St. Helena rising

Why one Napa Valley city soon might be the food capital of America

As far as cities go, St. Helena, California, is pretty small. It’s about four square miles from end-to-end. It’s home to just more than 6,000 full-time residents. It has one major supermarket, and that’s it.

Yet in 2017 this tiny town in the center of the Napa Valley is primed to establish itself as a very big deal in the food world. Some might say it even could supplant nearby Yountville as the food capital of America. And they wouldn’t be wrong.

It’s not like St. Helena has emerged as a food Mecca overnight; with The Restaurant at Meadowood—one of only 14 eateries in the United States to earn three starts from the Michelin Guide—the place has had food wizardry in the mix for quite a while. In 2017, however, two existing restaurants and two new ones likely will combine with this icon to make this Napa Valley town second to none.

Bar bites at Harvest Table

Bar bites at Harvest Table

Palmer cleans up

Harvest Table is one of the two game-changing restaurants that’s open right now. The eatery, on-site at The Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer on the south end of town, was created and is helmed by Charlie Palmer, a celebrity chef who also has restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

The menu here highlights locally sourced ingredients that vary by season. Many of these ingredients come from five culinary gardens on the property—gardens where Culinary Horticulturalist Jean-Pierre Madrigal grows herbs and salad greens, fruits, and vegetables that can be used in just about every dish. Chef Levi Mezick gets his proteins from around the area, too, including purveyors such as Tolenas Farms Quail, Masami Cattle Ranch, Mary’s Chicken, Sebastopol Berry Farms, and Bera Ranch Stone Fruit.

Harvest Table also celebrates innovation; in addition to stocking the wine list with his own wine, Palmer also serves his own beer. The hotel even has its own bee program, which is leveraged for honey.

While the brunch and dinner menus at Harvest Table are chock-full of great options, my personal favorite way to experience the restaurant is at the bar. Mixologists whip up classic cocktails in no time, and Palmer offers a variety of bar bites such as rock shrimp hush puppies and a fried chicken sandwich with pickled tomato and chili sauce. Weekly specials rock, too; the Wednesday burger is the bomb.

Patio dining at Two Birds/One Stone

Patio dining at Two Birds/One Stone

Two for the price of one

North on Highway 29 sits the other of the two restaurants that’s open right now. This one, named Two Birds/One Stone, is a collaboration between Chef Douglas Keane (he of Cyrus fame) and Chef Sang Yoon. Dishes here come yakitori-style, which is to say they’re served on small plates like tapas.

Overall, the food menu has a distinctly Japanese vibe. Dishes include ingredients such as kimchee, lap cheong, shiso-edamame puree, and chilled shiitake broth. Many of the meats are cooked on a Binchotan grill. My personal favorite dish is Crispy Sonoma duck leg with grilled persimmon, and spiced tamarind. A close second is Deviled Jidori eggs with gribenes, shichimi togarashi, and wasabi. Oh, and for dessert, it’s a no-brainer; once you’ve tried the black sesame soft-serve ice cream with roasted plum, you will long for it like you long for a lover.

Keane and Soon’s cocktail menu excites, too. Drinks incorporate traditional spirits with items such as Thai chile, shiso, galangal, and more. Just about every option is unexpected.

I’d be remiss in writing about Two Birds/One Stone without at least mentioning the building—a restored portion of the circa-1886 winery at Freemark Abbey. Even before Keane and Yoon moved in, the spot was iconic. Now, with their food, it’s even more of a legend.

Viewfinder Tip: When dining in the Napa Valley, it helps to make reservations well in advance. Most restaurants also have bar seating that is first-come, first-served.

What’s next

I’ve mentioned the restaurants that already are making the case for St. Helena as “food capital” of the country. Two other restaurants are expected to open in 2017 that will extend and amply this campaign.

The first of these, Acacia House, will be the on-site eatery at Las Alcobas Napa Valley, an ultra-high-end luxury hotel set to open on the north side of town just after the first of the year. The restaurant will be helmed by Chris Cosentino, a chef who achieved celebrity status after experimenting with offal meats at his former restaurants in San Francisco, Incanto, and Cockscomb.

Sweetbreads will be just one aspect of the menu this time around; though Cosentino hadn’t released the information about specific dishes as of press time, he had told various media outlets that guests would have a variety of options crafted to pair with local wines and create an entirely new experience.

Carb-haters, take notice: Chef also has promised an on-site artisan bread program.

Finally, also in early 2017, St. Helena will welcome a second restaurant from Meadowood Executive Chef Christopher Kostow. This eatery, dubbed The Charter Oak, will exist in the old Tra Vigne space on the south end of town and will embrace some of the same cooking philosophies Kostow employs at Meadowood, only in a more casual setting.

Like Cosentino, Kostow has been tight-lipped about what sorts of dishes might appear on The Charter Oak menu. Still, pop-up meals across the country have given diners some glimpses—after one in Chicago, people raved about the wonderful simplicity of steamed ribs and eggs.

Whatever Kostow comes up with, we know this: The food will be epic. And St. Helena should benefit tremendously.

What is your favorite destination for food?

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Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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