In the heart of Yountville, a restaurant mecca with almost as many Michelin stars as permanent residents, Chef Sean O’Toole is about to throw his toque into the ring. Or hard hat. It just depends on the day.
The 36-year-old was recently tapped to head the Restaurant at Bardessono, part of an ambitious project that includes a 62-room inn and spa designed to exacting green-building standards. Under construction since 2005 the 214,000 square-foot complex envisioned by a local winemaking family is expected to become the “greenest” hotel in America.
That extends to the O’Toole’s not-so-little corner of the property — a 92-seat dining room, state-of-the-art ktichen and kitchen gardens overseen by French Laundry produce protege Noel Lopreore— making good on the oft-made promise of restaurant sustainability. For the last several week’s the chef and his staff have donned hard hats and chef’s whites around the property as construction — and menus — are finalized.
Set to open February 2, 2009, the restaurant will serve three meals a day, focusing on locally-sourced American comfort food. The kitchen’s time is split between it’s obligation to high-end customers spending upwards of $600 per night at the inn (24-hour in-room service, private dining events) and a strong desire to reach out to the community (approachable breakfast/lunch price points, a 14-person communal dining table that won’t require reservations). O’Toole will also oversee a staff of more than 20, including former COPIA pastry chef Debbie Yee-Henen.
Opening menus read like a who’s who of local producers (a quality I’ve lambasted before for its over-earnestness). In Yountville, where sustainably-focused food tourists are likely to ask (or demand) a pedigree, it’s not off the mark. Sean gets extra cred for his close relationship with Lopreore, who’ll work to grow just what his kitchen needs — from 18 different types of basil to purple artichokes and a rare ghost chili.
Lunch includes a Hog Island Oyster Po Boy ($14), a locally sourced Pulled Pork Sandwich on Texas Toast ($13). Dinner ranges from Bodega Bay Halibut with Rose Finn Potatoes, Sausalito Springs Watercress, Iberico Ham and natural sauce ($27) and Petaluma Heritage Chicken (with stuffed cannelloni and braised winter greens) to Watson’s Napa Valley Lamb with coconut basmati rice, dried fruit and pineapple quince ($33) and Liberty Farm Duck with daikon radish, blood orange and bitter chocolate sauce ($31).
The 36-year-old chef says it was sheer willpower that lead him to the Yountville kitchen, which seems kind of intense for a guy who commutes every day from Penngrove to keep himself grounded. But the sweet-faced O’Toole is serious goods: Michael Mina’s former right-hand man. Stints at Alain Ducasse’s MIX in Las Vegas, Quince, the SF Ritz Carlton and Masa’s. Weaver of flavor tableaus.
“I really wanted this–straight-forward food that’s part of the community. I want this place to be a muse for the muses,” he says without a hint of hubris, envisioning a neighborhood hangout where the likes of Chefs Richard Reddington, Thomas Keller, and neighborhood new(ish)comer, Michael Chiarello hang out after closing. Despite other big names having been tossed around, O’Toole knew Bardessono was where he wanted to be.
He’ll need that ambition. Amidst all the opening hype and excitement of a project eleven years in the making, it would be ridiculous to ignore the elephant in the dining room –in tough economic times and a crowded market O’Toole is facing some big challenges.
But as the dust settles and O’Toole gets that toque firmly (if figuratively) on his head, there’s no doubt he’ll have his eyes on grabbing a Michelin star (or two) of his own. And really, who says there isn’t plenty of room at the top?
The Restaurant at Bardessono, 6526 Yount Street, Yountville, 707.204.6000 www.bardessono.com