The Long-Awaited Single Thread Finally Opens
Healdsburg’s Single Thread is an ambitious, high-end restaurant. It is an organic, sustainable farm. And it is a luxurious inn.
It is also the most hotly anticipated opening of the year.
Above all, it is a labor of love and dedication by husband-and-wife team Chef Kyle Connaughton and farmer Katina Connaughton.
After two long years of construction, it finally opened its doors to the public last Friday. I had a chance to check it all out at a media dinner held just a few days before that.
Connaughton’s impressive credentials include cooking at Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck in the United Kingdom and Michel Bras’ Toya Japon in Hokkaido. Katina learned the tenets of sustainability while working on a strawberry farm in Japan.
Together, that ethos of serene Eastern hospitality and utmost respect for the land imbue the restaurant, which they built almost from the ground up. The former post office right off the square was supposed to be a tasting room with lodging for Seghesio Vineyards. But when the winery was sold to Crimson Wine Group, the property became available. And the Connaughtons pounced on it for their dream restaurant.
Above the restaurant are five plush guest rooms, complete with deep soaking tub, Japanese toilet, and a refrigerator stocked with beverages (included in the price of the room), such as the much-sought-after Pliny the Elder. Breakfast is also included in the price of the room with selections that include the farm’s eggs done over-easy atop avocado toast, warm porridge of Sonoma grains, and a Japanese-style repast of grilled steelhead trout, miso soup, tamago and fresh tofu.
On the outside, the building looks California timeless. But inside, it’s as if you’ve been transported to a sumptuous Japanese countryside home.
The 52-seat dining room is divided by a series of loomed shoji-like screens that create a sense of intimacy without being too confining. The kitchen is completely open. Lighted back shelves display a collection of hand-made Japanese donabe pots, which are used in much of the cooking. At the end of the evening, massive pocket doors are slid closed to shield the kitchen clean-up and to signal the end of the performance, much like a curtain falling at the end of a play.
The 11-course dinner is $225, with an additional $155 for standard wine pairings or $295 for reserve pairings.
While the evening is normally slated to begin with canapes on the rooftop done up with planter boxes of herbs and citrus, on this chilly, drizzly one, we sat down in the dining room almost immediately after a brief tour of the property.
The table was already set with “Late Autumn in Sonoma County,” a dazzling array of bites such as hearth-roasted pumpkin, oyster on the half shell with fresh wasabi, kale-wrapped grilled quail, Dungeness crab with Buddha’s hand, and a potato crisp that tasted like the world’s best Pringle’s. One of my favorites of the bunch, surprisingly, was the tofu with sea urchin, owing to the downright sexy texture of the bean curd like that of clotted cream.
As we nibbled our way around the spread, two more little treats arrived: beets roasted in their own juices with umeboshi; and a farm egg with smoked sabayonne and mushrooms duxelles. The tart fruitiness of the pickled plum made the beets more opulent, while the farm egg offered up spoonful after spoonful of rich, creamy earthiness.
The butteriness of Channel Island yellowtail sashimi was brightened by dollops of Satsuma curd and lily bulb that has the texture of fresh water chestnuts. A few flakes of salt on top pushed it to perfection.
To pair with the dish was Tsurunoe Shuzo junmai sake from Fukushima, aged in oak to give it an unusual cinnamon note and slight butterniness. Call it exquisite attention to detail or over-the-top theatrics, but here, you get to choose your sake cup from a tray your server brings by for your inspection. The sake itself is poured from a unique stoneware pot-cum-flower vase embellished with a bundle of fresh blooms and greenery in its center.
Preserved lemon added a tangy lift to the fatty, unctuous jowl from the Mangalitsa, one of the most marbled breeds of pigs around. Sweet-salty pine nuts played up the nutty sweetness of roasted sunchokes.
In lieu of a traditional bread course, Single Thread offers up thin, crisp waffle-like crackers sandwiching creme fraiche and Passmore Ranch caviar.
Monterey abalone is smoked in a donabe over cherry wood, before being dressed with a sauce made of its liver and slow-cooked onions.
One of my favorite dishes of the night was the Mount Lassen trout cooked with shio koji to impart umami. The trout itself was as soft as butter when cut into. The negi sauce reminded me of a much more refined version of my favorite ginger-green onion one for Hainan chicken.
Silky, smooth foie gras mousse atop a savory sable with persimmon was centered dramatically on a plate adorned with fiery, fuchsia leaves. A little verjus added just a touch of acid to cut the richness.
A tagine-like donabe appeared next. The server unveiled the black cod underneath, before whisking it back into the kitchen. As we awaited its return, a copper vessel with a warming candle was place on the table. Inside was a chamomile dashi broth that was kept warm until it was poured over the delicate, snowy-white fish on our plates. The broth coupled with an arugula-nori pesto on the fish created a spectrum of complexity that was delicate and floral, before building to bitter and briny. While other chefs might have stopped with one or the other, Connaughton combined the two harmoniously to create a powerful statement.
For the next dish, the server returns again to present you with a choice of knives — all of them made in Athens, GA with wood from Single Thread’s farm, brass bands from an old clarinet factory, and blades from a 1968 Volkswagen.
All the better to cut your Guinea hen roulade in fashion, which tastes like the best roast chicken you’ve ever had. It boasts a deep poultry flavor, and is accompanied by Matsutake mushrooms that taste of oyster, red kuri squash that’s been fermented, and frilly little mustard fronds that add a quick jolt of sharpness.
Guinea hen returns again in the final savory course — only this time as broth that’s poured over Sonoma grains of barley and farro, scattered with pickled Toyko turnips.
Tea or coffee is offered next. As you’d expect, the tea service is exceptional, served in beautiful individual stoneware pots. Or opt for frothy matcha, emerald in hue with an almost soybean taste to it.
Frozen fromage blanc that looks almost like a giant marshmallow is dessert and cheese course in one with poached quince and the crunch of puffed amaranth.
That’s followed by frozen chocolate ganache with frozen red kuri squash and fried sage — delicious but not nearly as memorable as the next dessert. It’s an ode to a Gravenstein apple. The pale green “apple” is actually a chocolate shell. Crack it open to reveal chestnut sable, whipped chestnut cream, apple butter with miso and shaved chestnut. The presentation of one perfect apple is so Japanese, and its flavors so attune to the season.
A tier of wagashi arrives next, orange leaf-wrapped persimmon chips, blue chocolate eggs on straw nests, walnut praline and date sweets, and yuzu and rhubarb cream.
The bill comes pinned to a cushion on a small sewing box. When you depart, you are presented with a tie-box containing the menu, a hand-written note from Kyle and Katina, and negi seeds to plant in your own garden.
When you step outside, it’s almost a little jarring to remember that you are in downtown Healdsburg because for awhile you’ve felt very much like you were in another world.
That’s how transportive Single Thread can be.