There are two. Only two.
In all of California, there are only two restaurants with the coveted three stars that Michelin doles out each year.
You’ve got your two star restaurants like Benu and Saison, and then you’ve got many 1-star restaurants in a city like San Francisco, including Acquerello, Spruce, Gary Danko and La Folie — all restaurants I frequently enjoy. I’m not sure how Benu gets more stars than some of the 1-star restaurants, but that’s a discussion for another day.
But only two received three stars for 2014: The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood.
Having been to French Laundry a few times, it was due time I tried The Restaurant at Meadowood.
So on April 2nd, I did just that.
And since that evening, I’ve been sitting on this review, completely drawing a blank as to what to write about the experience. It’s not that I don’t know how I felt about the experience; it’s more that I’m not sure how to present the dining experience at this restaurant to YOU. I’ve been totally stumped.
Even the morning after this dinner, I received four messages from friends asking what it was like, based on my check-in the night before. Stumped, I tell you.
But before getting in to the food at The Restaurant at Meadowood, here’s a video that gives you a great impression into what this restaurant is about — farm to table freshness in each dish.
The Restaurant at Meadowood Property
The property that The Restaurant at Meadowood sits on is breathtaking. Even though I arrived when it was dark, this resort was rather spectacular, appearing out of nowhere and leading into winding roads and the sudden appearances of beautiful structures amidst the darkness and trees. You can’t help but anticipate just how wondrous the food is going to be in this setting, and I was a little regretful that I didn’t make this a day trip. The staff at the gate and the valet staff at the front of the restaurant were extremely welcoming.
A long weekend on this resort and spa would be any girl’s dream come true.
Walking into The Restaurant at Meadowood, it’s a totally grand entrance. Unlike The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood went all out in terms of decor and design with no expense spared; walking in, you feel like you’re about to head into a fantastic and elegant dinner. A gorgeous waiting area with fireplace greets you as the staff approaches, and you walk through a toasty and gorgeous bar area before going into the restaurant.
The design feels a bit like Spruce in the restaurant. Great spacing between tables and wide open with a row of beautiful windows, the feel in this room is wonderful. With soft beige hues accented by yellows and subdued by dark wood and stone, it’s a look I love. I could ask for nothing more from a fine dining restaurant in terms of ambiance. The Restaurant at Meadowood is beautiful without being pretentious.
A bit odd was that from the moment I entered to the time I sat down, the hostess was a bit obsessed with my camera bag. Granted, it’s a decent-sized bag — about a foot and a half wide Canon bag? — but she really wanted to rid me of the bag. I had told her I don’t need to check my bag, and she asked again. So I told her no again, but thank you — and she insisted I check in the camera bag. So I took out my camera with one lens on it, and gave her the bag.
Not sure what that was about as I could have easily put it under the table. At least she let me keep my handbag.
The Food at The Restaurant at Meadowood
You have to kick off an anniversary dinner with champagne, so that’s just what we did — just a glass each. Both bottles were recommended by the staff. The 2005 Schramsberg J. Schram ($35 per glass) was bright and slightly acidic with a nice, engaging finish, but the star was the 2005 Roederer Estates L’Ermitage Rosé ($30 per glass), with a beautiful hue, and completely fun and vibrant apples, lime and strawberries dancing on the palate.
There are various types of paper you will see while at The Restaurant at Meadowood. There’s the card you see on the table, with a personalized note from the GM, Nathaniel Dorn, as well as the gorgeous envelope it came in, and there’s also an old, beautiful book, atop which you will be served your kale chips or whatever else the kitchen desires that evening, as shown in the photo above.
But what you will NOT see is a menu— paper, digital, spoken or otherwise.
If you’re here, you’re having the Chef’s Tasting Menu, a concept I’m familiar with, but it’s slightly daunting to have no menu listing what will be served for the evening. For $225 per person, I’d forego the personalized notes, chuck the book entirely and at least be told what I can expect for dinner tonight. Or maybe I feel more this way because there are a handful of restaurants I’ve walked out of after looking at the menu. It’s in line with any omakase you might opt for at a sushi restaurant, but the main difference is that at a sushi restaurant — I know at least that I’m getting sushi.
But it is what it is.
With the tasting menu, I opted for wine pairing (at a whopping $225 per person), and Mr. K skipped the wine pairing since he was driving. (Life just isn’t fair for the guys, huh?)
So first up from the kitchen are some delicate and beautifully presented amuse bouche dishes. Three, in fact, including the kale chips served on a book.
With The Restaurant at Meadowood focusing on “farm to table” concepts, it wasn’t surprising that the dishes were vegetable-centric and rather than cooking with sauces and the like, the emphasis was on the vegetable itself.
What you see in a photo may be a baby carrot and some radishes, but what you can’t “see” via photo is that the nicely seasoned vegetables were marinated overnight in a champagne, providing light acidity and a very slight fruitiness, but retaining all the bite and sweet flavor of the vegetable itself. That may sound simple, but it’s not achievable without great, fresh vegetables to start.
It’s sort of cute and sort of creative how the food is presented at The Restaurant at Meadowood. Personally, you could throw it on a plate and hand it to me, and all I care about is the taste, but at The Restaurant at Meadowood, presentation and the artistry behind each plate kind of IS the point. Kale chips on a book with a handwritten sign indicating when the kale was picked is just the start; the custom plating that would emerge going forward is both impressive and surprising.
The first official course is a small serving of yogurt with Japanese pickled plums (umeboshi), a few pieces of salmon eggs (Ikura) and thin slivers of shiso. It was a potentially very sour mix with salty notes, balanced out beautifully by the shiso leaves, which extended a different profile to the dish. Paired with a glass of 2012 Alina — a blend of Grenache Blanc and Roussane, the course and pairing flowed together nicely. It’s served in stoneware, graced by rocks and leaves…
The second course evening was a tiny, tiny — and I mean tiny piece of lobster, poached in lardo and served with a good amount (compared to the size of the lobster) of caviar.
Did I mention how small this is?
Fresh popovers accompanied this dish; they were deliciously soft and buttery, but I wouldn’t expect any less from the kitchen of The Restaurant at Meadowood.
This is about when the 2011 Comtesse Bernard de Cherisey Meursault emerged and changed my night. I love my white burgundy wines, and this one was stellar. It didn’t go unnoticed that while this was paired with two dishes, I also needed two servings of the wine, because I sipped at it relentlessly.
That said, the pairing of the kohlrabi to the wine was interesting. The dish is served lukewarm and the vegetable is glazed in its own smoked juices, adorned with mustard flowers and seeds, over a rye porridge. Look at the presentation of this dish!
On its own, I don’t think I would have liked the kohlrabi half as much as I did combined with the rye porridge. It was a very sensuous dish, with some creamy and crunchy textures.
As a testament to how great this next dish was, I completely forgot to take the photo before I was over half done with the dish. The aromas coming from this dish are irresistible and the flavors are intense. This ain’t no Chinese restaurant sea cucumbers! While I’m not a huge fan of beans, in this dish, combined with the sea cucumbers and butter, and some spice from the onions, the combination worked. Combined with the white burgundy — it was, hands down, my favorite dish of the night.
Creative, beautiful and delicate, the black cod at The Restaurant at Meadowood is a sight to behold. Paired with a 2010 Domaine Jacques Frédéric Mugnier Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Clos De La Maréchale. A fragrant and light wine, the pairing with the black cod brought the yubu covering to life, blending nicely with the fish and broth. The fish was cooked wonderfully retaining all of its moistness and juice, and of course, the tableside pouring of the broth was lovely.
Gorgeous presentation, no? Someone whom I presume is a sous chef in the kitchen brings out the poussin (a very young chicken or cornish hen, basically), and explains how it’s prepared — baked overnight in a hollowed out sourdough bread. It’s presented, then removed back to the kitchen, and a poussin broth is presented. It’s a broth with chives, made with rendered poultry fat and stock. The richness is near reminiscent of miso broth, though it doesn’t have a lick of miso in it.
The broth was cleared and now we wait for the poussin.
There’s what was brought out to show us how it’s made and then this is what was actually presented to eat:
I present both images so you can clearly understand the size and amount of chicken given to you for this course.
But what about the taste, right?
Well…on its own, it was really nothing special. I’ve not only had chicken like this, I’ve made chicken that tastes at least this good….without baking it overnight in sourdough. With the greens, it was slightly better. But with the Pinot Noir that was presented with the previous course, the dish began to shine, and the chicory, yeast vinaigrette and puntarella flavors emerged rapidly. Yay for the wine — and not so much for the overall cooking. I had to make Mr. K try a sip of the wine to really experience this course, because without the wine, the chicken was….chicken.
We had fish, and we had chicken….I’m waiting for red meat. I need red meat.
When our sommelier brought out a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, I knew it was coming. It was a Seavey 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon — the oldest and priciest wine presented on this evening — and it was pure joy to taste this wine. Big, bold and so fragrant, it’s everything you would want from a dark Cab.
I was excited for the meat entree. Soon, an aged beef bavette with shitake mushrooms, sauced with a vinaigrette made of fermented turnips, shown above, was brought to the table.
It’s beautiful, yes. And it was so amazingly, evenly cooked to a medium rare to borderline rare. Though the meat had hardly any marbling, but with the vinaigrette, it was juicy and tender to the max. And it was also…infinitesimal.
Much to my dismay, the pairing of that big, bold and beautiful cab to this miniscule piece of gorgeous meat didn’t pan out nicely. Neither element added anything to the other….which was fine; I drank and ate separately.
What I’m missing here is the cheese course. We were presented with a nice mimolette with an apple habanero. The course happened, and I remember enjoying it, but when I came home, I realized I downed it without taking any photos of it. I’ve posted a gorgeous shot I found on Flickr.
Up next was a glorious dessert. A restaurant could become famous on this dish alone. It’s a coconut meringue of sorts drizzled with olive oil yielding a near mango-like flavor. Two distinct ingredients are combined and each stands out impressively in this dish; the coconut provides a cold aspect while the olive oil in each bite makes for a room temperature aspect. There was a perfect amount of sweetness to this dish, with deeper notes provided by the great olive oil. Despite the amount of olive oil, it wasn’t heavy; it was a very light and flavorful dish.
The final course for the evening was a silken chocolate custard with dates, served with a panettone bread with roasted coconut and chocolate. This was good, but the Madeira that was served with this dish was better. A Special Reserve from The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series, Boston Bual — this was the first and as of yet, still the only Madeira I have ever liked. I usually find them too much like cognac with an overwhelming alcoholic fragrance, but this one was a fantastic dessert in and of itself.
After this, we ordered coffee. At The Restaurant at Meadowood, coffee is served in their own custom pottery. Check this out:
I had the opportunity to learn all about the beans they acquire, the pottery that was specifically made for The Restaurant at Meadowood, and the various attributes the beans had depending on the land of origin. It was fun, informative and pleasant to discuss this with the staff.
And that’s where The Restaurant at Meadowood distinguishes itself. The staff members are remarkably polite, yet friendly…even entertaining. I could see that if you frequented The Restaurant at Meadowood, the staff members would become good friends in no time.
So, what I’m about to write next has no bearing on the quality of staff and the level of care they provided during my visit.
Summary of The Restaurant at Meadowood
This dinner, when all was said and done, was exactly $1000. The bill was for $825.12, so with a deserved 20% tip rounded up, it was a flat $1000.
Now, I’m not against spending someone’s rent amount on one dinner. The fact that a family somewhere could eat for a couple of months on this amount of money irks me a little bit, but good food is my thing, so expenditures on food are usually worthwhile for me.
In fact, across the globe, if warranted, I’d spend more than that to have a phenomenal, life-altering meal. (For example, a $1000 sushi dinner in some alleyway in Japan? I wouldn’t think twice before doing it.)
But there are two things I expect for this expenditure and level of dining:
1. The taste must be outstanding, as in….this is the most outstanding _________ I have ever had.
2. I have to be full. Let me repeat that: for $1000, I have to be raging full.
The Restaurant at Meadowood may have served up the best cooked sea cucumber dish I have ever had. But that was one of many courses, and I can’t say they served the best of anything else. I didn’t dislike any course, and all were good to great, but I really didn’t get the wind knocked out of me by how good a course was.
Then, given the tiny portions — and I mean TINY — the starvation I was feeling when I walked in had fully dissipated, but I can’t quite say I was “full” walking out of the restaurant three hours after walking in.
And that, folks, should not happen at a thousand dollar dinner.
The times I’ve been to French Laundry, the expense was about the same, give or take. But thoughts of investing in a gurney to be rolled out of that restaurant invade my mind. At The Restaurant at Meadowood, we talked about grabbing a burger on the way home. And for both places having received three Michelin stars, the food (in taste and portion) was not equal.
THAT is what’s held me back from reviewing The Restaurant at Meadowood for nearly a month. I enjoyed my night, loved the warm service and thought much of the food was quite good, but on the same token, I can’t honestly say that I’d recommend it.
In fact, I could give you a list of 10 restaurants off the top of my head where you can spend much less than this and get equivalent or better food and walk away much fuller without having cleaned off the plate for every serving. While I love the farm-to-table theme and can appreciate fresh and local ingredients as much as anyone else, for what The Restaurant at Meadowood is, it costs entirely too much for positively miniscule portions of food.
Addictive Factor: 8/10
Overall Rating: 8.8/10
Edited 5/14 to add: Found a nice comprehensive review of the Chef’s Table experience at The Restaurant at Meadowood, if it’s something that interests you.
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.