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Bold Beauty

Chef Chris Cosentino brings his winning brand to St. Helena

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TASTEMAKER  While Chris Cosentino’s San Francisco restaurants showcase offal, Acacia House is more mainstream.
  • TASTEMAKER While Chris Cosentino’s San Francisco restaurants showcase offal, Acacia House is more mainstream.

In Bay Area foodie circles, chef Chris Cosentino doesn't need an introduction.

The man behind San Francisco's carnivore temples Incanto and Cockscomb and winner of Bravo TV's

Top Chef Masters, Cosentino is a charismatic star on the local skyline, known for his love of nose-to-tail cooking, cured meats and Italian cuisine.

This summer, Cosentino ventures into wine country. His new Napa County project, with partner Oliver Wharton, is the spacious Acacia House, part of the Las Alcobas resort in St. Helena. While the rest of the resort is earthy browns and grays, Acacia House fronts the property with a white facade, situated in a picturesque building with an appealing front porch.

On a recent warm night, Acacia House is filled with diners taking pictures of each other and the restaurant's exterior. Inside, the vibe is decidedly relaxed, as guests are led to the main dining area through a bar surrounded by plush sitting areas.

The restaurant's decor and menu strive for a light touch. The dining room is finished in wood and cream colors, and the waiters wear beige and green uniforms that are part golf fashion, part gardening club.

The menu is tidy: two snacks, seven appetizers, eight entrées and no specials on my visit. Acacia House caters to both hotel guests and locals, and there is a conscious effort to appeal to a broad common denominator, with a nice balance of vegetarian options and classic, well-loved entrées like lamb and pork.

The seemingly endless supply of excellent housemade breads and whipped butter are easy to love. The bread, multigrain and olive, is so addictive you'll have to stop yourself before the appetizers arrive.

All of this doesn't mean, however, that Cosentino came to Napa to kick back and tone it down. On the contrary, it seems as if the Napa Valley's casual, farm-to-table aesthetic has brought out a softer, playful side of him, without taking the flavor away.

The hamachi crudo appetizer ($18) is a good example. Easily found on dozens of menus across California, crudo, as made at Acacia House, is unexpected and delicious, combining fatty slices of amberjack with cubed strawberries, pink watercress and serrano pepper. Placed on rose reduction sauce and seasoned with flaky sea salt, this is a triumphant starter.

The chilled heirloom cantaloupe soup ($14) is refreshing and light, and complements the spiciness of the hamachi well. It's sprinkled with "jamon snow," salty flakes of pork fat that play deliciously against the tart and sweet emulsion. A nice touch, although the plate could use a slightly more generous hand of it.

The mains include pork schnitzel and Kobe beef rib-eye, but it's tempting to try at least one vegetarian dish. The porcini rigatoni ($26), strongly recommended by our server, is the night's surprising hit. The sturdy rigatoni incorporates wheat flour and dried porcini powder. The pasta is earthy and flavorful, swimming in an indulgent cream sauce flavored with nettles, pine nuts and hemp oil. With a heap of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top and more mushrooms in the sauce, the lemony and herbal notes liven up the overall richness, resulting in a dish you just want to keep on eating.

Next to it, the Napa Valley lamb ($38) is a reminder of Cosentino's affinity for meat. A generous portion of succulent lamb medallions cooked medium rare and splashed with lemon-and-chile-flavored oil are nicely paired with bitter-savory broccoli di ciccio and a base of harissa-flavored smashed carrots.

Desserts can sometimes be an afterthought at resort restaurants, but Acacia House enlisted pastry chef Curtis Cameron to create a series of dishes no one would dream to skip, for $12 each. One dessert, simply named Modern, is almost too pretty to eat: a golden orb of white chocolate mousse surrounded by coconut-flavored toasted buckwheat and lemon marshmallows. The dessert's golden glaze is made from a mix of exotic fruit purées. It tastes a lot like passion fruit, and the whole ensemble, despite its undeniable beauty, is on the heavier side, reminiscent of the over-the-top mousses and custards of yesteryear.

The second dessert, however, is more in line with the restaurant's winning simplicity—a caramel tres leches cake, served with burnt-cinnamon ice cream. It's rich, comforting and airy, thanks to the addition of Greek yogurt.

The check for the meal arrived stashed in a vintage cookbook, Bill Rhode's 1942 The Business of Carving. Full of gruesome illustrations, it's a fun reference to Cosentino's no-nonsense, meat-loving ways.

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