The Charter Oak redefines dining in the Napa Valley

The Charter Oak restaurant in St. Helena is a collaboration between two of the Napa Valley’s most celebrated restaurant minds — Chef Christopher Kostow, best known for his Michelin three-star-rated The Restaurant at Meadowood, and Meadowood’s front-of-the-house director, Nathaniel Dorn. Kostow and Dorn have once again redefined dining in wine country, having launched a new concept for simple, approachable and seasonal food in St. Helena.

The restaurant, housed in the completely renovated old brick, wood and steel building that was the beloved Tra Vigne for nearly 30 years, is scheduled to open to the public June 5.

For the last week, a few lucky souls have been invited to experience a “workshop” of pre-opening dinners where they might sample what Kostow and Dorn have created, which seems to have sprung directly from the ideas expressed so eloquently in Kostow’s, “A New Napa Cuisine” cookbook published in 2014:

“I wondered if it would be possible to harness the physical, emotional, and historical power of this place [the Napa Valley] in a new and persuasive way to create a cuisine that is rooted here rather than just happening here. Could I not endeavor to understand this place, its past and its present, and in doing so help write its future?”

One answer has been Kostow’s expression of cuisine at the Meadowood Restaurant, where he obtained a three-star Michelin rating before the age of 30, becoming only the second American-born chef and third-youngest chef to receive three Michelin stars.

In this new expression of an answer The Charter Oak, Kostow, Dorn and their exceptional team have taken on what might be a greater challenge: to create a casual dining experience that whittles away everything extraneous to reveal the simple and beautiful core.

“We are striving to create an authentic expression of wine country that is not forced or overly conceptual, highlighting one or two ingredients at a time,” Kostow said. “We are using local produce, much of it grown in our own garden, and have engaged with local artisans to help us express this place. The team that has come together is young, dynamic and bright, with Kat as the chef.”

Katianna (Kat) Hong has been with Kostow for more than six years at Meadowood and has worked her way up through the kitchen, two years ago earning the coveted title of chef de cuisine, making her the only female to hold such a title at the time at any of the 12 Michelin three-star restaurants in America. Now, she is the chef at The Charter Oak.

“I am excited to be at this stage and be able to share what we’ve created, which is different compared to Meadowood,” Hong said. “In some ways it is much harder to prepare simple food than more complex dishes. Here we are trying to simplify and highlight the source rather than the process. It can be a challenge, but it is important and the effects can be wonderful.”

“There is a lot of love in the place, you can just feel it when you enter the space,” said Massimo Falsini, the new executive chef at Solage Calistoga’s Solbar, who was at one pre-opening workshop. “The grand doors open into a wide-open room where there’s the hearth and fire, almost as an altar. The food is simple, and it takes real courage and skill to pull off something like this. I don’t think that it is possible to do it any better.”

Before entering the restaurant, guests cross through an iron gate and enter into a brick-walled courtyard with steep steps flanked by two old lions that frequenters of the old Tra Vigne restaurant will remember.

Outdoor seating will eventually become available, but for now diners pass through floor-to-ceiling doors and into an enormous Zen-like room full of openness and what Dorn refers to as a core of elements.

On the left is a long wooden bar, and on the far wall is the blackened-steel hearth and a roaring fire fronted by a cook’s station and surrounded by various food items — roasts, heads of cauliflower, cabbage, grapes and bouquets of herbs — all hanging, roasting or being lightly smoked. A wonderful aroma of burning wood and roasting meats and vegetables fills the space and adds to the sense of hospitality and warmth.

“We want people to feel perfectly comfortable and at home,” Dorn said. “We hope guests come and feel immersed in a space that is intentional, purposeful and elemental, full of wood, brick, water, fire and steel, all in a way that complements the food and wine. Sometimes people are afraid of a blank wall and they want to fill it up,” he said, pointing up to the empty expanse of the black-plastered hearth wall. “But open space provides an important element to the experience, too.”

Each comfortable leather seat at the thick oak tables has its own pitcher of water and is equipped with personal utensil drawers so that guests can resupply themselves as needed. According to Dorn, this is for the comfort and convenience of the guests, but it is also a way to manage staff-table interactions.

A family-style menu

The menu during the workshop dinners was pared down but certainly diverse and varied enough to highlight the approach, skill and exceptional ingredients to be offered. Guests have options to order portions from a sushi-like menu, all of which is served family style. The menu contains three sections: starters ($8 per portion), mids ($16 per portion) and mains ($24 per portion). Then they can choose desserts from a cart to be prepared table-side by a chef.

Starters include offerings such as creamy steamed potatoes with sorrel vinegar, honey and salt or simply prepared boiled eggs with local olive oil and salt.

Mids feature items such as grilled avocados brushed with smoky ember oil and garlicky mayo and little gem lettuces with bagna cauda of dried albacore and lovage cream.

Main dishes include succulent hearth-grilled chicken with preserved grape leaves and roasted fresh grapes or beef ribs grilled over oak staves from cabernet barrels and served with beets dressed in the rendered fat.

Dessert offerings included a date cake that had been grilled over the fire and was served with nocino cream (a dark brown liqueur made from unripe walnuts) or chocolate pudding with fresh milk and roasted white chocolate and butter cookies.

Bar food items feature “The burger,” ($16) a crispy fried-chicken sandwich ($16) and potato skins with Marin brie and trout roe ($6).

‘Nothing to hide behind’

“To make three ingredients — eggs, salt, olive oil — work, everything must be perfect because there is nothing to hide behind,” Kostow said. “We are attempting to make something honest, and that means every ingredient, every technique must be perfectly executed and embody a sense of place and purpose.”

“People might not understand how difficult it is to make such a perfect egg,” Falsini said. “But they are achieving it here. This is the kind of place that you come to have dinner with your family and friends. This experience is more like coming home then going out, in a way.”

Referring to the tartin of green garlic, peas and lardo, California-based artist and St. Helena resident Matt Rogers reported, “This is the most incredible, fat-draped garlic crostini with basil that I could imagine. Everything has been beyond expectations, and expectations were sky-high.”

“I love that they make their bread and butter in-house, each of which is spectacular,” said Amy Rogers, owner of La Herradura Vineyards. “The bread is chewy with a crunchy crust and the butter is light and creamy. Everything on the menu is like that. It seems that each thing — the room, the food, the wine, even the minimal artwork — was perfectly thought-out.”

“I love that the only picture they have on the wall is of a train wreck,” Rogers said, laughing. “I mean that really shows how much confidence this team has. I love it. A train wreck. So great. They are doing something special here, you can just feel it.”

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“The photo on the wall is of the train that took out the original Charter Oak in 1902,” Dorn said. “We liked the idea of going back to something original — planting a new oak where the former was rooted for so long — and building something that was at once timeless and new.”

Only Napa Valley wines

“Our cocktails are classic-inspired drinks and our extensive list of sought-after local wines and beers is focused on the Napa Valley,” Dorn said. “We want people to come in and experience this place, learn about our different regions and how they work with the food. If you bring in your own bottle of Napa Valley wine we’ll bring you over a corkscrew and a couple of glasses at no charge.”

Dorn explained that he was also inspired by his mother-in-law, a former bar owner, to create small gold-doubloon-like coins imprinted with “The Charter Oak” on one side and an acorn on the other. Patrons can purchase these coins to buy a drink for someone or use them at a later date, a tradition that may have begun in the 18th century in small, family-owned bars and public houses where guests knew each other.

Creation of a culinary ecosystem

Beyond the space and the food, wine and cocktails, Kostow and Dorn have embarked on creating an ecosystem that fosters creativity and local involvement, from the local-made tables or coffee service ceramics to their own garden at the St. Helena Montessori School. Even the staff seems community-focused, connected and engaged with what it means to be a member of The Charter Oak team.

“It is not enough to just understand food and service, we each also need to understand this place at a deeper level,” Kostow said. “All my chefs have been given a reading list, not just to learn about the history of the Napa Valley, but also to better understand what it is that we are trying to do here. As a part of the reading list we’ve included such local historical authors as James Conaway’s ‘The Far Side of Eden’ and exceptional cooks like Francis Mallmann’s ‘On Fire,’ but we’ve also added in the poet William E. Stafford, whose work illustrates the power of eliminating the non-essential, only leaving behind what is elemental, what is critical.”

According to Kostow’s wife, Martina, who is actively involved with both restaurants, Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” is Kostow’s favorite. “Although since we’ve had children the frequency of his readings has decreased, Christopher has recited this poem to me often,” she said. “It’s his favorite.”

The first stanza of the poem goes like this: “If you don’t know the kind of person I am / and I don’t know the kind of person you are / a pattern that others made may prevail in the / world / and following the wrong god home we may miss / our star.”

In many ways, Chef Kostow and company appear more like modern-day prophets come to usher in a new approach to the preparation and consumption of food and wine in the Napa Valley, each following his or her own star.

I suspect many diners will come and barely notice where they are and what they are consuming, laughing and talking with family and friends as they use their hands to enjoy perfectly prepared potatoes with salt and a dash of local honey. And that seems to be the point. Not a place to aggrandize a single person or idea but instead to honor each core element, be it a wall, a table or an egg.

Beyond a wonderfully considered space one can almost feel a sense of mission course through the air, manifesting in an honest expression of simply executed whole ingredients, served with a large dash of humility, courage and conviction.

As Kostow wrote in his cookbook, “I believe that … I found a place that my cooking could give voice to, a thread that connected me to the people of its past and present and to the land and its history.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, May 2017