing our guest with a wonderful experience,” Cosentino said. “No tweezers, no foams, this is about making food that people want to eat in an environment that makes them feel welcomed and happy.”
When asked how Cosentino intends to approach his food offerings, he does not hesitate to answer.
“Our approach is about celebrating the origin of the grapes that have made the wines of this valley — they are all immigrants,” he said. “Let’s celebrate that and focus on those original locations: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany. I am not here to reinvent the wheel. I am here to make beautiful food that is approachable and makes people smile.”
And the menu certainly does that. Known for his inventive use of a variety of meats, Cosentino is well known for his “snout to tail” approach to using as much of an animal as possible, having made “noodles” from pigskin. At the Acacia House nearly half the menu items focus on vegetables.
“We have access to some of the best food and wine found in the world, so there’s really no excuse to not make excellent food,” Cosentino said. “Some people think of me as the guy who cooks pig tails, but what I think is important is to respect the food that will enter into people’s bodies, not just taking one small piece and saying ‘Ta-da!’ but instead going from leaf to root and tail to snout. It’s about honoring life.”
The 50-seat restaurant (more seating is available outside) features a working fireplace and is open for breakfast (for guest of the hotels only, for the time being), lunch and dinner with a menu featuring locally sourced ingredients.
Breakfast offerings will include freshly baked breads, signature juices that include a turmeric shot ($9) and richer options such as croissant milk toast, a bread pudding with whipped mascarpone ($19).
Lunch also features house-made juices like the El Pastore, a concoction of pineapple, jalapeño, cilantro and line ($9), and sandwiches such as the chicken mole torta, made with cabbage, avocado, queso fresco, black bean aioli and torta bread ($20).
The dinner menu begins with starters that include local radishes with sea urchin, butter and local sea vegetables ($20) and Napa Valley lamb tartare with green harissa, mint and chickpea crackers ($16). Entree offerings star sweet pea rigatoni with morels ($26), Klingman farms pork schnitzel ($49) and a decadent-vegan dish of asparagus a la plancha with a crunchy almond-serrano streusel and creamy white gazpacho ($26).
The bar is bright and airy with a drink menu that includes a host of intriguing concoctions, such as the St. Helena Chill made with red wine, brandy and ginger. My favorite is the house margarita, which comes in an etched glass and tastes like it’s straight from Mexico City. It’s made with lemon juice instead of lime and topped with a luscious sea-salt foam that fills each sip with salty sweetness.
Guests at the bar are served complimentary house-made chips and onion dip, both of which are decadent and made me long to watch a football game on the nonexistent televisions.
Locally made beers, such as Mad Fritz and Las Alcobas’ soon-to-be house brews can be enjoyed outside on the sunny deck. The wine program, overseen by local sommelier Zoe Hankins, who is coming from La Toque in Napa, is limited, with most offerings coming from local vintners, but it also includes wines from Sonoma and even a few from France.
“We are focused on local vintners,” Hankins said, “but we also want some options for the area’s winemakers that come in and want to try something different.”
The locals who attended the first night gave positive reviews.
“Everything has been prepared and executed perfectly,” said Trish Stephens, co-owner of D. R. Stephens Estate winery and Hunnicutt Wine Co. “Even the car-parking attendants were professional. And the food. The food is wonderful.”
“The Cornish game hen was tender, succulent and delicious,” Tommy Skouras said. “Damn good job, especially considering this was the first night open. That said, I would have preferred to have seen the beak and feet of my meal. The way it was presented, it was rolled up like a sausage.”
“I am completely impressed by the entire staff and kitchen’s execution tonight,” said St. Helena chef and co-owner of Terra, Hiro Sone. “To pull this off on the first night is exceptional and speaks well for their future success. They not only provided exceptional service, somehow they’ve also made every dish luxurious but simple, which is not easy. Besides that, they incorporated real depth into each dish, such as including pureed pea pods into the pasta, utilizing and extracting different flavors and textures from each element. Also, the seasoning was perfect. This is exciting.”
Most food on the menu is available on the in-room dining menu.
Beyond the restaurant, Cosentino will spearhead the Las Alcobas’ on-site artisan bread program that will focus on sprouted grains sourced from organic growers, breakfast, pool, lounge and room service, and banquets and catering as well as picnic baskets with alfresco favorites such as a signature cold fried chicken and house-made energy bars for cyclists on the go.
Although many locals are excited by Cosentino’s food and many city officials welcome the revenue generated by the hotel, there are some who worry about the impact of increased traffic.
“The city is well aware of the issues of traffic and the challenges of the intersection at Las Alcobas,” said St. Helena Planning Director Noah Housh. “The developers met all the legal requirements. However, we understand the concerns and will continue to look for ways to improve traffic, both now and in the future. We have learned a lot through this process and will incorporate these findings moving forward.”
“We have had so much goodwill and encouragement from the community,” Leizorek said, “but we also understand there are some concerns, so we have worked — and will continue to work — diligently on the issue of traffic. We have secured some additional 40 parking spaces at the Seventh Day Adventist church, and valet parking is complimentary. We believe things will continue to improve as things settle down after construction. We are grateful for the patience and support of the community and look forward to serving them for years to come.”
The hotel property, at 1915 Main St., is open seven days a week from 7-10 a.m. for breakfast (for hotel guests only for the time being), 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner. The bar and lounge is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Originally published in the Napa Register, May 2017