When Celebrity Chef Chris Cosentino and partner Oliver Wharton opened St. Helena’s Acacia House in May 2017 expectations were high and they delivered, quickly being listed as one of San Francisco food critic Michael Bauer’s 10 best restaurants of 2017. Less than a year from opening they’ve continued to innovate, refining what it means to be a sophisticated-casual Napa Valley restaurant, part of which appears to include an increasingly plant-based focus.
Cosentino, known for his creative use of every part of the animals he serves, is continuing to showcase an underlying theme of his overall culinary philosophy: Wasting any food — be it animal or plant — is unacceptable and unwise from a business, environmental and culinary point of view and is just not in this chef’s DNA.
Local foraging and limiting waste
“Growing up in Rhode Island, we would spend a lot of time in the woods or at the beach gathering food — wild blueberries, mussels and clams — or even making dandelion wine in our basement with my great-grandmother,” Cosentino said. “Waste was just not acceptable for those older generations.”
As he grew up, Cosentino learned the value of foraging in his local environment for food while limiting waste — traits that were reinforced during his culinary training at Johnson and Wales University and under chefs in the United States and France.
“In culinary school my instructors would come and check my pile of discarded food scraps before they even looked at my mise en place (a cook’s prepared items for service),” he said.
After school Cosentino traveled the world cooking, finally ending up as the chef at Incanto in San Francisco and then opening his own restaurants, Cockscomb (in San Francisco) and then Jackrabbit (in Portland), both of which have decidedly meat-focused menus, often including all parts of the animal in what is referred to as “snout-to-tail” cooking
“People think that I am all about meat, but that’s not true — my first cookbook was focused on salads,” he said. “For me it’s all about respecting and honoring whatever food is served. I mean, the farmers can work just as hard to grow a carrot as they do to grow a cow. It’s our job to see to it that each is brought to the table in a satisfying way, no matter what it is.”
The results of Cosentino's approach can be stunning, often causing a shift in perception, such as serving an entree of tender roasted carrots topped with crunchy granola or grilled leeks served with freshly gathered miner’s lettuce, sorrel and mustard flowers. Many of his non-meat menu items can be as satisfying as a plate of pork ribs, such as a juicy plant-based “hamburger” that is nearly indistinguishable from one made of ground beef.
The point of Acacia House’s food seems nearly manically focused on highlighting simply prepared foods that feature a range of textures and flavors of often what are single items or a small collection of like items. There are no tablecloths or salt and pepper shakers. The tables are simple, clean hardwood with single candles. Servers pour wine into delicate, elegant glassware whereas menu items are served on earthen-toned plates that match the color scheme of the room, the plates appearing more akin to unobtrusive blank canvas then what has become a trend of many new restaurants where dinnerware can often verge on being an artistic distraction.
Focusing attention on the food and guests
“We are focused on highlighting the food and our guests with very few distractions,” said Food and Beverage Director, Michael Ploetz. “The goal is comfort and for our guests to be cared for in a deliberate and careful manner but that is not distracting.”
Hearing this makes many of the restaurant’s design features come into focus. Similar to the walls and dishes, the waitstaff are dressed in soft grays. The space is small — around 50 seats — and cozy but not constrained, with wide doors that open to a lounge filled with windows that showcase additional seating on the outdoor wrap-around porch. From the dining room, visible behind a wall of thick glass, the chef and his team can be seen working nearly unheard as they cook and prepare. Unlike many “open” kitchen restaurants, this one seems less about the show and noise of a working kitchen and more about a sense of comfort, knowing the food is being carefully prepared by professionals without an air of entertainment-type showiness.
The wine program has a similar approach. Overseen by local sommelier Zoe Hankins, the list is focused, with most offerings coming from local vintners, but it also includes wines from Sonoma and some from Europe. The wine menu includes short stories of some of the featured wines that are both entertaining and informative.
Local wines dominate the list
“There are some amazing stories out there that help highlight how special these wines really are,” Hankins said, “When only a few hundred cases are being made or the winery has a long history in the area or the varieties are different, it’s fun to share this information with our guests, many of whom have come to the valley in search of such experiences.”
Beyond the compelling stories, Hankins has crafted a wine list that mirrors the ethos of the restaurant in both the simple focus on quality and value with many of the wines in the $30-50 range. The list digs deep into the valley’s history, uncovering some offerings such as the wonderful Larkmead Tocai Friulano ($85 per bottle). Or the Smith-Madrone White Spring-Mountain Riesling ($60 per bottle), a wine that sang when paired with the baby chicory salad served with candied kumquats and a toasted sprinkle of quinoa ($14).
Besides an interesting wine list, the bar offers locally made beers (including their own) and what have fast become iconic cocktails, such as the salt-foam-covered Las Alcobas margarita ($15). I’ve written about this drink before and I will likely write about it again, but if you haven’t tried this concoction of sweet, sour and salty, then for this alone I encourage you to rush out and experience it.
Innovative dishes and satisfying entrees
Dinner entrees range from vegetable-centric dishes such as the surprisingly satiating carrot a l’orange with a date soubise and cumin-scented grains ($23) to meat dishes that highlight Cosentino’s artistry, such as the lusciously crispy fried Iberico pork schnitzel ($59) with Brussels sprout petals and what to me is an unneeded but nevertheless interesting caviar dressing.
The desserts ($12 each) are artistically inspired by Pastry Chef Curtis Cameron (The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado). All of Cameron’s offerings are mind-bending visual collections of flavors and textures, and each is stunning to look at, with some appearing as if they might have defected from some modernist kitchen — think Spain’s elBulli — like the cubist dark chocolate, cream and raspberry shortbread and icy black licorice combination. This dish in particular would be a stunning addition to any art collector’s wall but would never make it that far because its flavors are scrumptiously too compelling not to devour.
I have only been to dinner or sat at the bar at Acacia House, but they also serve breakfast and lunch. I hope to try these other options at some point, and Ploetz tells me that they’ll soon be having a happy hour with $5 options of wine, beer and food.
As is the case with many new restaurants there have been changes to the team’s initial lineup.
Cosentino has recently brought in a new executive chef, Cole Dickinson, who is coming to Acacia House by way of Los Angeles (having worked at Ink, Bazaar and with Wolfgang Puck). However, Dickinson is no stranger to Wine Country, having spent time in Sonoma County cooking with Charlie Palmer and Mark Stark. After, he headed to locations around the United States and the world, cooking and honing his culinary skills with star chefs such as Mark Purdy. Besides the list of luminary chefs on his resume, Dickinson has an exciting list of accomplishments. While working with Celebrity Chef Michael Voltaggio, he was named a “young gun” by Eater in 2012, one of Zagat’s “30 under 30” in 2013 and that same year won on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” then went on to earn a StarChefs Rising Star Chef Award in 2014. I look forward to watching and tasting as Dickinson brings his own influence to the Acacia House menu.
An honest restaurant
Is the Acacia House a perfect restaurant? Absolutely not. On the night I ate there both the chicken and monkfish were a little rubbery, although the flavors remained fresh and complex. A dish of otherwise wonderfully cooked risotto topped with an innovative mound of chewy mushroom “hay” made from dried enoki mushrooms was the perfect balance between creamy and chewy but was disappointingly underseasoned. Many of the low-backed chairs are uncomfortable to sit in for long, and after the lights went down in the dining room I felt like the space might be anywhere with little on the walls or in the decor of the room that said, “Hey, I’m in St. Helena,” or even in the Napa Valley. The concept of the space is for guests to feel like they are eating at a friend’s or family member’s home, but I’m not sure who — at least nobody I know — decorates their walls with rows of plates. There’s also a historic but sadly nonfunctional fireplace that remains filled with never-to-be-utilized logs.
But I sense perfection is not the goal at Acacia House. Instead, the focus seems more on creating a sophisticated yet casual dining experience that is real and honest, one that is constantly seeking to maintain a healthy integration into its environment.
What Cosentino is showing the Napa Valley is that his being a celebrity chef with three restaurants and a reputation for being primarily meat-focused is not a constraining or negative aspect of his history to be overcome, but instead may actually have provided a push toward innovation and advancement. As a part of that, Cosentino and crew do not seem to be saying, “Look at us,” but instead seem to be saying, “Look at you.”
“I’ve learned from my mentors that, ‘What grows together goes together,’” Cosentino said. “It’s not that I’ve changed anything really, but I think people are just starting to ask the right questions. We have a responsibility to our guests and also to the future generations. Yes, it must taste good, but it has to work in other ways, too.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, January 2018