Charter Oak

April 24, 2018

One of the hallmarks of new California cooking might be called “The Mallmann Effect.” (Francis Mallmann, the Argentinian superchef, is famous for his open-fire cooking.)  Walking into many new restaurants means approaching a wall of flames.  These aren’t merely grills, they’re true hearths, massive displays of firepower that chefs use in all sorts of innovative ways.  You see it at Hearth and Hound in Hollywood, and the nearby Gwen. It’s remarkably comforting, a reminder that we all began as cave people, huddled around our fires.

The new Charter Oak in St. Helena is yet another example.  The former Tra Vigne has been handsomely refitted, and the first thing you notice, beyond the high walls and beautiful tables, are those dancing flames in front.

Avocados are tossed onto the fire – to astonishing effect. So are short ribs – or rather one massive short rib, which has been pre-cooked to tenderness then thrown over old wine barrels and seared in the flames.

It’s a smokey, tender, irresistible piece of meat.  Lurking behind it are beets, which have also seen the heat.  Their texture is remarkable – somewhere between fresh beets and beet leather.

I didn’t want to order this dish. The waiter insisted.  “Really?” I said.  You want me to try a slow-cooked turnip on pumpernickel rye porridge?  It sounds terrible.”  But that turnip – roasted in the embers and then quickly charred – was a revelation.  As was the sweet porridge, a new take on congee and utterly satisfying.

Not everything is grilled.  I loved the house-made mortadella.

Especially with the fine, warm bread.

And these littlenecks, in an intriguingly smoky poultry stock

This salad of broccoli, broccoli rabe, broccoli flowers with a few puffed grains, some sunflower seeds and ricotta – is a bit much for a single person.  You get tired of chewing.  But it would make a fine side dish for 3 or 4 people.

When the dessert cart rolled our way we said that no, we couldn’t possibly.  And then we did.  If you go, don’t miss this buffalo milk ice cream with its burnt apple caramel sauce.  The ice cream has the most astonishing texture – the closest I can come is frozen velvet – and it was such a pleasure that I took one bite after another, absolutely unable to stop.

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