What it's really like dining at a three-Michelin starred restaurant
What It’s Really Like to Eat at a 3-Michelin-Starred Restaurant
I like to eat. A lot. I’m kind of famous as an expert eater. I’m asked to judge food competitions, small ones like the regionally famed Mendocino Crab Festival and bigger ones like Bravo’s series Best New Restaurant. Food is exciting for me. I spend an absurd amount of money ordering in ($300 on Postmates — the foodie version of Seamless.com, basically — this past weekend alone) and even more dining out, even though I am not rich. Food is my weakness and my obsession. So imagine my nirvana when I visited Napa Valley last month, a place known for its excellent restaurants, many that set the standard for superior dining (notably Thomas Keller’s internationally acclaimed French Laundry) and that are destinations unto themselves. I wanted a memorable night out, so my friend and I booked a table at The Restaurant at Meadowood, one of only six three-Michelin star restaurants in the country.
For those who don’t know, many top chefs consider a Michelin star the Holy Grail of fine dining, and it can make a restaurant. Based on the dining experience of an anonymous Michelin “inspector,” a restaurant may be awarded up to three stars. It’s hard enough to get one but three stars — the highest mark — deems the restaurant as one of the best in the world and literally well worth a journey to get there (and the splurge, of course). Receiving three Michelin stars is akin to an actor winning an Academy Award. Simply put: It’s a huge deal.
The fact The Restaurant at Meadowood has earned three Michelin stars for five straight years (rankings are reevaluated yearly) proves it’s first-class, and top critics say it’s one of the most important restaurants in America. Naturally, my expectations were sky high considering the accolades. I know good food, but among the hundreds of top restaurants at which I’ve dined (including dozens of one- and two-Michelin-starred restaurants), The Restaurant at Meadowood would be my first three-Michelin-star experience.
As someone who believes great restaurants don’t need a Michelin stamp of approval, I often have a tendency to question my motive for dining at a starred restaurant: What is the point really? I can have a memorable meal from the local burger joint or the breezy seafood restaurant on the California coast. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a meal that doesn’t involve a special occasion, like an anniversary, when I can apply that money toward… well, Postmates! I was eager to answer my own question.
The restaurant is quietly tucked away in the sprawling, five-star Meadowood resort property, nestled against a scenic forest backdrop. My friend Katie and I were greeted by a young doorman, who opened the large wooden doors to a significantly elegant and cozy rotunda with vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, and rustic furnishings like fieldstone walls and a wooden floor. While warm and inviting, we spent little time there as a friendly hostess promptly lead us through the bar lounge into the dining room for our 6 p.m. reservation (one that wasn’t easy to get considering the two-month wait list).
For decades, fine dining has had a stuffy reputation — it was seen as an experience dominated by strict dress codes, pretentious etiquette, snobby waiters, and arguably unreasonable formality. This has changed considerably with the rise of a food culture embraced by both millennial diners and imaginative young chefs who actually give a damn about the ambience as much as the food. Ultimately, a new generation of diners has prompted a more modern restaurant environment (if you can think back a decade ago, the white-gloved Ritz Carlton began changing its properties to pander to the new type of traveler, and equally well-heeled restaurants are starting to follow suit).
So I wasn’t surprised to find Meadowood’s dining room a cheerful and bright open space with contemporary furnishings (like wingback leather chairs) harmoniously fitted in the sophisticated countryside setting. In dark slacks and a long-sleeve shirt, I was also relieved that other diners — businessmen, honeymooners, even a lone gourmand — defied the stereotype that fine dining was still a suit-and-tie affair.
But if there were any reason to get dolled up, Meadowood would be the place. I felt something special here. Let’s call it “good energy,” which permeated the notably handsome interior awash in natural light from large windows; brass, bronze, and dark accented by and low-hanging lampshades anchored the room with a unique contemporary-rustic feel you don’t find in the city; and the smiley, dapper young waitstaff styled in custom Black Lapel suits enhanced the scene. There is an unmistakable intimacy in such a restaurant — every staff member knew our names, as if Katie and I entered a private club. While the restaurant didn’t feel exclusive, it felt designed to be remembered.
Katie and I sipped on glasses of crisp champagne (served in beautiful Zalto glassware) as a sommelier spoke with us about our wine preferences and curated a pairing to match our tasting menu. He was down to earth and it was clearly a priority that he get to know us and our tastes rather than shoot off a list of the best wines. While I’m used to a spiel along the lines of “These are the wines you’ll die for,” his approach was more “How can I make this an exceptional experience for you personally?”
Like most three-Michelin-star restaurants, diners only have the option of a tasting menu, and the meal can last more than three hours. I usually tap out after an hour, but the eight courses came like clockwork, and each plating strangely felt like opening gifts at Christmas.
We sat in anticipation in between dishes that were like little works of art. It was obvious that executive chef Christopher Kostow (who’s been with the restaurant some eight years) spent thoughtful weeks designing a particular dish — from taste to presentation — all of which were so imaginative that I would simply sit in awe for a moment before eating.
I was beginning to understand what the point of three-Michelin-star dining was after all. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of a show. It was like theater, an interactive performance with an ensemble cast comprising chef (director), players (waiters), and audience (diners). Words can’t fully explain the perfection of the wait staff, who intuitively came by our table as a group to simultaneously pick up dishes as soon as we were done — even while they were waiting on the 11 other tables.
So what is so amazing about three-star food? At Meadowood, ingredients are sourced (even foraged!) locally and seasonally, and the menu changes daily. Each morsel was incredibly fresh, as if just plucked from a garden or pulled from the sea an hour before. The use of rare ingredients and exacting, time-consuming preparations that you would never experience in a regular restaurant — like like brillat sunflower and eel smoked over Cabernet barrels — created flavors that worked together in a unique dance. While you’re eating, you can only imagine his thought process and the chef’s painstakingly careful attention to detail.
The styling of the delicate creations was equally impressionable: A fermented kohlrabi oyster was served on a white, French terracotta stone slab. Cherry tomato dashi came in a charcoal bowl, the tomato skins peeled like a grape and so fresh that the mesocarp burst with flavor.
For each plate, we learned about the origin of the dish, the flavors to expect, often the chef’s inspiration and, depending on the uniqueness of the dish, a colorful anecdote. Each refined dish came with its own story, and the encyclopedic knowledge of the waitstaff proved they were as passionate about each morsel as the chef. Perhaps the most imaginative course was the duck tea chrysanthemum dill. The waiter used small shears to snip dill from the decorative plant on our table, which would be used as part of the dish. Theater, indeed.
My story as appeared in Yahoo Travel, January 2016