Rookie head chef Chris Kostow was catapulted onto the international stage when Chez TJ, a rather obscure if beloved restaurant in downtown Mountain View, won two Michelin stars in the inaugural 2007 San Francisco edition. When I finally got there, I was swept away by the shimmering clarity of every bite.
Three months ago, Kostow moved his whole crew of 10 to Meadowood, a Relais & Chateaux resort on a 40-year-old Napa Valley estate.
There, guests can dine outdoors on a second-floor veranda overlooking a sylvan nine-hole Jack Fleming golf course (much prized by old-school golfers); or indoors in an intimate, Frette linen-swathed dining room.
Kostow’s meals are built like an expressive mosaic, tile by tile. Some of the pieces are as simple as a Meadowood garden radish with drops of golden olive oil; others as faceted as a foie gras "napoleon" that looks like a piece of candy. When you pop it into your mouth, the umami of buttery foie gras terrine mingles with the lush fruitiness of spring strawberry gelee and little pricks of sea salt.
The sweetness of butter-poached lobster came forward in a ragout of foods that shared the same flavor range as the lobster — fragrant summer truffles, fresh morels, turmip foam and delicate sweetbread ravioli — all quiet and a little earthy. They made the lobster taste even more like lobster.
Kostow again drew on summer truffles and an asparagus puree, maitake mushrooms and pearl onions, to reveal the inner being of a few voluptuous slices of roasted Kobe ribeye. Yet, typical of his cooking, every morsel tasted bright and distinct.
In Kostow’s hands, one baby quenelle worth of sea urchin ice cream made perfect sense with a miniscule minced salad of mango and scallion in carrot water, a single nuanced spoonful that truly deserved three layers of white china.
A Lilliputian carpet of cold smoked toro was embroidered with shiny black osetra caviar eggs, dots of creme fraiche, white rings of spring onion and radish shoots, all seemingly applied by tweezer, added up to one tactile bite.
Inspired master sommelier Rom Toulon knows how to complete Kostow’s ideas with intense but balanced wines from tiny nearby estates, like a Parador tempranillo from a two-acre vineyard in Wooden Valley; or a sake aged in cedar for three years.
You almost regret the shift into sweets — two buoyant, juicy, pre-desserts that in fact are barely sweet, followed by a scrumptous, runny chocolate souffle towering over an espresso cup with bracing Earl Grey ice cream, followed, of course, by tiny made-that-moment candies and cakes from pastry chef Frank Sally.
You’ve watched the sunset, the sky streak pink and the shadows of the trees grow on the croquet court. The warm breezes turn deliciously cool. You almost don’t notice just a tiny bit of warmth coming from heaters above as night falls. No one wants the idyll to end.
I know this divine, restorative three hours comes at a price — $300 per person out the door for the ultimate package — but you’re in for one of the best experiences of its kind in the world. The restaurant is small and personal, and those tables on the veranda are few.
Better go now, before the tourists pour in and you’ll have to join a telephone queue to snag a meal so exciting yet ethereal, succulent and sexy.
IF YOU GO
Location: 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena
Contact: (707) 963-3646, www.meadowood.com
Hours: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Price range: $140 tasting menu, plus $95 for wine pairing; three courses for $75, four courses for $90, five courses for $105
Recommended dishes: Tasting menu
Credit cards: All major