Dining that dazzles at Single Thread Farms restaurant
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.