Nick falls for one of Sonoma's most famous restaurants. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
We arrived outside the corner site occupied by the Single Thread restaurant-with-rooms in Healdsburg, northern California, hungry, thirsty and somewhat exhausted after a day spent tramping the nearby vineyards.
Within five minutes of walking in, and being greeted by a young man who, on being told how I was feeling, responded with ‘Well, I guess you are in the right place', my thirst had been quenched and my appetite stimulated. My curiosity levels had, during this process, also been raised.
Single Thread’s entrance lobby is a sort of transition room with a view through a large, open panel of the extremely modern kitchen. At the kitchen counter a young female chef immediately offers you a drink, a thin porcelain mug of highly restorative grains and thyme from their garden. This short pause allows the waiting staff to finish off the arrangement of Asian-influenced food that awaits you on the table.
This shows a level of thoughtfulness on the part of the restaurant’s owners, Kyle and Katina Connaughton – an approach that is clearly carried out by all the staff since neither were there on the night we were – that I have never encountered before.
I have never been in a restaurant that has understood its customers’ needs so swiftly. No European restaurant can compare with its offer of bread or even an amuse-bouche and I have never yet encountered this style of service in Japan, the model for Single Thread, principally, I would imagine, because space restrictions make this financially impossible.
But to understand the Connaughtons’ method of satisfying their customers, of instantaneously putting a smile back on their customers’ tired and hungry faces, one has to appreciate the importance of this transition. The Japanese believe that customers need to transition from the hectic outside world to the inner sanctum that is a peaceful restaurant, and that a neglected aspect of the restaurateur’s role is to help them do this quietly and effortlessly. And this transition should be achieved without the guests really being aware that this is happening to them.
Once in the restaurant, with a floor-to-ceiling opening onto the kitchen that is within sight of all the tables in the first room, and particularly to us on Table 18, our curiosity was piqued by the beautiful display of food on our table on a sort of artfully decorated log, only a small portion of which is shown above. This included small dishes of Japanese needlefish with an intense wasabi; shallow bowls of finely cut rounds of white asparagus and of deep Japanese greens; a bowl of beautifully seasoned wagyu beef tartare; a cauliflower panna cotta topped with salmon roe; and a small piece of Japanese mackerel and much more, all on a sort of exquisite Japanese doll’s dinner service. But it was the waitress’s description of the oval plate the mackerel was served on that stuck with me: a ‘mini surf board’.
Eventually, the two enormous under plates on which all these dishes were served were removed by our obviously strong-armed waiter and the rest of the show got under way. Our waiter described their approach as kaiseki in style, a Japanese-style menu that comprises texture, colour and appearance through a series of semi-fixed styles of cooking. He warned us that this would comprise 11 courses in total and that we would not encounter any meat (the Duclair duck shown immediately below) until the seventh or eighth course.
Here, I would, however, take issue with the Connaughton approach. Not divulging anything about the menu, for which the customer is paying $256 a head plus drinks and service, is I believe tilting the balance of the meal too much in favour of the kitchen. And this does inhibit the ultimate selection of wines, although our choices of an Anthill Farms, Demuth Pinot Noir 2013 and Arnot Roberts Syrah 2015 could not have been better, encouraged as they were by the knowledgeable Andy Rastello, their newly appointed wine director.
Enough quibbles – although the parfait of guinea fowl was over seasoned – but that was a small part of one dish. The next course, amberjack sashimi with slices of blood orange and a small piece of the belly of the fish served warm, was delicious, a treat for the stomach and the eye, topped with minute chrysanthemum leaves. Then came drama as a large pot containing a broad bean plant was brought to our table with the explanation that this is currently the cover crop being used on their farm. Alongside this came a chawanmushi, a Japanese egg custard topped with Dungeness crab alongside a wrap incorporating more crab.
Above, the preparation with kitchen in the background. Below, the finished dish.
Other highlights included a nabe, a Japanese hot-pot dish, one of many on the kitchen’s shelves, containing pieces of black cod with a caviar sauce laced with kombu, seaweed; our introduction, via a basket of visually varied sake cups, to Time Machine 1712, a dark sake made in Japan by Englishman Philip Harper from unmilled rice, served with a duck liver mousse; and our final savoury course, their interpretation of tsukemono, Japanese vegetables preserved in brine, served alongside a shimmeringly clear consommé. Our meal ended with another custard (their farm must have some very happy chickens), this time incorporating Okinawa black sugar and jasmine.
The Connaughtons' focus has become more Japanese over time, according to friends who had eaten here before. But the menu’s reflection on seafood, hospitality and human restoration – the basis of any restaurant – could not be more impressive.
Single Thread 131 North St, Healdsburg, California 95448; tel +1 (707) 723 4646