About five minutes into my dinner at Single Thread Farm-Restaurant-Inn, I wondered if it would be tacky to record my server on my cellphone. How else to absorb the poetry as she described the dazzling array of dishes in front of me?
When we sit down at this upscale Japanese restaurant, our table is already laden with a diorama of a dozen tiny bites, in architecture of small pottery bowls, pedestal plates, whelk shells stuffed with their own sea snails and mossy bedding on stacked wood sheltering more tiny nibbles.
There is no menu, and the server quotes ingredient after ingredient, many in Japanese terms for unusual seaweeds, herbs and essences. We recognize Dungeness crab tucked in tofu skin, there are open-top egg shells brimming with savory custard and set on a nest of straw, a bowl of multi-color beets and pickled plum sliced like flower petals ... plus heaven knows what else.
And so the meal continues, stretching over four hours, in a parade of dishes we can admire, if not remember. The briefly written menu is presented only as we leave, packaged in a long white box which opens to reveal an embossed, origami adorned, tissue paper-wrapped, folded cardboard slip finished with a hand-tied bouquet of herbs and stem berries. There’s also a little handwritten thank you card from the chef, Kyle Connaughton, and his wife and business partner, Katina.
Well, chef Connaughton did promise us something Healdsburg had never seen before over these past two years as he and his team worked to create this shrine (longer, actually, if you count the three years he and Katina lived in Hokkaido, Japan, researching the cuisine). As with authentic kaiseki, a meal is art, each ingredient sourced with great purpose, meticulously arranged to showcase the chef’s prodigious skills and presented with a healthy dose of reverence.
Personally, I appreciate the pomp. But then, I once did a two-week kaiseki tour around Japan, eating the elaborate meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sketching their detailed arrangements, ingredients and preparation notes in a journal. I do wonder if less-obsessive diners and our local, generally more casual Wine Country crowd will embrace this complicated approach.
Although, considering that meals cost $294 per person including tax and service, Single Thread is going for the fanatical French Laundry crowd, not everyday diners. And with five guest rooms atop the restaurant, priced from $800 to $1,350 a night, sophisticated tourists craving a complex culinary event are certainly a prime target.
The experience begins with the reservation process. We request tickets online, then wait for a confirmation email that we’re in and payment is accepted (and we’d better show up, since sales are final). Prepaid wine-beer-sake pairing adds $202 per person, or $384 for an extra high-end wine pairing, bringing indulgences like Tsurunoe Shuzo Aizu Chujou Junmai sake from Fukushima, Japan, made as it has been since 1790, we discover, with original rope and pulley equipment. Teetotalers can get elaborate tea and juice pairings for $98, or, we can get wines by the glass or bottle.
So far, while the restaurant is busy enough, the expected crazy rush on the 55 seats hasn’t occurred. Perhaps because it’s the slower winter season, but online checks many nights since the Dec. 2 opening have found reservations available, and advertised via Twitter and Facebook.
It was raining when my companion and I visited, so we began with our Caraccioli Cellars Brut sparkling reception in an upstairs salon. In better weather, the welcome takes place in a 3,000-square-foot rooftop culinary garden that, because of winter downpours, is still under development.
Back downstairs, we pass the peek-a-boo foyer window of the kitchen, glimpsing chefs hunched silently over plates like surgeons. We’re led through a massive door into the airy, AvroKO-designed dining room that feels like a wealthy person’s living room, complete with sleek gray fabric couches, rich wood tables and walls, shoji hanging lamps and massive flower arrangements tucked into wood tree trunks. It’s serene, hushed, and we talk in library voices, as if not to disturb the talents who work so studiously in the magnificent open kitchen that takes up an entire wall.
Chef Connaughton tweaks his menus daily, and changes them vastly with — as he calls it — the “micro-seasons” of early winter, mid-winter and so on. Recipes are his own interpretations of Asian-American, morphing according to the 72 five-day agricultural cycles of Northern California, in keeping with the ancient Japanese Farmers’ Almanac.
Some ingredients come from his own 5-acre Healdsburg farm, managed by Katina, for delicacies such as negi (onions), kintoki carrots, kabu turnip, chingensai and komatsuna greens, Japanese pumpkins, kamo nasu (eggplant), and yurine (lily bulbs that look like glittering pearls against silky pink slabs of yellowtail sashimi and a round of Satsuma mandarin gelee so shiny it resembles an egg yolk, all scattered in wood sorrel tendrils).
Really, it’s best to not labor over what we’re eating, and simply soak up the ceremony. A few dishes do make repeat appearances over the weeks, like sunchoke curls enriched with Mangalitsa jowl, preserved lemon and pine nuts, or cured foie gras, shaped into a silky round with an off-center donut hole cut-out, sprinkled with hickory nuts and verjus all set atop a pile of big persimmon leaves that look like someone just raked them up from the yard.
But this is all about a unique adventure. That foie gras, for example, evolved on another evening for accoutrements of spiced sablé, French prunes and a splash of rooibos tea. On my night, I savored a tiny sprinkle of Sonoma grains, another signature, with Guinea hen dobin mushi presented as a roulade, with a glistening matsutake mushroom broth, pickled Tokyo turnip and skinny curls of squash misouke (miso cured). Then, a later menu partnered the grains with dainty tempura mustard blossom and herbs.
Storytelling is a big part of the suppers. Long, thin, hinona kabu turnips, for example, date back to Japan’s Shiga prefecture of the 1470s, cherished for making sakura zuke (cherry blossom pickles). Throughout dinner, our servers — polished professionals recruited from across the country — rhapsodize over details like the pottery, custom crafted in Japan by tradition-trained artists, and the gleaming polished cedar plates partnered with cedar spoons.
Sometimes it feels a bit silly, such as when we were offered knife selections for the nubbin of succulent Wagyu beef arranged with chestnut, burnt onion, makrut lime and the curious choice of eucalyptus ember. A box is ceremoniously opened, for us to choose a custom-made instrument boasting an ancient wood handle and metal from a recycled vintage automobile. Sake, meanwhile, is served out of an open teapot sort of thing stuck with a potted flowering plant.
Thrill with style
It’s true that some of our dishes thrilled more with style than flavor, a particular downfall when our expectations are so outrageously high. Black cod fukkura-san (cooked donabe-style, in an earthenware pot) was exquisitely textured, but quite mild with its leeks, brassicas and chamomile broth, with the same result for an interesting but ultra-delicate Monterey Bay abalone just hinting of myoga ginger in a foamy broth of abalone liver capped with slow-cooked onion curls. Yet with such small kaiseki size servings, we’re quickly on to the next plate, enjoying the anticipation of what it will be.
The inspiration continues into the trio of desserts, delivering surprising combinations such as hearth-roasted sweet potato partnered with chicory ice cream, cocoa husk and hazelnut. One of the best was an “apple,” looking simply like a small, humble chocolate round. Except we cracked it with our spoons, unleashing a flow of whipped chestnut and sweet Saikyo miso cream, imbued with apple sorbet and apple butter to be spooned up with a fine flurry of shaved chestnut.
At Single Thread, even the lighting and pace of the soft instrumental music changes over the course of each evening, depending on the time of night. So just let the mood wash all over you. Even the most painstaking note-taking can’t capture every thoughtful touch.
Carey Sweet is a Santa Rosa-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.