St. Helena's The Charter Oak is Napa Valley’s best new restaurant

As guests of St. Helena’s The Charter Oak restaurant head down the steep stairs toward the basement bathrooms, they come face-to-face with a simple message. On the bare brick walls, scrawled on a stark-black background in simple white chalk lettering reads: “The greatest oak was once a tiny nut that held its ground…” And through this simple message the prophetic reason for why this restaurant is so good begins to take shape.

Opened for little over a year, The Charter Oak has stood its ground.

Initially some reviewers and many of the Napa Valley’s “old guard” had their hackles up. They compared the new restaurant to what they imagined might be some mythological merger between their beloved Tra Vigne that had stood in the same location for nearly 30 years and the Michelin three-star-rated Restaurant at Meadowood.

Most complaints centered around the space “feeling too exposed” or that the ambiance “just wasn’t like it had been back then.” There were a few who questioned the portion sizes or why a 20 percent service fee was included or the fact that the wine list only included wines from the Napa Valley, while others threw up their hands and said, “I just don’t get it.”

Time passed. A few slight changes were made, but the team carried on all the while under the leadership of two of the Napa Valley’s most celebrated restaurant minds — Christopher Kostow, best known as the Meadowood chef, and Meadowood’s front-of-the-house director, Nathaniel Dorn. These two had set the stage, and they had also brought in a team of superstars to help achieve their vision, including Chef Katianna Hong and Sommelier David Kasper.

“Chef Kostow reminds us that we’ll never make something taste better than nature has already — and that all we can achieve is doing it justice,” Hong said. “We are making straightforward food that showcases the freshness and quality of the ingredients, most of which come from nearby producers, including from our own farm. In some ways it’s more challenging to make food simple than it is to make it more complicated.”

And with that, Hong has summarized the elemental nature that is The Charter Oak ethos. Everything from the interior design to the locally made earthenware plates is a push to strip away everything that might otherwise mask what lies underneath.

We now have our answer.

When a single grilled avocado ($12) arrives at the table guests might puff their lips and scoff, “Well now, how good could an avocado taste?”

And then they might taste the avocado that has a light drizzle of olive oil from the Hudson Ranch, dusted with bits of crunchy salt and flakes of earthen-scented seaweed from Mendocino. And then these skeptics might take a bite, chew for a moment, stop chewing, chew again and then smile. Without answering out loud, they’ve answered their own question: “How good can an avocado taste? This good.”

“The Charter Oak is a good fit for us — it is run by people who support their community and are true to an authentic way of working and living,” said Cristina Hudson, co-owner of the Hudson Ranch, who grows and processes the olive oil. “It is a thoughtful, honest restaurant that is truly inspired by place — by what is around them — and by what they and others are growing and making. We feel truly honored to find our products included on their menus.”

The reviews are in

The reviews, tentative at first, have begun to pour in: The San Francisco Chronicle placed The Charter Oak on its Top 100 Restaurants list of 2018, the Wine Enthusiast added them to its list of top 100 wine restaurants in America, and the prestigious James Beard Foundation nominated them as one of five of the Best New Restaurants in America. Beyond this impressive list, Food & Wine magazine recently included Hong as one of their Best New Chefs of 2018.

The future of food in the Napa Valley

For the last 40 years or more, the Napa Valley has stood as an example of the best that American cuisine culture has to offer. From the California Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1970s to the farm-to-table thrust of the early 2000s, the valley has stood for something that elevates and inspires.

But with the spread of food culture through ubiquitous food-related TV programs, books, movies and an explosion of fast-casual establishments and food-delivery services, there has been a recent push toward more and more of what I call corporate comfort food. These establishments often focus on providing hearty fare that harkens back to some forgotten time, often with heavy cuts of meat served with buttery sides and ending with cloyingly sweet desserts.

Entering one of those types of eating houses or having food dropped unceremoniously at your doorstep may provide a quick and satiating meal, but it brings up questions:

Has the food been grown locally?

Do the profits support those living in your community?

Is the produce grown in a manner that supports the earth’s sustainability?

Do the workers make a living wage?

Do the slaughtered animals live a life full of suffering?

Perhaps you scoff at such considerations. Perhaps you believe that we should eat what tastes good and let the world be damned. Fine. I am not trying to preach. But no matter what your philosophy, you will find The Charter Oak to be a bastion of some of the finest cuisine the valley has to offer.

Fire at the center

Before entering the restaurant guests pass through an iron gate and enter into a brick-walled, ivy-covered courtyard with steeply columned steps that are still flanked by two lions that frequenters of the old Tra Vigne restaurant will fondly remember.

Outdoor seating includes a large fireplace and a tree-studded courtyard. Inside, the large floor-to-ceiling windows and doors open the space to the outside, bringing a Zenlike openness or what the architect, Howard Backen, refers to as having removed everything down to their “core elements.”

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

The food

Most food comes in portions and presentations that encourage sharing. The service basically responds to the customers’ needs, and while, early on, it might have felt a bit strange for patrons to pour their own water or replace their own flatware from hidden drawers at the table’s edge, after a time or two it feels natural and comfortable — more like being at a friend’s home than being fussed over.

The food commands attention. From the many starters ($12 to $22); a wonderful collection of salads, vegetables and grains ($22 to $26); roasted items “from the hearth” ($24 to $110); and a collection of sides ($8 to $12) — the range and distinctness of flavors is stunning. Freshly baked bread is available ($5), and for those in the know, a loaf can be taken home for $15.

Many regulars claim that the cheeseburger and fries ($20) is the best they’ve ever had, the buttermilk chicken ($25) more tender and succulent than their fondest childhood memories and the Korean BBQ wings ($18) a near religious experience.

However, for me the artistry, finesse and attention to detail are best exemplified by a succulent and addictive bowl of grilled cucumbers and sea beans ($12), crudo of halibut with kimchi-inspired vinaigrette, and freshly plucked purslane ($22) or the texturally rich collection of broccolis with puffed grains and ricotta ($24).

Dinner and more

The restaurant is open for dinner nightly from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and lunch on Friday and Saturday from 11:30 with similar menus.

On Sundays The Charter Oak opens at 11 a.m. and serves another surprise — the best brunch in the Napa Valley. I ask myself why is there no line down the block beginning hours before each Sunday’s opening. From the thick-grilled toast with tahini and honey ($12) and apple pancake with brown sugar ($18) to the summer squash with creamy cheese-baked omelet ($22), every single item is succulent, rich, savory or sweet to the point of perfection. If you sit out in the courtyard, the ivy-covered walls and shady outdoor space makes for a quintessential Napa Valley weekend mid-morning gathering spot.

The wines and other beverages are equally well-chosen. Wines remain primarily local, but they’ve loosened the strict Napa Valley policy (except for anything Cabernet Sauvignon based). The cocktail menu is innovative and well-executed. The wine service, like the food, is friendly and knowledgeable but not overly fussy. Bring in a bottle of wine and the server will hand you a corkscrew and a couple of glasses. They may not charge you for the corkage of the first bottle, but they will allow you the pleasure of pouring your own wine.

Chef Hong

Beyond the food, wine and ambiance, why is The Charter Oak the best new restaurant in the Napa Valley?

Kostow and Dorn have created a framework and provided both the guidance and the freedom to their exceptional team so each might make his or her own unique mark, and no one exemplifies this more than Hong.

There is not enough room in this review to tell you about Hong: her Korean birth, followed by adoption by an upstate New York family at 3 months old; her early obsession with food coupled with a real reluctance to enter a career in cooking; her graduating from the CIA in Hyde Park and then working with Kostow; her marriage to another Napa Valley superstar chef, John Hong; her steady path toward becoming the chef de cuisine at Meadowood, making her the only female to hold such a title at the time at any of the 12 Michelin three-star restaurants in America.

Did everyone love Kostow when his version of Meadowood opened? No. Did everyone love Tra Vigna when it opened? No again. What they and other Napa Valley restaurants had was time and some room to plant their roots and grow.


Originally published in the Napa Register, July 2018