People who have been following Stephen Barber's career in Napa Valley restaurants in recent years should be thrilled to know this talented chef is now at Farmstead, Long Meadow Ranch's restaurant for country-style cooking in St. Helena.
In 2007, he opened BarbersQ in Napa, a down-home barbecue pit restaurant that had barbecue lovers infatuated with the smoky goodness of his Memphis-style brisket, ribs and chicken. A few years later, when Bradley Ogden's group opened Fish Story in Napa, they lured him to cook there, and while his food at Fish Story was amazing — he learned his fish cookery in Miami with famous chef Norman Van Aken — his true calling was with meats, barbecue smokers and high-quality local, organic ingredients.
So it stands to reason that Long Meadow Ranch, a diversified organic farm run by Ted and Laddie Hall and their son Chris, would be a good match for Barber. We hear a lot these days about the environmental and health benefits of local, seasonal, organic food but seldom encounter it in its purest form. But you can follow almost everything on Farmstead's menu up into the Mayacamas Mountains and Long Meadow Ranch, where olive oil, wine, fruits and vegetables are grown, and grass-fed beef and hens' eggs are raised. The ranch's motto is "Excellence through Responsible Farming," and with Barber at the helm in the kitchen, that could be amended to read, "Responsible Farming and Good Cooking."
At the end of a satisfying round of various plates, everyone at our table agreed that the most outstanding dish of the night was not from the ranch. It was Salmon Rillettes ($14 ****), lightly cooked and seasoned salmon mashed and put into a cup. A topping of lemon verbena cream gave the fish a bright succulence and clean, refreshing flavor. It came with house-made pickles of frenched romano beans.
Hard on the heels of the rillettes was a near-perfect Cheeseburger ($15 ***?). This half-pound, juicy patty of memory-jogging ground beef (Ahhh, this is the way beef used to taste!) comes from a ranch-raised, grass-fed steer. What's the advantage of grass-fed beef? Lower saturated fat, higher amounts of healthy omega-3 fat, potent anti-oxidants and more. The meat sits on a potato bun with spicy ketchup, mustard, mayo, and pickles - all house-made - on the bottom bun and melted California cheddar cheese plus julienned, olive-oiled arugula on top. It's a burger that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. The plate comes with chunky home fries, too.
If the burger is good for you, the Kale Salad ($11 **?) is even better. Kale is the most nutritious vegetable there is. The fact that it's not particularly palatable and can be hard to chew should not dissuade you from eating it. This salad is made of lacinato kale, also called dinosaur kale, more tender than curly-leaved kale but just as nutritious. Its flavor is enhanced with a spicy pequin pepper and lemon juice dressing. A thin leaf of frico — griddled grana padano cheese that puddles and bubbles into a lacy wafer — also helps.
Berkshire pigs, England's oldest heritage breed now also raised in America and Japan, are known for the juiciness, flavor and tenderness of their pork. But the perfectly-cooked, wood-grilled Berkshire Pork Chop ($26 **) served at Farmstead was a tough piece of inch-thick meat. It tasted good, was a healthy-looking reddish pink in color, but it was a grinding slog to eat. Slicing thin slivers off the meat helped, but this wasn't a chop to sink your teeth into. Also on the plate: braised greens, a light and delicious Nantes carrot puree, and salsa verde. My recommendation: Find a new source for your Berkshire pork.
On the other hand, Chicken under a Brick ($24 ***?) was the best commercial version of this dish I've had since I first encountered it in Italy in 1984. It was cooked under enough pressure to flatten the meat, cooked quickly and infused with the smoky issue of the red-hot griddle onto which it's pressed. It came with braised spinach, cannellini white Tuscan beans and pistou (think pesto, only with a French accent).
For dessert, Scharffenberger Chocolate Cream Pie ($8 ***) was a true-to-form retro piece of pie topped with whipped cream, chocolaty but not too sweet, with a cinnamon graham cracker crust. Buttermilk Panna Cotta ($8 **) was confined to a tubular ceramic cylinder so you couldn't see it shimmy on the plate. It was so stiff, however, that it wouldn't have shimmied if you'd played the Charleston for it. The Meyer lemon shreds and raspberry gelee that topped it at least gave it some good fruity flavor.
Farmstead is housed in a big, barn-like building with a high ceiling, decorated with the tools of a family farm from long ago. A beautiful white Victorian house is on the property, located just south of the town center of St. Helena. There's a barbecue oven and smoker outside, along with an outside fireplace and a long bar and tables. If the weather is inclement, there's a big bar inside, too.