Chef Christoper Kostow, chef of the 3 star Michelin award winner, The Restaurant at Meadowood, has now created a unique family-style high-end dining experience in the heart of Napa Valley.
There has been a lot of buzz about The Charter Oak Restaurant opening in Saint Helena. After the sudden closure of Tra Vigne, a well known and loved restaurant off Charter Oak Avenue, people were a buzz of what was going to happen to the iconic brick buildings that were empty as of December 20th, 2015.
The property had an overhaul, and for months locals watched the building transform into something more updated, adding large windows, power washing and hand scrubbing each brick of this 1960’s piece of Saint Helena history.
It was announced that The Charter Oak was opening June 5th, so I promptly went on Open Table and snatched a reservation for three for the 8th. It was a cold day with a random hail storm the night before, the large patio had been cleared and everyone was inside, but I could imagine the hustle and bustle of many diners enjoying the courtyard, and new expansive fire pit and lounge area added.
The inside was transformed from the days of Tra Vigne. The bar is now on the left as you walk in, the space very open with floor to ceiling brick. Large arched windows with French doors flank the bar. The kitchen is the centerpiece, yet still partially hidden by the expediting area which contains a large roaring fire used to smoke many of the ingredients utilized in the dishes.
We came extra early so we could enjoy a drink at the bar. On the list were Charter Oak’s signature cocktails, aptly named cocktails 1-12. Also on the menu were many unique classic cocktails, craft beers and wines by the glass.
I decided on the #2 cocktail which incorporated Belvedere vodka, vanilla, strawberry, lime and Schramsberg Sparkling. I noticed that these cocktails were very intricate and complex and a fair amount of time goes into making them. A lot of thought went into creating these signature cocktails, and the well-versed bar staff is very skilled at making them.
The presentation of the drink is as impressive as the flavor. Almost all the drinks are garnished with some sort of flower, fruit or item from the garden. My drink was fabulous and reminded me of strawberry shortcake with a hint of lime. The use of shaved ice made my cocktail even more refreshing.
The bar was buzzing after only being open a few days. The separate bar menu incorporates items like chips and brie dip with trout roe, “wings” of the month and a killer cheeseburger made to perfection. Some other items on the regular dining menu are also available. They informed us that there is also brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 10:30-2:30 which I am still waiting to try.
Once we were seated at our table, we were given an overview of Chef Kostow’s family-style dining model. Diners can order however many portions of anything on the menu. Family-style basically meant that multiple servings of an item would be served on one shared plate. Another fun aspect she showed us was the hidden side drawers for each diner that contained all the necessary dinner utensils and napkins.
The menu was relatively simple to maneuver as it consisted of starters ($6 per portion), mids($16 per portion), and mains($26 per portion). Everything is ordered at the beginning of the meal to ensure that the courses arrive promptly. Our server graciously explained every dish on the menu, and as I listened, I was amazed that so little ingredients in a dish could be elevated to such a sophisticated level.
For our starters, we ordered Garlic Tartine (house bread griddled in butter and spring garlic, pea pesto-like spread topped with shaved lardo), Taramasso farm egg and the vegetable crudité with a fermented soy dip. While waiting, we perused the wine list.
This was when dinner got interesting. The wines by the bottle are broken down by Napa Valley AVA’s or viticultural regions which is great if you are from the Napa Valley or a wine connoisseur. But if you knew nothing about wine this list would appear a bit daunting. However, they do have an in-house sommelier who will no doubt educate any novice through the list.
Secondly, the wine list has only a few wineries from each of the AVA’s with multiple vintages which can end up very costly. I’m hoping that this menu expands at a later date. On the plus side, a party can bring up to two Napa County wines with no corkage fee.
Lastly, the restaurant has a 20% service charge for your dinner which didn’t bother me because our service was impeccable. However, it also has a 20% service charge on all bottled wines. If I were to spend 200 dollars on a bottle, which is easily doable with this wine list, I would pay an extra 40 dollars service charge. That coupled with the bottle pricing made me move to the wines by the glass section of the menu, choosing the El Molino Chardonnay, one of my favorites.
Our starters arrived in a timely manner, and we were very excited to start our meal. The garlic Tartine is a garlic lover’s dream, the pesto was hot in a “garlic hot” sort of way, the toast was thick and dense, and the thin slice of lardo added extra richness. The Taramasso farm egg was an 8-minute cooked egg, hard on the outside and slightly soft on the inside, seasoned with sea salt and Hudson olive oil, a simple dish using only three ingredients.
The star of first courses was the vegetables with the fermented soy dip. Assorted baby vegetables and edible flowers from the gardens filled the plate with vibrant colors like yellow, orange, dark green and red. The fermented soy dip, rich in flavor, with a swirl of chive oil, was so unique we could have used about four more servings. It was a journey of different tastes and textures, and I would highly recommend this crudité.
After our starts, we enjoyed a little bread, and then our “Mids” arrived, a salad of broccolis, charred avocado and rigatoni were the dishes we selected for our second courses. My salad of broccolis was seasoned with a lovely mustard powder and had a crunch from the puffed barley and wild rice. The buffalo’s milk ricotta was creamy with a hint of sweetness. Part of the broccolini, cooked crispy, was reminiscent of a kale chip texture.
The durum wheat rigatoni with a vegetable bolognese was the heartiest of all the second courses. Various seasonal vegetables are smoked over the hearth and added to a house-made red sauce to create the bolognese. The dish is topped with shaved Pennyroyal cheese, a sharp acidic cheese coming from Anderson Valley. It was served in a Le Creuset dish and was hot and cheesy yet fresh from the garden vegetables.
The charred avocado topped with shaved rhubarb and ember oil made from The Charter Oak’s fireplace had vibrant colors and an amazing smokey flavor. This dish was another example of a few ingredients creating a unique flavor profile.
It was time for our main courses, and I chose a glass of the Merryvale Pinot Noir to go with my pork. I like the funk on this Pinot as well and the nice fruit profile. I was looking forward to my pork entree, a miso-dressed Berkshire pork shoulder with miso greens. It was rich, dense, full of flavor and the best pork entree I ever had. The bolder Pinot Noir stood up to the full flavored pork complementing the dish perfectly.
The Mt. Lassen Trout was a beautiful pink color as it is smoked one hour a day for seven days and then filleted then grilled skin side down, medium rare, dressed with bitter greens and served with charred lemon. The texture is velvety, the flavor is incredibly smokey and the skin crisp. It was a unique way to cook trout, and with the few ingredients used, the dish came together perfectly.
The Schmitz Ranch beef rib was slow-smoked to make a jus. The beets also basted in the jus which gave them a candied quality. The smoked meat was soft on the tongue, rich and marbled. As it was a rather large rib, but I think two would have been a better portion for the main course.
As we reflected and discussed what we experienced in each dish, the dessert cart rolled over to us with several wonderful options. Among them, a buffalo’s milk ice cream with local olive oil and honey, a grilled date cake with house made whipped cream, champagne coral cherries from San Joaquin Valley, Vanilla Pavlova with olive oil pudding and strawberry jam, and chocolate pudding with fresh milk and roasted white chocolate.
I immediately went for the Pavlova since I had never tried one. He prepared and cracked it on the cart then served it to me and it was fantastic. The outside was dry, fragile and elegant, the strawberries with a touch of vanilla powder were sweet and flavorful, and the inside was creamy and soft but not too sweet.
Our dishes were art on a plate and service was impeccable. The amount of thought that goes into everything served makes you ponder while enjoying the meal. Since my first visit, I have been back to the bar three times, enjoying the crudité every time, as well as the chips and dip, wings of the month and the cheeseburger, a must try.
The charter oak is an evolving creature, always changing, and morphing with the seasons as well as from experimentation, and feedback. I think that it is a special and unique experience like no other, sharing Epicurious adventures with family and friends, fresh farm to table food, celebrating everything local. Elevating dishes with minimal ingredients, Chef Christopher Kostow has impeccable taste and mad skills, and I am thrilled that I get to share my experience.