I didn't think much of it when I got the email from Meadowood, a restaurant in St. Helena that last year earned three Michelin stars. The notice said the restaurant would be closed for about 10 weeks beginning in January "to undergo an exciting renovation." Sure, it's a nice dining room but a little bit low-key, and it could use a splash of fresh color. Then I saw there will also be an extensive reworking of the kitchen to "allow for more space, better control of temperature, superior equipment and overall flow for service. The new kitchen will also include a Chef's Counter, which will seat up to 5 guests."
That's when I realized what I already suspected: Executive chef Christopher Kostow, though honored and humbled by all the recent praise of his food, wasn't satisfied with the greatness he has already achieved. If you've ever eaten at Meadowood, you can see the passion and inventiveness in Kostow's cooking. When I reviewed Meadowood more than a year ago, it was a Michelin 2-star restaurant, but it was pretty clear it was heading way, way up. I spoke extensively over the phone with Kostow, going over his thoughts on several dishes I had from the chef's tasting menu. I took note of Kostow's competitive fire, along with his humility. Months later, he was featured in "Art Culinaire," where he talked about creating dishes you won't find at any other restaurant. The very greatest dining experiences are like that. When we ate at Corton in New York City (in October), the chef's tasting menu contained course after course of food so unusual and edgy and complex that I took note of all the dishes I had neither seen nor tasted at any other restaurant. Chef Paul Liebrandt's mindset and ambition are similar to Kostow's. (Try to watch the documentary about Liebrandt if they re-run it on HBO; it's called "A Matter of Taste: Serving up Paul Liebrandt" and they follow his highs and lows for 10 years).
The recent Meadowood email directed me to click on a link to read Kostow's personal explanation for the temporary closure. It's an extraordinary example of what it takes to achieve excellence. Turns out, the temporary shutdown isn't solely about aesthetics in the dining room and functionality in the kitchen. It's about getting to the next level, even if there are no more Michelin stars to recognize that kind of achievement.
The chef says:
"The team and I continue to be humbled by the accolades and attention paid to The Restaurant since its inception.
The reality, however, is that we did not feel that we were as good as we could be. To get to the next level (and the all the next levels to come) we felt compelled to reexamine, reflect and reboot.
We will be closing briefly in the New Year for improvements to our kitchen and dining room. We look forward to reopening on March 12th with an even stronger dedication to creating for our guests a personal, honest and singular dining experience.
I look forward to welcoming you back to The Restaurant.
The Restaurant at Meadowood will reopen March 12. It will be exciting -- and perhaps inspiring -- to see what the rethinking and retooling will bring us in the days that follow.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @Blarob.