Christopher Kostow Debuts The Charter Oak (With Chicken Wings!)

“Your second menu is your best menu. Your first menu, you have too much time,” says Christopher Kostow, the Best New Chef alum behind The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa.

After dreaming, cooking and tasting through at least 100 dishes that probably won’t see the light of day at The Charter Oak in St. Helena, California, Kostow is all too familiar with the art of careful editing. And waiting. (“This has been a long process,” he says.)

But construction on the massive old Tra Vigne restaurant space is done, along with a 20-foot hearth. The 60-person staff has been trained for everything, from tending to the mulberry trees outside to the usual front-of-house service. It’s finally official: The Charter Oak is opening Monday.

“I’m walking through here right now, through the courtyard and under the dappled shade,” says Kostow. “It’s really special. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s more ambitious.”

When Kostow says “ambitious,” you think Meadowood fine-dining ambitious—crystal bowls with grape leaves and candied angelica, kelly-green kale chips presented on a book. However, he means pleasing-both-your-grandma-and-12-year-old-kid-in-one-meal ambitious.

“Meadowood is what it is, but I wanted this place to be wide open,” he says. “I want this to be a great restaurant for everyone. I feel that in my bones.”

Courtesy of The Charter Oak, Photography by Kelly Puleio
Courtesy of The Charter Oak, Photography by Kelly Puleio

“Elemental” and “simplicity” have been the keywords in Kostow’s mission statement for The Charter Oak. Along with chef Katianna Hong and the kitchen crew, he’s stripping down the dishes, taking out tested tempura avocado for grilled halves with a little bit of rhubarb and chrysanthemum. (“It wasn’t simple enough,” he says.) He’s excited about boiled eggs sprinkled with a little olive oil and salt. (“One thing on the plate. That idea of the essence of the thing,” he says.)

Ambition lies in the radical simplicity of the cooking, but also in the community-building mission of The Charter Oak. In the next couple months, you’ll be able to try what cooks serve the team for staff meal, and at the bar, Kostow’s favorite chicken wings. Instead of developing their own, Kostow thought to give a shout-out to his industry friends.

First up is Hat Yai in Portland, Oregon, and the Thai-style wings seasoned with coriander and served with vinegar and sambal sauces. Then, they're putting their antique fondue sets for off-the-menu dipping, and setting up the patios for the summer. The list goes on, but Kostow couldn’t be happier.

“100 percent of our focus is on our projects right now,” he says. “It’s been coming too long for us to take our eyes off the ball.”