Carla Meyer

Dining review: St. Helena's Meadowood pushes envelope of greatness

What is it like to dine in the upper echelon of the culinary world?

In Northern California, you can enjoy a long, happy life trying to answer that question without putting many miles on the car.

That includes the flourishing restaurant scene in and around Sacramento, where there are more and more ways to dine well.

Yet if you're looking for the kind of cooking that is intellectual, whimsical, exhilarating and precise – and if you're OK with being entertained, even occasionally outfoxed by a 34-year-old who has already earned two Michelin stars at two different venues – the road trip you're after will take you just 78 miles from downtown Sacramento.

Far less known than many heralded dining destinations in Northern California, the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena is offering one of the finest culinary experiences imaginable, featuring cuisine that is both inventive and exacting.

The only Michelin three-star restaurant in the north state is Yountville's venerable French Laundry. But Meadowood, with a completely different style of food and a highly competitive chef pushing the limits, is making a case for consideration as one of the nation's premier restaurants.

The seven-course chef's tasting menu at Meadowood is $175 ($125 more for the wine pairings). The four-course menu with several options is $115 ($75 for wine pairings). The wine list is thoughtful, thorough and a pleasure to peruse, with everything from $40 and $50 bottles from various wine regions to a magnum of Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon that will set you back $6,000.

A typical dinner for two might cost $500, including the wine. But put that in context if you're planning a truly special occasion, a serious food adventure – or you simply want a taste of the very good life. It would cost you about the same for: a family of four to enjoy a Giants game with a few souvenirs, a medium-large speeding ticket (before traffic school), a smart pair of Allen Edmonds shoes or six or seven dinners at a place like the Olive Garden.

Is this experience worth it? If you eat to live, maybe not. But if fine food is an emotional experience, a lifelong pursuit or even an occasional curiosity, Meadowood is worth every penny.

For myself, I can easily imagine whispering, on my deathbed, to some whippersnapper straining to comprehend my ramblings: "The foie gras wrapped in black bread oh, what I wouldn't give for one more taste of that."

There is more than one way to create food at this level. And while there is no disputing San Francisco is a world-class food city, we are seeing the first signs of a backlash there – some chefs and foodies are lamenting the lock-step insistence on a farm-to-table philosophy that can become a crutch that leads to conservative, predictable cooking.

Meadowood also advocates the use of local ingredients, but the kitchen seems to operate with few constraints. The working environment of executive chef Christopher Kostow is something of a DreamWorks studio, only with kitchen gadgets, sharp knives and plenty of ventilation.

Weeks or months before a dish is ready for the dining room, Kostow and his crew come up with a concept, complete with how the food might taste and what the textures will be. They write it down, stick it on the wall – and then have little idea how they will arrive at that goal.

For the creative mind, that is an exciting, scary and essential place to be. When you arrive at the kitchen to cook and recook dishes in development, you are struggling to unlock the mystery of how ingredients respond in ways that possibly no one has seen before.

At Meadowood, sometimes they try newer methods to enhance flavors or reconfigure texture – cooking a small steak, say, for three hours in its own juices locked in a cryovac bag (a technique called sous vide), or cold-smoking an avocado, mixing into it some butter and cream, gelatin and lemon juice, then shooting it through a siphon charged with nitrous oxide so it will be divinely creamy yet so light when it hits the tongue that it seems surreal.

Whereas the French Laundry takes traditional cuisine and prepares it to the highest standards, Kostow and his kitchen approach food very differently, seeking to create something that may be puzzling and reassuring at the same time.

But they don't want to be different solely for the purpose of proclaiming, "Hey, look what we can do." Thus, the quest at Meadowood starts with ground rules that border on the impossible: Be new, be exciting, be perfect, but be familiar.

Much of the food we encountered on a recent evening was all of that. What we saw and smelled and tasted combined traditional French cooking with exciting techniques known to many as molecular gastronomy.

That small steak was, indeed, a work of art. The cut of beef, not much bigger than a man's thumb, was poached sous vide, glazed with veal jus, violet mustard and black garlic, then dusted with dehydrated onion, charred onion, dried mushrooms and a pinch of brown sugar.

After it was quickly seared over high heat, it had the blackened appearance of a charred crust but with a deeper, more complex flavor that included a touch of sweetness.

On the plate, it was set down atop a stream of foie gras butter. This is Kostow's cooking in high-definition splendor: The ingredients are familiar, yet the flavors are well beyond what nature alone could muster.

The same could be said for the bean course that followed the opening course of Wagyu beef cured with pine needles from the Meadowood property and sliced paper-thin. The beans were a thing of beauty, dominated by bright green dollops of the smoked avocado against a black plate. Kostow uses three varieties of heirloom beans along with chickpeas. The broth in which the beans cook is clarified and used in the finished dish.

Then there was something called a potato parfait, which is not on the menu but may be the most memorable dish I tasted at Meadowood. It arrived early in the meal, compliments of the chef. At first glance, there was not much going on – a white cup holding what appeared to be crème fraîche or thick yogurt.

But what a fun little treat it was: five distinct layers, all creamy or crunchy, compiled to suggest the essence of a baked potato. This is the playful side of the cooking here, and to me, as I bit into the crunchy middle layer, I thought of those pull-top cans of potato sticks I haven't had since I was a little boy.

The foie gras in black bread was a selection on the four-course menu – and something of a masterwork. Kostow and his kitchen created this dish by taking three disparate textural components – creamy, toothsome and crunchy – and showcasing them with flavors that suggest eastern European cuisine.

The inner layer is a torchon of foie gras, a component complicated enough that it is featured in Thomas Keller's coveted "The French Laundry Cookbook." This thin tube of rich duck liver is then surrounded by whipped foie gras (imagine the texture of ricotta) and wrapped in melba-thin black bread in the shape of a tube.

The bread crisps up as it bakes, and the whole thing becomes a tour de force of the imagination, yet something so orderly and familiar. Sitting next to the filled bread are little cubes of bacon and, yes, dark chocolate that pair wonderfully – so well, you may recall, that chocolate-covered bacon was one of the big hits among epicures in cutoffs and tank tops at this summer's State Fair.

On and on it goes at Meadowood. Veal shoulder with a serving of white rice that looks more like a strip of litmus paper – the rice was cooked in corn juice, thickened, cooled, rolled out until paper-thin, then steamed and served in strips beneath the veal with white sauce. That is an incredible investment of time and technique simply to get the word "rice" on the menu.

One of the desserts was uncommonly impressive – a chocolate almond fudge with olive, brioche and tomato. The other, a dish composed of watermelon flesh and rind with Champagne, missed the mark slightly with a harsh taste to the rind that didn't work for us.

When I spoke with Kostow by phone, he was deep at work on a typical day at Meadowood – part dreaming, part struggling to corral the dream, part cooking the dishes that have already been deemed good enough for the menu.

For fine-dining enthusiasts, a visit to Meadowood is a must. But with a kitchen this inventive, along with a first-rate sommelier and a service staff that makes all the right moves, this is a place that many others will want to try, too, simply for the opportunity to dine so well and, with any luck, remember it so fondly.