Munchies

The Joys and Disappointments of a Three-Michelin-Starred Christmas Dinner

For 12 days out of the year, The Restaurant at Meadowood celebrates Christmas by bringing a different chef from around the world each day to cook dinner. Sometimes the meals fail, other times the meals swell in your imagination for years

by John Birdsall
Dec 23 2015, 7:00pm

All photos by the author

"Our general manager is right over there," the Meadowood hotel clerk says. I'm standing in a large, white and beige reception lobby, high-beamed and fireplaced, high-class. "I know he's eager to say hello." This is a lie, but a flattering one.

Lots of things in luxury resorts are calibrated to flatter. I'm in the Napa Valley, east of St. Helena's main strip. Approaching in your car is an act of passage through a succession of gates—most metaphorical—into a tighter and tighter corner of privilege.

Meadowood's car checkpoint is in the woods, after you wind through a vineyard, along a road lined with olive trees neatly mulched with straw: It reassures you that, even if you feel like a shabby interloper, as I do, others who are unshaven, driving dirty cars, will be kept out. Shaking the hand of the GM is one of the final gates, before a bellman driving a golf cart leads you to your room, passing mossy oak trunks lining a golf course, bright green in the looming rain.

I'm here to work. Tonight I'm checking out The Restaurant at Meadowood's annual Twelve Days of Christmas—a dozen nights in December, each night a different chef from somewhere in the world, trading flows in alternating courses with Christopher Kostow, the resident exec chef. My meal and my husband's are comped, our night's stay free of charge—I'm set up, in other words, though feeling guilty about taking freebies. At Meadowood as in life, either you feel like you belong or you don't. You own it or it owns you.

It is expensive in a way that can be psychologically scarring to contemplate.

The Restaurant at Meadowood has three Michelin stars, the highest possible rating. It is expensive in a way that can be psychologically scarring to contemplate, if you have an ordinary job and struggle to keep your credit card balances at the lower end of hopeless. I ate here once, maybe eight years ago, to review for a magazine: a tasting menu, with paired wines you paid for separately. I was supposed to keep the reimbursable total close to $500, which was actually impossible. So instead of my companion and me both getting the wine pairing, we ordered one, and when we thought the servers weren't looking, we pushed the glass back and forth across the table. Sharing.

This was absurd, of course; in luxury restaurants, staff is always watching. But, in a way that did not make us feel cheap or ridiculous, the server brought my friend glasses of wine—free. "I think you'll enjoy this with the rabbit course," he said (something like that). This still echoes as the coolest, most gracious thing a restaurant has ever done in my presence, removing our discomfort and awkwardness and swallowing the expense, all without seeming to judge us (not so we noticed, anyway).

Sturgeon Course

Sturgeon course
Nopales Nopales

Kostow's food was disarming, too. The rabbit, the only dish I remember, was a plate of small rendered cuts scattered across a lush swale of pea leaves, purées, and tendrils. It's as if we'd surprised this tender, disjointed creature in its habitat out on the edge of the golf course, and it was happy to offer itself up to please us (another lie, also flattering). This was pure, charming whimsy.

It gave a glimpse, too, into the rationale behind expensive, highly manipulated food, apart from being something that ingratiates rich people: It pushes against the limits of experience. With that rabbit, Kostow brought us closer to the green woods outside the windows, and also far from them, to an abstract place of wonder.

Will the food tonight be just as evocative? The visiting chef—Day Four of The Twelve Days of Christmas—is Jorge Vallejo, from Quintonil in Mexico City. Vallejo worked under Enrique Olvera at Pujol, where, in the best dishes, you feel like the kitchen is distilling Mexican history and culture into something as tiny, in some cases, as two bites. Like a pop-up sponge in a plugged sink, it expands to fill the imagination.

The thing about The Twelve Days of Christmas is that it's not a hushed, meditative experience. It's like being at a big dinner party where you don't know anyone but form temporary kinship with the people immediately around you. It begins, rather formally, with J. Schram vintage sparkling wine in the foyer, mossy sticks in lit alcoves, blazing fireplaces facing each other, "Jingle Bell Rock" burbling from shadow speakers. The room thins, and you realize people are being led away—you're led away, to the kitchen, a searing-white and stainless-steel lab.

It's crowded in there, maybe 50 guests regarding a couple of dozen cooks in whites, prepping, assembling hors d'oeuvres that'll be passed there, by servers slipping through the throng. In the bright wash of the kitchen you notice things about people. David Kinch (a guest) looks ruddy and fit, a stone in his ear stud sparkles, talking about his recent meal at Troisgros. You hear somebody ask the totally informal-looking Vallejo, bent over a plastic container of blue borage flowers to garnish concentrated little bowls of nopal and purslane, "So, how do you like Napa?"

Ulterior Epicure blogger Bonjwing Lee is wearing a really good suit—he moves comfortably around the cooks, pointing his camera, leaning over a prep station without appearing apologetic. Christian Puglisi, chef at Relæ in Copenhagen, cooked here last night; he's here, talking to Kostow over by the glassed-in butchery room, holding his squirming kid in his arms like it's Thanksgiving in a crowded condo kitchen. I notice two cooks, shaking seaweed powder and onion ash through cheesecloth sachets onto rice-chip crab tostadas, follow with their eyes Puglisi's wife, tall and blond in a purple backless thing. Corn masa balls topped with papery, vein-articulated white truffle slices are delicious.

Crab Tostadas

Crab tostadas
Tripe Course Tripe

Some guests look wealthy: the woman in a red fringe dress, hoisted on perilous crimson heels; a middle-aged Manhattan couple who flew in for this. Some are chefs and industry people, others, like the woman with enormous bobbing chrysanthemums inked on her arms and heels bibbed with glittery silver fringe, you can't place.

I'm seated in the dining room at the head (or foot?) of a 12-seat share table, close to the papery-bark totem tree that rises to the ceiling, the pivot point from which everything radiates. I'm next to Clinton Huntsman, chef at Hamel Family Wines in Sonoma. Down the table: chef Ari Weiswasser and sous Louis Abruzzese of Glen Ellen Star.

The food—does it push against the limits of experience? Not really, though everything is lovely. Vallejo's first course of cooked-down tomatillo, with a cold tomato wedge, roasted onion, and a parsley-cilantro emulsion is pleasant though it fails, on a rainy December night in Napa, to root you to anyplace recognizable.

Kostow's little white thatch of tripe dotted with poached butter clams and celery root, in a concentrated sauce of Mexican chorizo, is delicious. It exhales a humid biological funk. The wine for this, fittingly, is Arietta's "On the White Keys," sauvignon blanc with semillon. It's minky, the PE shirt I wore for a year in high school without washing. "Like almost-rotting papayas," I hear someone say down the table.

Little mushrooms and escamoles—pale, beadlike ant larvae and pupae—mosh around together in Vallejo's salbutes, deep-fried puffs of masa dough that read stale, somehow, though I saw the cooks fry them an hour ago. Kostow's potatoes and sturgeon in chinga—thrown together, in other words, in a fucking hurry. "We got a large delivery of sturgeon," the server says.

There's a cube or two of cooked potato, everything white with cultured cream, except black grains of sturgeon caviar from Passmore Ranch. On top, thin slices of raw potato, with the starchiness and phantom bitter taste of raw tuber—it reminds you slightly of tororo, raw Japanese mountain yam: sticky, dense, and luxurious. It feels dangerous, especially with sips of The Scholium Project's Sylphs chardonnay, which smells a little like Magic Marker. It's my favorite dish tonight.

Chicken Mole

Chicken mole
Tripe Prep Prep

Vallejo comes up with two perfect sous-vided cubes of chicken sheathed in curling membranes of pickled sorrel, with a super-smooth red mole—bitter—next to raisin purée, drops of single-stroke sweetness available for dabbing. Kostow and his cooks move through the dining room, serving thick, rectilinear slices of sauced roast pork and black trumpet mushrooms.

There are red wines, desserts. Afterwards, as the room thins in the blur of wine and bathroom walks and blunted attention, you wander back to the foyer. Sam Levy, Meadowood's bartender, gives you a cordial glass of the nocino he makes—your hand is already sticky and you swear you haven't spilled any.

Vallejo is surrounded on a sofa. Kostow leans in, drink in hand, thanks us for coming. Kinch is there. I tell Kostow how much I liked the sturgeon course. Kinch nods, "You know, raw potato is poisonous"—he's smiling, taking the piss—Kostow smiles, kind of shrugs.

This is what The Twelve Days of Christmas is, it occurs to me, before we slip out into the wetness: It pushes the boundaries of understanding restaurant experience, invites you to a party where there's been a breach in the wall between kitchen and dining room. The last gate you pass through leaves you face-to-face with chefs who concept and strive. Sometimes they fail, other times they improvise something that swells in your imagination for years. It's a glimpse into process, the ultimate act of belonging.