It’s impossible not to be impressed when you pull up to Acacia House, set in a grand 1907 Georgian mansion on a St. Helena hillside next to Beringer estate vineyards. The ivory painted palace is stunning, soaring two stories up to a dormer, with each floor boasting dramatic wraparound verandas.
Alas, on both my visits, I had plenty of time to admire the structure, because the valet –– that’s the only parking available –– was nowhere to be found. When he finally arrived many minutes later, there was no explanation, and the same thing happened as I tried to depart one evening.
It’s a curious slip for such an otherwise polished destination that operates both as a high-end restaurant from acclaimed chef Chris Cosentino, and a luxury hotel and spa from a Mexico City boutique hotel developer. But it reflects the one Achilles heel here: After being open since last May, the restaurant still feels as if it’s getting its bearings with staff. The casually dressed, apron-clad crew is quietly attentive, but oversights happen, like a server forgetting to bring our wine one night, to another server charging my table for more glasses of wine than we’d ordered.
For cooking like this, though, I can forgive a lot of things. Cosentino is a true talent, as he’s proven with his other restaurants, Cockscomb in San Francisco and Jackrabbit in Portland, Oregon. In Napa Valley, he’s again partnered with his Cockscomb/Jackrabbit colleague Oliver Wharton to produce a clever yet approachable experience through breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So far, I’ve only made it in for dinners, and they’re excellent, catering to a clientele seeking rarified dishes like “surf and turf” appetizer of crisp-edged sweetbreads set atop lobster chunks in a robustly herbed ravigote sauce ($22), or a dainty plate of bucatini pasta laced with velvety rich sea urchin and lardo under a dusting of fines herbs ($23).
Yet if you want a more simple steak, you can have that, too, as a 30-day dry aged strip loin cut into two large slabs, doused in sauce au poivre and partnered with hedgehog mushrooms and a brick of celery root gratin ($52). And indeed, this is a Harlan Estate red blend type of place –– a 2009 Napa Valley bottle goes for $1,500. But you can also get a nice 2013 Napa Valley Hunt & Harvest Merlot for a reasonable $45.
Cocktails are another worthwhile thought, in edgy recipes like the margarita ($15), topped in a cloud of saltwater foam instead of rimmed in salt. I like how the mineral infuses with the lemony quaff’s refined sweetness.
Acacia’s menu hasn’t changed that much through the past seasons, and that’s fine, since there are lots of plates I’d be happy to eat again and again. Some elements of each staple are regularly updated, too, like seared foie gras that was accented with charred persimmon for fall ($28), and now arrives with wonderfully tart fermented blueberry ($24) layer atop its toasted brioche base. Be sure to get a bit of everything together on your fork, then drag the lot through the savory just glistening on the plate.
Chips and dip are a bit hidden as a snack on the cocktail list, but they make a great appetizer. They’re the first hint that Cosentino is having fun in his glass-fronted kitchen, as a big bowl holds a pile of feather light, golden gaufrette potatoes for scooping with creamy, lemon-kissed labneh cheese dolloped in caviar.