It takes a special kind of chef to work for Charlie Palmer. The father of “Progressive American” cuisine has his name on more than a dozen restaurants from New York and Las Vegas to California, including Michelin-starred Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg and newly opened Harvest Table in St. Helena.
But behind the scenes of each restaurant are the boots-on-the-ground executive chefs, all of whom have serious culinary fire power in their own right, doing a balancing act between Palmer’s mission and their own unique inspirations.
In Healdsburg, that role has recently been taken over by Wine Country veteran Andrew Wilson. In St. Helena, Napa Valley newcomer Levi Mezick is poised to make his mark. And while the sibling restaurants are clearly from the same gene pool, they’re as markedly different as the two valleys they hail from.
“Each one of our restaurants is really a reflection of a combination of what I envision and the personality of the chef and the team in each restaurant,” said Palmer.
Harvest Table: New, uniquely Napa Valley
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Palmer is the force behind Las Vegas’ Wine Angels — acrobatic showgirls who fly around his four-story Mandalay Bay glass wine tower — and the meditative culinary gardens of Harvest Table in St. Helena, where the only aerial theatrics are in buzzing beehives.
But it’s also not by accident that white-coated kitchen staff can frequently be spotted walking by the dining room with precious handfuls of fresh basil or microgreens from the restaurant’s herb and lettuce garden (one of several gardens on the property that are overseen by culinary horticulturist Laura McNiff).
Or that Executive Chef Mezick and his kitchen are perfectly framed inside a portrait window overlooking the restaurant’s alfresco dining terrace.
Or that the extensive wine program includes a match-your-wits game of “blind” wine selections from the sommelier that let the diner guess what’s in the glass.
As you’re seated, all of these things will be pointed out to you.
After all, Palmer isn’t afraid of a little entertainment value.
Housed inside Palmer’s new Harvest Inn, a picturesque Napa Valley retreat, the 110-seat restaurant feels intimate and friendly, especially when you’re sitting cross-legged on a cozy pillowed corner seat on the sheltered alfresco dining patio.
There’s no doubt, however, that food is the real celebrity here. Noting that St. Helena has played culinary second-fiddle to nearby foodie meccas like Yountville and Healdsburg, Palmer sees the restaurant’s focus on hyper-local ingredients and talented staff as a way to bring back some of the town’s foodie luster.
Like most Wine Country chefs, the casual and chatty Mezick is careful not to overuse the farm-to-table jargon, but it’s not hard to tell he’s proud that a local character like Ray Erickson of Erickson Ranch has deigned to bring the chef some of his “private stash” of Suisun Valley stone fruit.
“He just showed up in his cowboy hat one day and said, ‘I sell peaches and nectarines, and I don’t just sell to anybody,’ ” said Mezick.
The young chef made the cut, and a summer stone fruit salad went on the menu, entirely dependent on what Erickson brings him that day.
“We want a restaurant that locals will enjoy and come to, that’s driven by the season and what’s fresh and good in Napa Valley,” Mezick said.
Most recently hailing from the acclaimed 1833 Restaurant in Monterey, Mezick said Palmer had only one request when it came to the Harvest Table menu: Shrimp and grits.
Raised in Virginia, Mezick’s roots are in Southern cooking, and this signature dish ($14) was a perfect fit for Palmer’s Progressive American style of cuisine. Made with Anson Mills grits (a Southern institution for stone-ground heirloom grains), shrimp, bacon, Andouille sausage, cheddar cheese and a secret blend of Mezick’s favorite herbs and spices, it’s heartbreakingly good.
“It’s sweet, salty, strong and comforting. I love that flavor,” Mezick said, adding that his cooks do as well. “… They’ll look for certain things to eat during the shift, and that’s just one of those dishes they never get tired of.”
Inspired by Shake Shack’s burger (Shake Shack is an East Coast phenom that we can best equate to Gott’s Roadside meets In-N-Out), Mezick’s Harvest Table Burger ($18) is another menu staple that’s got to be eaten to be believed. This two-patty, brioche-bunned beast is easily one of the best hamburgers in Wine Country, which is saying a lot, since burgers are something of a religion in these parts.
You’ll also want to leave room for savory starters that include Pomme Dauphine ($7) with goat cheese fondue; crispy pork head “tater tots” ($6); petite sashimi of whatever’s fresh (halibut was our choice) with a tart, sweet cactus pear emulsion ($13); the pillowy-est potato gnocchi we’ve ever had, with ramp butter and charred favas ($21); and, if you’re there on a lucky day, Mezick’s whole truffled chicken, one of the daily “share” plates for two or more.
Former Dry Creek Kitchen pastry chef Andrew DiClementi has crossed the mountain, and his signature peanut butter bar is on the menu, along with a truly order-worthy homemade selection of ice creams and sorbets.
Service, of course, is five-star — one of the hallmarks of a Palmer restaurant — and the vibe is upscale casual Wine Country, meaning you’ll find winemakers and winery owners rubbing elbows with tourists and neighborhood customers.
“We have an enormous amount of work to do here,” Palmer said, “but we have an amazing situation here, and Levi really embraces what we’re trying to do.”
Harvest Table, One Main St., St. Helena, 967-4695. Open for lunch from 11:30a.m. to 2:30p.m. Wednesday through Friday; brunch from 11:30a.m. to 2:30p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and dinner from 5:30p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.
Dry Creek Kitchen: Formally inviting
In Healdsburg, Chef Andrew Wilson has big shoes to fill. From Michael Voltaggio, the notoriously outspoken “Top Chef” contestant, to well-known local chefs including Mateo Granados, Les Goodman and, most recently, Dustin Valette of Valette Restaurant, Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen has been a training ground for some serious top toque talent.
With a military-like crispness in his appearance and kitchen, Wilson was a quieter choice for the established white- tablecloth restaurant inside the Healdsburg Hotel when Palmer hired him in 2014.
“I had a lot of interested and talented young chefs from New York,” said Palmer of the executive chef position that opened when Dustin Valette left to open his namesake Healdsburg restaurant.
“His sensibility with food is what brought him. He’s not out there trumpeting his name. He’s more of a focused guy in the kitchen and has a strong foothold in Sonoma,” said Palmer.
“That was a deciding factor. It has to be someone who embraces the community. You have to be really happy where you are.”
Wilson has put his stamp on the menu with a “return to simplicity in ingredients,” he said at a recent dinner. That means fewer sauces and fancy preparations, and just letting the ingredients shine through.
“Andrew’s approach to food is a lot about what I’m trying to push for — super quality ingredients, creative but simple food and not seven different garnishes or sauces on each plate. The simpler it is, the less room there is for any error,” Palmer said . With the Healdsburg farmers market just 50 feet from the back door, access to great local products is easy.
“Gayle (Sullivan from nearby Dry Creek Peach and Produce) delivers flats of peaches to us that are still warm,” said Palmer. “We just concentrate on great local ingredients and keep it simple.”
This is traditional Wine Country food, rather than anything too experimental, making it a comfortable favorite of local winemakers (the wine list is hyper- local), well-heeled neighbors and Hotel Healdsburg visitors. Signature dishes for Wilson include Wild King Salmon with morel mushrooms ($34); ahi tuna tartare with soy lime dressing ($17); and seared duck breast ($36) with seasonal vegetables.
But traditional doesn’t have to mean boring.
“We have to constantly push the envelope and be fresh (at the restaurants),” said Palmer. “Otherwise it becomes mechanical. All of my chefs talk and compare notes and eat each others’ food.
“They’re all in an octopus phase right now,” he joked. “You see that kind of similarity sometimes. But really, at the end of the day, you just got to have love in the dishes.”
Dry Creek Kitchen, 317 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 431-0330. Open for dinner only from 5:30 to 9:30p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Both restaurants have three-course “neighborhood menus” during the week for under $40.