Not waiting in the wings
Chef Douglas Keane Makes His Mark in Napa While Plotting Cyrus 2.0
When Chef Douglas Keane first stepped inside the renovated Freemark Abbey Winery—with its rough-and-tumble stone walls and dramatic steel-beamed, plank ceiling gently curved like a wine barrel—words fairly failed him.
“It took my breath away,” he says with a wide smile. “I saw it and thought, ‘Wow! I get to walk in here every day, and to work here every day.”
This summer, a portion of the 130-year-old St. Helena winery became home to Keane’s newest restaurant, Two Birds One Stone, a casual California-style yakitori eatery opened in partnership with his BFF, Los Angeles–based Chef Sang Yoon of Father’s Office and Lukshon.
But this impressive space right off Highway 29 could have easily been the site of Cyrus 2.0, the sequel to Keane’s critically acclaimed Healdsburg restaurant, where gleaming Champagne and caviar carts rolled up to each table, and a parade of servers set down plates for each course simultaneously with military precision. Four years ago, Keane was forced to close Cyrus after a successful seven-year run, following a legal dispute with the landlord, the owners of the Les Mars Hotel in which it resided.
Barbara Banke, widow of Jess Jackson and chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, which owns wineries around the globe including Freemark Abbey, offered the location to Keane for what could have been a reborn Cyrus. But for the steadfast Keane, “could have” never meant would have, should have.
“Cyrus belongs in Sonoma County,” he explains. “Cyrus Alexander founded the Alexander Valley. That’s why we called the restaurant, Cyrus, to give it roots to the community.”
Banke then offered another Jackson Family Wines property for Cyrus, a vineyard situated in the Alexander Valley right off Highway 128. It seemed perfect—except that it was zoned for agriculture. Securing approval from Sonoma County to convert farm land over to a commercial enterprise proved too daunting, so that proposal was eventually abandoned.
At the time of our interview, Keane had his hopes for Cyrus’ second coming pinned on another parcel in the Alexander Valley, this one not owned by the Jackson family but already commercially zoned. If all goes according to plan, the new Cyrus will be financed by a small group of investors, whom Keane declined to name as yet. Olson Kundig, the award-winning Seattle architectural firm known for its modern, clean-line aesthetics in melding the indoors with the outdoors, will design the restaurant from the ground up on the 13-acre site, 10 of which will be planted with grapes.
And what a restaurant it will be. The 45-year-old chef, who also owns the Healdsburg Bar & Grill, has been planning it almost since the original Cyrus closed. His long-time collaborators are all on board for it: business partner Nick Peyton, who ran the front of the house at Cyrus and does so again at Two Birds One Stone; his right-hand Chef Drew Glassell; and Master Sommelier Kevin Reilly.
Keane envisions a fanciful moveable feast. Diners, 36 per night with 12 per seating, start in one room, where they will be plied with cocktails and canapes that express sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Next, it’s on to the chef ’s table room, where raw or lightly cooked shellfish and crudités will be prepared in front of guests. That’s followed by the main courses, served in the dining room featuring walls made completely of glass, “so you feel as if you’re floating in the grapes outside.” Finally, the evening will end in the chocolate room with walls of flowing chocolate that will stop mid-stream, allowing a hand to appear to offer chocolates with the same sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami profiles that began the dinner.
It’s quite the dream, one that he expects to take 24 months to complete— if everything aligns. That’s a big “if,” and Keane, who has been down this unpredictable road before, says he is ready for whatever happens.
“It hasn’t been frustrating,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Even if it disintegrates, it’s still been the ride of a lifetime.”
Whether the latest plans for a new Cyrus prove a flight of fancy or not, Keane relishes the turbocharged trajectory that Two Birds One Stone has taken. Co-chefs Keane and Yoon got to know one another three years ago when they were both on the same season of “Top Chef Masters.”
Keane, who won that competition, likes to jest that the two get along so well because “we have one full brain between us.”
That bromance led them to plot a project together. Earlier ones didn’t pan out, including an idea for a night market in Los Angeles. Which is just as well, because Keane hates to travel, and Yoon is so smitten with the Napa Valley that he’s considering buying a second home here.
Both fell hard for the Freemark Abbey space. “We wanted to do something completely different from what’s in the valley now. People need a reason to stop here,” Keane says. “We both love yakitori, but I said you can’t do just chicken, so let’s base it on grilling and great produce.’’
That translates into punchy dishes imbued with Japanese soul and contemporary Bay Area sensibilities such as Iberico de bellota pork, grilled over binchotan charcoal and lacquered with Vietnamese spiced caramel; deviled Jidori eggs spiced up with shichimi togarashi and wasabi; blistered Brussels sprouts tossed in a racy garlic-chile vinaigrette; and crisp radishes compressed with dashi that are dragged through an irresistible creamy goat milk butter enfolded with roasted nori. Much of the produce is grown by Tucker Taylor, the gifted culinary farmer for Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, also owned by the Jackson family.
The restaurant’s corkage program is generous: free for Napa and Sonoma wines, one bottle per person. Some evenings, that means up to 40 bottles being opened without a fee. The restaurant balances that by tempting with specialty cocktails and an extensive collection of Japanese whiskeys, as well as by offering local, small-production keg wines served by the glass that are available nowhere else. There are also five wines, donated by local wineries, for which all proceeds benefit Napa Valley charities.
It was Yoon who thought up the restaurant’s name. “I was brushing my teeth,” says the 47-year-old chef. “I was in Los Angeles. Doug was in Sonoma, at a movie with his wife. I was thinking to myself that we’re two guys cooking birds in a stone building. So, two birds, one stone. I texted it to Doug, who showed it to his wife, who loved it.”
That was that. Working together has proved equally easy so far. “Some decisions, I leave to him. Others he leaves to me, and a bunch, we make together,” says Yoon, who visits the restaurant a couple times a month. “It’s like being a married couple. It’s like, ‘You pick out the couch, I don’t care.’ Then he adds with a chuckle, “Though, in this case, I’m not sure who is the husband and who is the wife.”
The two chefs also have a rather unusual way of ensuring they pick their battles, one that involves their penchant for expensive Champagne. If there is a disagreement, a game of rock, paper, scissors ensues. The winner has to give the loser a bottle of Champagne, but gets to put the dish on the menu. If the dish proves a hit, then the loser has to give back the bottle of Champagne plus pony up another gift. If the dish bombs, the winner has to give back two bottles of Champagne (each retailing $250 or more). Got that?
“It’s in our operating agreement,” Keane says. “Our lawyer said, ‘You know a judge will see this, right?’ I said that’s fine if it stops the fighting. Plus, Yoon has one of the best Champagne collections in the world. I get it if he dies. I know where it is, and where the key for it is.”
So far, no Champagne has had to change hands. Moreover, the harmonious collaboration has definitely struck a chord with locals. The Chappellets drop in three times a week, Keane says, and the Colgins twice a week.
“I hope people walk in, and feel the care taken to create this,’’ Keane says. “I hope they get the sense that we’re offering a completely unique experience with flavors that jump.”
In a space that was meant to be.