The $661 dinner

It was a dinner that cost as much as a flat screen television. A single meal for two at the Michelin-rated Meadowood Restaurant cost more than my monthly car payment, more than I spend on clothes, as much as a flight to New York City and more than many people earn in a week. Let’s be honest, it’s more than many people earn in a month.

The knee-jerk reaction when I tell people this fact is either “Holy #$!&, I would never do that” or “Was it worth it?” And that’s exactly the point. We can all justify why it’s a ridiculous sum of money for anyone but lottery winners and the obscenely wealthy. But the harder question is, what could possibly make it worth that much for your average person?

Let’s break it down. Here’s what you get for $661:
– Brief access to the very exclusive Meadowood Resort, a secluded retreat for the rich and famous. They have a croquet pro, if that says anything.
– Million dollar, panoramic views from the dining room, and at least four people ready to serve your every whim.
– An eight-course chef’s tasting menu ($155 per person) and wine pairing ($95 per person). Tasting menus showcase the chef’s skill and ability to weave cohesive flavors and textures from appetizer to dessert.
– Haute French cuisine from one of the fastest rising chefs in the Bay Area, Christopher Kostow, who’s been at the restaurant since May 2008.

Those are the facts. But why people spend that kind of money on a meal is a bit more ambiguous.

Kostow, who’s in his early 30s, is among the handful of chefs working in Wine Country who have mastered modern haute cuisine. This is the kind of food you eat once or twice in a lifetime if you’re lucky — plates so tweezer-precise that if feels like a sacrilege to degrade them with a fork. Radishes become art and herbs become bubbling foams and powders. Kostow stops well before reaching the silliness of gastro-tech (lasers, dry ice and the like), but incorporates elements like sous vide (a water cooking process for meat) with impressive effect.

Take for instance “Foie Gras and Strawberries”, a quartet of foie gras as a smoked custard; shaved with a peppery arugula leaf; incorporated into a mille feuille (like a layered cake) with strawberry gelee; and pan seared. On top, a pickled strawberry, foam and drips of almost imperceptible balsamic vinegar. It’s heartbreakingly good, paired with a sweet-tart Hungarian Tokaji. Would I pay what amounts to about $31 for that experience again? Yep.

Other particularly good dishes on the current tasting menu:
Lobster in a brown butter sauce with a sweetbread ravioli, morel mushrooms and summer truffle. Four small bites of bliss paired with an unoaked hillside chardonnay.
– A barrel-shaped bite of Sonoma Poissin (a young chicken) with a single cockle, four haricot verts tied in a bundle and a splash of buttery cockle sauce and an earthy cabernet franc.
Smoked toro (fatty tuna) sliced paper thin, topped with Osetra caviar and teardrops of craime fraiche. Paired with a cedar-aged sake.
– A surprise pre-dessert palate cleanser of sorrel fizz (sorrel is a tart herb) and plum gelee.

Two small gripes: Meadowood’s tasting menu is based on “a collection of dishes inspired by today’s finest ingredients” — a theme on the a la carte menu as well, featuring “Local Gardens”, “Nearby Waters” and “Pastures and Ranches”. Sonoma meats and cheeses and regional produce are well-represented, but there’s clearly a little wiggle room when compared to stricter devotees of farm to table eating (Dungeness crab in July? Monkfish?). At the level of complexity of Kostow’s menu, I don’t begrudge him using whatever products he likes, but I’m not inspired by what’s become an almost meaningless drumbeat.

The other problem here is the level of service which, for this price, lacked the impeccable polish and consistency (read young staff who’ve memorized the drill, but don’t seem fully invested) of other comparable restaurants. McNibs’ pretty much laid it down, saying “Uh, are we being served by the interns?” Consider this came from a man who wanted slippers and a robe afterwards.

After eight courses, three hours, eight glasses of wine and $661, I’m left wondering if I’ve truly gotten my money’s worth. Compared to the region’s other top Michelin-rated restaurants (Cyrus and French Laundry), I’d say yes. Though you can get out of Cyrus and Meadwood for far less by ordering a la carte, the $155 tasting menu is far below the $240 per person tab at French Laundry and comparable to Cyrus’ $130 chef’s tasting menu.

But this isn’t about bargain hunting. This level of cuisine is about the potential of food as sensory art. Kostow’s food pleases the eyes, nose and mouth, certainly, but wiggles deep down into the soul. If you take the time to explore each bite–to look at touch and smell; to appreciate each detail so carefully mapped out by the chef — it is transformative. Then again, I’m a giant food nerd who lives for that stuff.

Dropping a wad of cash on a single meal is a giant commitment for most of us. If you’re going to do it, Kostow’s certainly one of the best chefs around with whom to invest your palate–and your wallet.

The Restaurant at Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Ln., St. Helena, 707-963-3646.