The Charter Oak is a new chapter for chef Christopher Kostow and partner Nathaniel Dorn, as they navigate the previously uncharted waters of casual dining. The restaurant is a follow-up to the vaunted, three Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, where the kitchen is known for meticulous, yet unexpected tasting menus favoring California cuisine and new world techniques. This new venture is an important departure for the team for several reasons, including the fact that it inhabits the former location of Tra Vigne, a formative Napa Valley restaurant once helmed by Michael Chiarello, and considered a go-to staple for locals and tourists for over 30 years.
This time the kitchen will be lead by a woman, Katianna Hong, who was previously the chef de cuisine at “The Restaurant” (the abbreviated nickname for The Restaurant at Meadowood). Hong is by all accounts a badass, creative and precise in her execution, and an extension of Kostow’s point of view. Since the concept was announced, Hong and Kostow have been hosting “workshops” to test ideas for Charter Oak, honing the style and presentation of the food in small focus group-style dinners.
The historic building has undergone a complete renovation to shore up its sagging foundation, while preserving much of what makes the building unique. Tra Vigne fans will be pleased to see that the iconic stone lions outside the main entryway remain, though the ivy creeping over the facade is now gone. The 100-seat restaurant is now filled with cozy rugs, exposed brick, and warm wood tables; the patio is expansive, dotted with fire pits and sheltered by a natural trellis of tree branches.
Despite its Michelin pedigree, Charter Oak is meant to be welcoming and approachable — a boon to the community where industry folk and locals intermingle with discerning culinary travelers. More than anything though, the idea is to be simple, a difficult feat for chefs who are accustomed to adding 20 steps to a two ingredient dish and plating with tweezers. Many other chefs who’ve expanded to “casual” restaurants have been unable to relinquish the high-end cooking that made their original restaurant successful. Case in point: the all-white, very polished vibe of Dominique Crenn’s “rustic” restaurant, Petit Crenn.
For Hong, simple has been the biggest challenge. Stepping away from the intense pressure of a kitchen like The Restaurant isn’t done in a day— Hong’s been decompressing for over a year now, she says, and it’s still a work in progress. “I think I’m still working on changing the way I look at and approach food,” says Hong. “I think a lot of what’s important at Charter Oak is being confident in simplicity, saying ‘That’s enough, this is perfect,’ and just leaving it that way.”
At Charter Oak, everything is meant to be shared family-style without restriction. Dishes are also available by single portion, allowing some or all of the group to participate. Described by Hong as “Dim Sum-esque,” it’s a mix-and-match affair offering diners three categories from which to choose: Starters, mids, and mains. The only fully curated experience is “Family Dinner,” a set menu with off-menu dishes chosen by Hong, in which the entire table must participate.
That means dishes like grilled chicken with fresh and dried grape leaves or grilled avocado with rhubarb, mayo, and ember oil. (Ember oil is a mix of spices like smoked chilis, garlic, cumin, citrus, dried onion flowers, and more, steeped in oil; an ember from the hearth is dropped into the oil to give it a smoky element.) All of the main dishes come from the hearth, which is bedecked with bouquets of herbs and serves as a massive centerpiece to the high-ceilinged dining room.
Much of the produce and herbs will come from the culinary garden that also provides for The Restaurant. However, The Charter Oak will use all of the produce deemed imperfect by the more fastidious, Michelin-harnessed Restaurant. “The Restaurant is really particular about size and color; there’s a lot of things that the garden grows that don’t work for the restaurant— Charter Oak will take everything and find a great way to use it,” says Hong. A whole animal butchery program is growing at Charter Oak as well, with the addition of a full-time butcher; a preservationist responsible for dried, cured, and fermented items, is shared by The Restaurant and Charter Oak.
Despite the obvious connections, Hong and Kostow say they aren’t trying to create The Restaurant 2.0 “We want it to be a place where people who live and work here can hang out and come back again and again,” says Hong. “My attitude has changed a bit. This is going to be a high energy, fun place to be. I had a different, more militaristic attitude before— I want this to be a place where you can work, learn and enjoy yourself.” And since the cooks themselves will be doing much of the tableside delivery in the dining room, it’s especially important that they feel relaxed. “You know when your grandmother cooks for you and you can feel the love in the food,” said Hong. “With this food you have to be able to enjoy it and to feel it— we’re trying to create that environment.”
The Charter Oak opens for brunch, lunch, and dinner on June 5. See the full opening lunch, brunch, and dinner menus below: