Chef Michael Chiarello estimates he’s spent about 180,000 hours behind stoves in his career, opening high-end Italian restaurants like Tra Vigne and Bottega, which became landmarks in the Napa Valley, as well as starring in television shows, and cooking at fundraisers and demos.
All of this experience has led to the pinnacle of culinary achievement: the perfection of the American classics, the burger, fries and ice cream.
“You would not believe how many hours we put into this,” he said cheerfully as he conducted a tour of his newly opened, newest enterprise in Yountville. With him was his daughter, Giana, who is working with her dad these days. Together they posed in front of a sign: “Platform 8, Finally...Open.”
“After 24 years here in the valley, I thought about what was missing here, what was missing in Yountville,” said Chiarello.
The answer is here in his new eatery, subtitled, “a modern burger joint and ice cream lab.”
That’s the menu for Platform 8, which opened on Thursday in a building that once was part of the Yountville train station, hence the new name. Also, “Platform 8 is my favorite in the Milan train station,” Chiarello said. “From there you go to all kinds of great places.”
Last year, the enterprising chef opened the nearby Ottimo, which serves pizza, panini and other fast-casual Italian specialties. In addition to Bottega, at V Marketplace, he also has a new tasting room for his wines.
Platform 8, however, is his homage to pure Americana, from the music — rock ‘n’ roll — right down to the servers’ uniforms, 1930s-style Ben Davis striped shirts, with American flags on the sleeves and mechanics aprons.
The redesigned white space is divided in half: one part is the Platform 8 Nitro Ice Cream Lab, and the other is where cooks will be turning out burgers and fries.
“Everything we know, we’ve put into this,” Chiarello said.
Part of the innovations, diners will be able to see their ice cream being made to order, in seconds, and the French fries being shot at 60 miles an hour from a French fry cannon.
“The idea is to have entertainment value,” said Chiarello, who collaborated with his business partner, David O’Malley, in creating Platform 8. “But there is as much that’s unseen as well.”
By this, Chiarello is referring to the science behind all the decisions that lead to the perfection of American classics.
Take the burger. The beef is Chiarello’s blend of Five Dot Ranch beef, ground on site four times a day. They micro-freeze the outside of each patty before they grill it. “The meat is so good, it’s ludicrous,” he said.
The patties are square served on a house-made round, “not-so-English” muffin bun. Why?
“What’s the best part of a piece of pizza?” he asked. “The first bite, right? It’s that triangle. Here, you get four triangles, hanging out of the bun.
“One of our mottos is ‘It’s good to be square,’” he noted.
And the muffin, he explained, is just the right thickness for a burger, “not like those big thick buns, where you have to squash it down to get a bite — and then lose all the juice from the burger.”
What’s more, the Classic Burger ($9) comes with something not to be found at any other burger joint: the Mixie-Doodle sauce, created by Chiarello when he was an aspiring, 4-year-old chef. “I’ve never been able to improve on it,” he said.
Thought went into the cheese, as well, for those who want it topping the burger. It comes in three choices of smoked mozzarella, Point Reyes blue, cheddar “fundu” or a blend of all three. They’ve made a “liquefied cheese” so that “cheese isn’t the first thing you taste,” Chiarello said. “It’s the meat, and it doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth.”
Other embellishments are available, including zinfandel caramelized onions, billionaire’s bacon and a sunnyside up egg ($2.50 each). And if you really want more than the Mixie Doodle sauce, house-made mustard, Calabrian ketchup and Tuscan barbecue sauce are also available.
The menu also offers an “Irresistible Crispy Chicken Burger” ($10.50) and an Impossible Burger ($13).
The latter are the remarkable meatless burgers that are astonishing vegans and vegetarians because they have both the flavor and texture of a meat patty — but use 95 percent less land and 74 percent less water than beef and creates 87 percent less greenhouse gases. “And it tastes 500 percent better than any other veggie burger,” Chiarello added.
And the fries: after their initial journey by cannon, they get a special soak and are fried three times. Chiarello said, “This way, we can fry them at 40 degrees lower temperature and so we can use olive oil.”
The result is “the healthiest french fry,” and also one that is crispy and extremely flavorful. “They taste good even when they are cold,” he said. Fries are $4, sprinkled with grey salt and $6 for cab-soaked fries. A hydro bloomed onion ring is $5.
To drink, there’s a list of mostly local wines by the glass and bottle, as beer, cider and soda. “We’re starting to brew our own Italian beers,” he added. “Italian beer is epic.”
Here, too, the offerings are surprisingly affordable, especially for Yountville: a glass of Antica pinot is $12, a bottle of Shafer merlot, $55. Beers are $4-$6 and cider $7.
“I want a place for locals,” Chiarello said.
Now to the ice cream, produced in what Chiarello describes as “an old-school soda shop meets modern nitro lab.”
Using liquid nitrogen to create the ice cream in a cloud of smoke “is not a gimmick, it’s a technique,” Chiarello said as he and an assistant whipped up a serving of huckleberry ice cream on a Kitchen Aide mixer.
“Liquid nitrogen, the fourth coldest element in the world — 320 degrees below zero,” he said, as the ice cream formed, invisibly, inside a cloud of smoke. “The recipe doesn’t require eggs, and the ice crystals are so small, they’re negligible,” he said. “Also, there isn’t a lot of air whipped into the ice cream as with most commercial ice creams. The result is the smoothest ice cream you can imagine, and intense flavor.”
Chiarello digressed to make an ice cream blending huckleberry with a dose of charcoal powder made from grapevines from his own vineyards. This powder, he explained, does everything from whiten teeth to help cure a hangover, and it impacts an intriguing smokey flavor to the now-black ice cream. Coming up, he said, they’ll be serving a lemonade made with it. “It’s delicious,” he said.
The Lab is serving the ice cream in three flavors, vanilla, chocolate and huckleberry in scoops ($3.50 or $5 for a double), shakes ($6). Plans are in the works to serve it in meringue cups and also to offer egg creams, a soda fountain classic popular on the East Coast, hard to find in the West (it doesn’t contain eggs or cream, just milk, flavored syrup and seltzer).
In creating Platform 8, Chiarello hasn’t overlooked a detail, from the trays — “I didn’t like the metal so I created a rubber coating that just feels better” — to the napkins. “Recognize them?” he asked. “They’re mechanics’ shop towels. They absorb grease. Not like the paper ones that just turn into a mess and you need a hundred of them.”
And there’s one final element that Platform 8 has in abundance: fun.
As a grand finale, Chirarello demonstrated the nitro carmel popcorn bites ($6.50). Pop one in your mouth and you can exude an impressive “dragon’s breath.”
“If you can’t tell,” he said, “we’re having a hell of a good time here.”
“I’m as excited about this as anything I’ve ever done,” Chiarello said. “This is as good as it gets.”
Platform 8 is at 6525 Washington St., Yountville. For more information, visit botteganapavalley.com/introducing-platform-8. For to-go orders call 707-244-4350.