When respected American chef Charlie Palmer took title to St. Helena’s Harvest Inn last year, locals wondered if he’d include a restaurant as part of the operation.
After all, Palmer’s cuisine is what put him on the world map, although he’s also become a hotelier of late, with properties in San Francisco and Sonoma County.
That question was answered with the opening last weekend of Harvest Table, a 110-seat eatery with alfresco dining terraces, featuring a farm-to-table menu designed by Palmer and chef de cuisine Levi Mezick.
Palmer envisioned from the start that the 8-acre property on Highway 29 just south of St. Helena could be more than overnight accommodations for valley visitors. In re-envisioning Harvest Inn for the future, Palmer and his business partners not only gave the buildings a welcome face-lift, they also included new culinary and sculpture gardens and installed a state-of-the-art restaurant in what was once known as the Great Room.
In the past, Palmer points out, there was no reason to drop by Harvest Inn unless one was a hotel guest.
“I wanted to change that,” the tall, lanky chef/hotelier said during a recent walk-through as workmen and staff were wrapping up remodel efforts. “Locals can now enjoy a new bar, lounge and restaurant as well as our ever-changing sculpture garden. I wanted to add another dimension to this established property.”
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Palmer has been credited with helping turn Healdsburg into a must-see-and-do for wine country visitors, as a result of opening Hotel Healdsburg and the acclaimed Dry Creek Kitchen some 13 years ago. He’s also become a valued member of the community, as he believes in giving back to those who contribute to the success of his operations. “I want to be a big part of St. Helena (and) be involved in charities for everything from Little League to farmworkers.”
Four years ago, Palmer and partners opened the Mystic Hotel near San Francisco’s Union Square, which included the well-received Burritt Tavern.
His popular New York restaurants included Aureole — the flagship showcase for Palmer’s signature progressive American cuisine — and Charlie Palmer Steak, and there’s a catering business and a couple of cocktail lounges. In recent weeks, the Knickerbocker Hotel has opened in a historic 1920s building in New York’s Times Square, and Palmer is in charge of its food and beverage program, including a 100-seat restaurant and rooftop bar.
Palmer is comfortable with operating both restaurants and hotels because “it’s all about hospitality. I come at it from a food and beverage approach … we can be innovative and not locked into one single system or traditions. We’re operating boutique hotels — all have their own personality. First and foremost, we’re friendly, and we insist that the level of quality and guest experience be maintained at a high level.”
In talking about his goals in the valley, Palmer is intent on “making Harvest Inn a meeting place for the residents of St. Helena. I want St. Helenans to feel comfortable coming here … I intend to host more receptions for locals.
“We know that guests like to rub shoulders with the locals. Dry Creek Kitchen is a prime example of a place where you can find hotel guests along with a number of winery owners and locals. Coming together gives our visitors the real flavor of where they are.”
Palmer said visitors and locals alike can enjoy the new culinary gardens where restaurant chefs will harvest restaurant produce. “Our address might be 1 Main Street but there’s no doubt we’re in wine country as Tom Leonardini’s cabernet sauvignon vineyard surrounds the property.”
The sculpture garden at Harvest Inn contains 26 pieces as part of a rotating art installation. Palmer says it will expand to include the works of other regional artists. Locals are welcome to drop by, pick up a site map and walk the property, perhaps capping off the visit with a drink at the new bar and lounge.
“With the opening of the restaurant, we’ll do walks with the artists. Art, food and wine go together,” Palmer said.
Palmer’s plans for the property will be developed over time in three distinct phases. The first phase takes the Main House, Harvest Inn’s central building, from standard check-in and common area to a fully revamped reception area, a welcoming bar, and the signature Charlie Palmer restaurant, Harvest Table. In addition to the ground floor updates, a total of four guest rooms have been added to the second story as well.
Taking inspiration from Harvest Inn’s existing composition of brick and classic woodwork, the new reception and restaurant remodel features a sleek 12-seat U-shaped bar along with a more subtle reception area covering approximately 900 square feet. Portioning the reception and bar from the restaurant is a greenhouse encasement of local plants, moss, succulents, and elements culled from the surrounding grounds. A pair of outdoor terraces allow for alfresco dining, all with view to an open action kitchen.
Under the direction of chef Levi Mezick, Harvest Table’s menu is tied to the harvests of Northern California’s artisanal producers, such as Tolenas Farms Quail, Masami Cattle Ranch, Mary’s Chicken, Sebastopol Berry Farms and Bera Ranch Stone Fruit.
In addition, culinary horticulturalist Laura McNiff oversees Harvest Table’s five completely edible gardens, a source of pride and produce for Palmer, Mezick and their kitchen staff. An environmental studies graduate of Sonoma State University, McNiff is an expert on Napa Valley’s indigenous species. She also manages two bee colonies that assist in propagating the gardens and will eventually provide honey for the restaurant.
Rotating garden crops include herbs and salad greens, including licorice basil and olive leaf arugula; fruit shrubs and trees like black European currants, Gravenstein apples, Japanese kumquats and Satsuma tangerines; along with a full array of vegetables from root crops like watermelon radishes and candy stripe beets to Thai chilies and tomatillos.
Asked to describe Harvest Table fare, Palmer says “it’s classic French cooking that’s local ingredient-driven.” Menu offerings are divided into three sections — Snacks, Starters and Plates — each ranging from lighter to heartier dishes, as well as daily market specials. Signature menu items include Roasted Garden Carrots with Buttermilk, Curry Blend, and Granola; Poached Petrale Sole with Garden Bean Nage, Lemon Thyme, and Chanterelles; and Pan Roasted Modesto Squab with Poached Plums, Stinging Nettles, Fermented Turnips, and Sherry Squab Jus.
Opening weekend favorites include Pan Roasted Shrimp and Grits with Andouille Sausage, English Pea Soup with Morel Mushrooms and Garlic Flan as well as Bacon and Cheddar Biscuits with Country Ham and Pickled Green Tomatoes.
The wine list at Harvest Table features only Napa Valley wines. “We’re paying homage to where we are,” Palmer said.
Harvest Table is serving lunch Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The bar is open daily.
The restaurant is at Harvest Inn by Charlie Palmer at 1 Main St., St. Helena. For reservations, call 707-967-4695.