Before going out to eat, and particularly before going out to a restaurant I'm going to write about, I try to get myself into a certain state of mind, which I'd describe as a kind of meditative calm.
In the case of a recent visit to Acacia House, Chris Cosentino's new restaurant at Las Alcobas—a luxury hotel that opened in St. Helena in May—this effort was aided by the fact that I'd spent much of the afternoon beforehand watching a pair of green-breasted hummingbirds feeding on the flowers of a Mexican sage bush outside my room, at the edge of a vineyard whose leaves shone like gold in the late autumn light. Gazing at the birds as they iridesced among the purple blossoms and at the vineyard and the landscape beyond, it was hard not to think of the trials that Napa and Sonoma had suffered only a few weeks before, but the beauty of the day, and of the place, was inescapable.
As the hour drew nearer, I made a precursory trip to the 1907 Georgian-style mansion that houses the restaurant, a trip that ended up at Acacia House's bar where the mindful mood was only heightened by a pair of cocktails: a delicately floral and thirst-quenching blend of gin, honey, crème de violet and sparkling wine; and a margarita, made with lemon juice rather than lime and topped with a salt water foam that imparted a saline buzz down to the very last sip.
I made it to the table just under the wire, joined by my wife who'd braved rush hour traffic all the way from San Francisco to volunteer her services. As our waiter left us to consider the menu and the mostly-Napa-Valley wine list, I was struck by just how seamlessly the ambiance of the dining room mirrored that of the hotel room—from its soothing palette of muted tones to its custom Casa Zeta furnishings—the unmistakable touch of Las Alcobas' designers, the Canadian firm Yabu Pushelberg, whose recent projects also include the striking interior of the new Four Seasons New York Downtown.
After a discussion with the sommelier who negotiated a settlement between my wife's bias toward white and mine for red, we chose a rather unusual bottle: a rosé of cabernet sauvignon from the winemaker Cathy Corison, who founded her St. Helena-based winery in 1987. Pale pink and persistently zingy, it would hold its own throughout the extravaganza that lay in wait.
Acacia House's and Las Alcobas' interiors were designed by the Canadian firm Yabu Pushelberg
(Courtesy of Marc Fiorito)
The first dispatch from Cosentino: a pair of ineffably light butternut squash and gruyère gougeres, seasoned with rosemary. For such little morsels, they were packed with a sweet-savory-autumnal flavor, and set our taste buds racing. Shortly thereafter, some lovely house-made bread and blessedly well-salted butter appeared, as well as a fat burrata garnished with cuts of warmly sweet grilled persimmon.
As fast as we worked, the kitchen fired back again. Crisp, juicy endive in a tangy dressing, dusted with subtly funky shavings of dried, cured abalone—a method of preparation, Cosentino later explained, that is commonly used in China. And then a luscious little gem Caesar salad in which Cosentino cleverly substituted softly crispy dried-and-fried chanterelles in place of the timeworn, standard-issue crouton.
The next dish was something of a revelation: carrots cooked in the style of duck à l'orange. "The idea," Cosentino said, "was to beautifully roast carrots in the same vein that you would roast a whole duck—really accentuating the flavor of carrots by using carrot and orange juice and fresh zest from the orange." The effect was mesmerizing, the carrots so vividly orange they were almost Technicolor; the outer layer wonderfully creamy, the core delicately chewy, and every bit infused with a luscious carroty-orangey juice whose flavor and aroma were accentuated by the beguiling bitterness of 15-year-old dried tangerine peel, an ingredient Cosentino discovered on a recent trip to Hong Kong.
Fans of Cosentino's work as executive chef at Incanto in Noe Valley (where he attained a degree of notoriety for his unabashed nose-to-tail cooking) might notice the absence of offal on Acacia House's menu. And while I wondered if organ meats and such might sneak into the dishes at some point in the future, I was absolutely smitten by our mains: striped bass—its skin cooked to a delightful crispness—served with buttery-soft shelling beans and an escabeche of incomparably fresh mussels and clams; and succulent house-made rigatoni with a scrumptiously spicy kale pesto, Pecorino and pine nuts—a dish I'd happily drive 70 miles for at the drop of a hat.
Desserts, I've had a few, but none quite like executive pastry chef Curtis Cameron's beguilingly rectilinear eclairs—three of them filled, in turn, with the fixings of pumpkin pie, Dutch apple pie, and pecan pie. The sommelier, meanwhile, who sensed a pair of sweet tooths, produced two glasses of dessert wine, a blend of late harvest sémillon and sauvignon blanc from the boutique Napa winery Topaz's 2005 vintage: a nectar of dried fig, dried plum, honey, and perhaps a hint of jasmine.
// 1915 Main Street (St. Helena), lasalcobasnapavalley.com