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The Charter Oak – St. Helena, CA

In 2020 the Glass Fire tore through northern Napa and Sonoma in an unprecedented disaster for California's epicenter of wine growing. Eight percent of Napa's fruit was discarded, representing tens of billions of dollars of product. Hundreds of structures were burned to the ground, including the dining room of Christopher Kostow's The Restaurant at Meadowood, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and one of fewer than ten such dining rooms in the Bay Area.


As of this writing, the only way to experience a Christopher Kostow restaurant is to hit up The Charter Oak, opened by Kostow in the legendary Tra Vigne building in 2017 as a pared-down, more accessible version of Meadowood (which is slated to re-open in the coming months). Kostow took over the historic Tra Vigne space on the south end of St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley. Serving the upscale clientele of Napa, Charter Oak filled a niche below the extravagance of Meadowood and a slight "special occasion" factor above other (fantastic) places in town. The result is a family-style restaurant with shareable comfort food, with many ingredients sourced from the Meadowood/Charter Oak Napa Valley garden, in the Californian food tradition with splashes of foodways from around the world.



After a day getting some particularly flush cash tips in the tasting room, co-worker and homie Amy and I decided to go out for some pricier St. Helena nosh after work, settling on The Charter Oak after feigned negotiation and cash-counting. The menu operates on the "a la carte" system that is really just an excuse to milk more money from patrons––an entrée must be purchased untethered to any manner of side. By far the more economical option is to do the "Let us cook for you" option which gets you access to a whole heap of appetizer bites as well as a shareable main course, sides, and dessert.



Amy and I brought some tasting room leftover wine, which we poured happily (without corkage fees, which was a happy surprise!), and quickly decided to do the "Let us cook for you" option. Within minutes, we were brought a loaf of Charter Oak's famous in-house country bread with house-churned butter and fleur de sel. Amazing.



Feeling like delaying the wine after a whole day surrounded by it, I ordered a mezcal-based cocktail with local strawberries. Really amazing stuff––the mixologists here are stellar! (and one in particular is kinda cute... hit me up, dude with the hair!)



Stracciatella is a word with seemingly infinite meanings in Italian cuisine. For Charter Oak, it's a super-creamy Italian buffalo milk cheese that's nearly liquid, and a bowl of the stuff was the basis of the first (and my favorite) appetizer course. Served with chive oil, chive blossoms, and caviar, it was the perfect vehicle for the crusty, house-made bread.



Among the other fantastic appetizer bites were slices of Japanese pear with dried shiso leaf, a red beet salad with distinctly red leaves, blistered lima bean edamame, and halibut crudo with tomatillo sauce. Each was fantastic, but the crudo blew my mind! And a glass of our food-friendly Salvestrin pinot worked tremendously well with each.




I had been eyeing the duck main course, so imagine my delight when that was precisely what was presented next! Both the breast and confit leg of the duck graced the plate in a pool of sauce spiced with hawaij, a Yemeni blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, and cardamom, and scattered with mustard seeds and shaved leeks. The duck was magnificently cooked, with crisp skin on the breast and fall-apart confit.




Sides included fragrant rice and a selection of charred peppers from their garden. I was delighted to learn from Amy that the Meadowood/Charter Oak garden is located in the yard of a local Montessori school, and the children assist in its care and learn to work with the plants. I hope when Meadowood re-opens and I get the chance to eat there I'll learn much more about Kostow and his philosophy of cooking and sourcing!


Kostow's food is excellent, feels fresh, and emphasizes the bounty of northern California. I'll be very interested to see how he approaches the newly-opened Meadowood when it finally gets its long-awaited debut in the coming months. It's been high on my list for some time!

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