Sweet and creamy green-garlic panna cotta with salty and grainy sea urchin on top. Tender spot prawns complemented by flecks of melon and cucumber that curls like a snake. Fresh oysters so pickled they make you squint and pucker, served with freshly grated wasabi.
These morsels are among the bites that welcome guests to SingleThread, a new restaurant in Sonoma County that gives the all-too-familiar notion of farm-to-table dining an infusion of Eastern philosophy and culture. Within the past six months, the eatery has perfected a service that is high-end but not highfalutin’. Even in a city with a robust restaurant scene, it stands out.
‘One chance, one encounter’
Chef Kyle Connaughton features fresh produce and sustainably harvested proteins from around Sonoma County, in the northern part of California. But he and his wife, Katina, go way beyond the traditional definition of seasonality. Never mind winter, spring, summer and fall. They have 72 distinct microseasons and base dishes on which items are ripest at any given moment in time.
The approach evokes an ancient Japanese spin on farming, and the result is an 11-course, ingredient-driven meal that changes every week, an experience that is as much about entertainment and art as it is about food.
“There’s a famous saying in Japanese that means, ‘One chance, one encounter,’ ” says Kyle. “That’s our philosophy – every visit is special, and you’re never going to have the same experience twice.”
Focus on hyper-seasonality
About 70% of the items on SingleThread’s daily menus are grown or raised on a 5-acre parcel that backs up onto the Russian River, just outside the city of Healdsburg.
This includes dozens of vegetables ranging from kohlrabi and Japanese carrots to peas and corn, cows for beef, and bees for honey. The farm even yields olives for the restaurant’s olive oil, as well as flowers that appear on centerpieces around the dining room.
Katina serves as head farmer, and her team works the land according to the Japanese concept of shun, which takes common notions of seasonality down to a microlevel.
Consider an asparagus, which appears to many to be “in season” in spring. For Katina, however, the peak time for the vegetable, the stretch during which it tastes exactly how an asparagus should taste, is just two or three weeks somewhere in late April and early May.
“Produce grown, harvested and stored responsibly, it’s dense in nutrients and tastes undeniably amazing,” she says. “We strive to showcase and celebrate the beauty and bounty of Sonoma County at every turn.”
Intimate dining experience
In the 52-seat dining room, amid hand-woven screens that create a sense of intimacy, this philosophy translates into dishes that redefine freshness.
Guests are seated to a canape course that might include farm eggs filled with a savory custard, spinach puree and smoked sabayon; or those pickled oysters with the wasabi. All these starter items are served in tiny dishes spread out across a moss-covered stump.
Subsequent courses might comprise poached foie gras with a tea of turnips and herbs or dry-aged beef ribs served with Japanese mustard spinach, bing cherries and black truffles.
These dishes showcase the technique and precision Kyle learned during his stint running the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, as well as some of the training he picked up working at restaurants in Japan. One of Kyle’s favorite methods of preparing proteins is in Japanese earthenware pots called “donabe,” with some lining the back wall of the open kitchen.
A different approach
Food isn’t the only thing that makes SingleThread stand out; the restaurant is blazing trails in a handful of other areas, too.
The way you pay is different. The 11-course adventure, now available for dinner six nights a week and lunch on weekends, costs $293 per person, and the only way to reserve a table is to buy a nonrefundable ticket, much like you would for a Broadway show or a professional sporting event. (Wine, including a pairing option, is extra.)
What you eat is different. About a week before every reservation, diners receive an email inquiring about dietary restrictions and personal preferences. Armed with this information, Kyle and his team prepare customized meals for every member of your party.
And SingleThread has reinvented the flow of a traditional meal. After check-in on the ground level, a host whisks you on an elevator to the rooftop garden with bird’s-eye views of downtown Healdsburg. Servers pour sparkling wine and pass hors d’oeuvres up there until you say you’re ready to head back downstairs and eat. Think of it as a complimentary cocktail hour.
If it’s a nice night, you can opt to return to the roof for dessert courses such as frozen peach with buttermilk and blackberry consommé and hojicha ice cream with brown butter, puffed amaranth and apricot compote.
After dinner, you can spend the night. Above the restaurant and below the roof are five sumptuous rooms with high ceilings, exposed brick, custom-designed paper lanterns and deep soaking tubs. Other amenities include breakfast with eggs from the farm and minibars stocked with local treats.
According to Kyle, these overnight accommodations, much like the rest of SingleThread, are modeled on the Japanese idea of selfless hospitality, a concept known as “omotenashi.”
“When you come here, whether you’re dining in our restaurant or spending the night upstairs, we want you to feel like a guest in our home,” Kyle says. “For us, that above all else gives a sense of who we are and what we’re about. That is authenticity.”
SingleThread serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 11 p.m., and lunch Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Matt Villano is a California-based travel writer who has written for TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sunset, AFAR, Travel + Leisure and other publications. His work can be found at whalehead.com.