As noted in this space several weeks ago, Meadowood in St. Helena is a world-class restaurant that didn't stop trying to be great when it was awarded three Michelin stars. The restaurant closed this winter for several weeks to dramatically retool the kitchen, tweak the décor in the dining room and rethink its purpose moving forward.
Part of that thinking is off to a rocky start, inviting such labels as "elitist," "self-important" and "ostentatious." I'm referring to the $500 per person tasting menu that runs to 20 courses, includes exclusive seating at the "chef's counter" in the kitchen, and if you want wine pairings, it will set you back another $350 or so. Even if you're one of those heartless 1-percenters and you stiff the waiter, you're still looking at around $1,000 for a meal that, from the looks of it, will either thrill you or overwhelm your taste buds. An on-call priest to give last rites is an additional $350, not including tip (OK, I made that up). Locally, by comparison, I believe the priciest meal is the $125 prix fixe at The Kitchen Restaurant, followed by Ambience..
Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of executive chef Christopher Kostow, and it's understandable that he and Meadowood want to run with the whole Michelin three-star thing. The food and the experience are world-class. When I visited in 2009, it was a very respectable two stars by Michelin standards, though I strongly suggested it was trending upward when I wrote: "The only Michelin three-star restaurant in the north state is Yountville's venerable French Laundry. But Meadowood, with a completely different style of food and a highly competitive chef pushing the limits, is making a case for consideration as one of the nation's premier restaurants."
Back then, the chef's tasting menu was $175. Now it's $225 -- $50 per patron for that third star, if you choose to look at it that way.
Critics and admirers are divided about the new $500 dinner. Certainly, the price is fair game and it's hard for many to stomach in an age of layoffs, foreclosures and budget cuts. As I see it, no one is obligated to order it. The $225 dinner is certainly a stellar food experience. What the chef's table does is give Meadowood an extra dose of prestige and, for better or worse, media coverage. In that sense, it's a great marketing tool whether anyone orders it or not. I would also imagine these huge meals might serve as a creative laboratory for new dishes and new techniques that just might find their way onto the main menu.
What do you think? Is this a possible destination for a special occasion? An outrageous example of excess? Or something else? Click on the menu at left to see the details.
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.