For three Michelin-starred chef Christopher Kostow, going casual has turned out to be no small feat. Any chef who has worked in a restaurant at the caliber of The Restaurant at Meadowood, from commis to sous chef, has that fine-dining mentality deeply embedded in their style. So when Kostow and partner Nathaniel Dorn decided to take over Tra Vigne’s hallowed grounds to add a neighborhood restaurant called the Charter Oak to St. Helena (where they both live), it was with trepidation that the word “casual” began to become associated with the project.
Kostow himself prefers to use a term he singularly assigned to this project: elemental. It’s the idea of taking things back to basics, using simplicity to tell the story of each dish, and letting the produce — much of which is sourced from Meadowood’s garden — speak for itself. Besides the massive remodel that the aging building underwent, one of the biggest challenges has proved to be following through with the concept of simplicity, which as it turns out, diners generally consider synonymous with casual.
In the past week, two reviews of Charter Oak have gone to print, from Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Josh Sens at San Francisco Magazine. Both critics gave the restaurant two and a half stars, and both called the restaurant out for not really being casual (in the headlines, no less). The main difference between the two reviews is the critics’ expectations for the restaurant. Bauer felt certain that the restaurant would fall within the definition of casual, while Sens seemed more interested in unpacking the restaurant’s context for what it is: a restaurant from fancy chefs in the middle of Wine Country.
“What became apparent is that it’s an ongoing challenge for a chef like Kostow and front of the house men like Dorn to consistently relax fine dining parameters,” wrote Bauer, whose first visit caused him to do some pondering on whether Vincent van Gogh would be able to paint a world-class realist painting (one must assume that in this case that Kostow is van Gogh and the realist painting is a casual restaurant).
Meanwhile, Sens jumps into his review with the clear acknowledgement that this is a restaurant from a a chef at the highest echelon, whose food is created using intricate techniques and costs about as much as a mid-century couch, as well as the shrewd observation that the definition of casual in St. Helena isn’t really that laid-back after all.
Sens writes, “The place makes good on its ambitions, though I also need to point out that when a chef like Kostow gets down to ‘basics’ in the Napa Valley, a charred avocado still runs you 16 bucks.”
Despite the media’s proclamation that this is a casual restaurant (that includes Eater SF, by the way), Kostow has his own definition posted on the restaurant’s website:
“When we say elemental it means showcasing things - food, surfaces, materials, in such a way that their essence is revealed. Why not eschew the idea of casual and instead focus on the simple and essential? This will result, I hope, in a certain timelessness to the cooking, to the space…that everything will age well with time."
Regardless, Bauer’s complaints were very specific, including leaving dirty plates on the table for multiple courses. He was unnerved to see a waiter picking up a napkin from the floor with tongs, and removing strings that tied together shortbread cookies while the dishes sat on the table. “It felt almost schizophrenic.”
His final word? “By the fourth visit, I had come to appreciate the food and the fully renovated interior. Yet it still felt as if the restaurant was trying too hard to be different, which undercuts the owners’ finely honed talents.”
Sens, meanwhile was seemingly unsurprised by his visits and the prices of his meals, though he noted that not all diners were in the same boat.
“But not all of the valley is made up of landed gentry. One night I was grazing at the bar (housemade potato chips with a dip of whipped brie with trout roe), which looks out on a trellised patio. Beside me sat a tourist, an otherwise cheerful woman who had come to taking umbrage at an avocado, charred and strewn with cilantro, chrysanthemum greens, and shaved rhubarb, a dollop of mayonnaise buried somewhere below. I’d had the dish before and found it delicious, if expensive.
The woman looked at me but pointed her fork accusingly at the bowl before her. “Can you believe $16 for an avocado? At a casual restaurant?”
Actually, I could.”
In the end, one thing is certain: these are very talented chefs cooking at a high level in a restaurant that is more “casual” than The Restaurant at Meadowood. But still maybe don’t wear your jorts.