SingleThread (2) – Healdsburg, CA
I've been lucky enough (before this meal) to enjoy Kyle Connaughton's cuisine from SingleThread twice––once at the restaurant in Healdsburg and once at their incredible popup event for Sundance in my hometown environs just outside of Salt Lake City last January. Since moving to northern California, I'd been eager to revisit, but always hesitant due to the substantial capital required. When Mom and I settled on her visit to California for her 65th birthday this past October, I immediately thought of SingleThread. Since my meal in 2019, Mom had been clamoring about her desire to experience the place with me.
The problem is, and this is a theme you will see me revisit at the end of this report, the base price of the tasting menu has increased over 25 percent since my 2019 dinner here. A meal I thought I might have the liquidity to finagle for me and Mom before I looked into their more recent pricing suddenly looked a lot more like a once-in-a-decade opportunity––the base price is now on par with Noma in Copenhagen, the most expensive meal I've purchased to date.
Still, one October night (while a bit under the influence), they had a cancellation, and I got an offer to take a reservation for two the day after Mom's 65th. I am weak, and the plastic came out. Just a handful of nights later, I lured Mom to Healdsburg to visit a local winery's Halloween party across the street, only revealing to her once she was in SingleThread's foyer drinking her introductory tea that she was there to enjoy their legendary tasting menu.
I'm such a good kid.
SingleThread still follows much of the same format I'm used to, and a yuzu and strawberry tea in the foyer started our journey while they finished prepping our table. I had told Mom we were going to a spot with "small plates," and even after walking in past the inconspicuous logo, being welcomed by staff and wished "Happy Birthday," it still took me leading her with "you don't know where you are, do you?" for her to realize she was finally living her dream of dining at SingleThread. There were many happy, incredulous tears at the table. <3 :)
Since the menu was set and paid for, we just had to choose wine. Mom and I opted for the broadest slate of pairings possible, choosing one "standard" wine pairing and one "reserve" pairing, so we could trade off and taste a much as possible. Grand cru Champagne occupied both of our glasses first. For the regular pairing, a 2012 Dom Perignon. But even more wild, for the reserve pairing, a 2008 Krug, their current vintage release. Both amazing, but the Krug had a mighty intensity I've never experienced before in Champagne.
A meal at SingleThread always begins with possibly the most artistic and stunning presentation in all of fine dining, with tiny dishes strewn across a veritable garden of plants and flowers both foraged and grown at the farm of Chef's wife, Katina. I had taken painstaking measures at both of my previous interactions with this course to take copious notes for reporting. This time, I just let myself enjoy the "journey through autumn in Sonoma" without worrying about all the details. Allow yourself to enjoy the photos, being content that they are all wonderful looking and tasting.
Par for the course, midway through our conquest of the melange of cold dishes before us, a pair of warm bites arrived at our table, along with the instruction to focus on them due to their temperature sensitivity. The one I've seen in each meal is their malted potato purée with some mélange of accompaniments. I can't emphasize enough how impossibly delicious this is every time.
The post-bubbly pairings began with two delightful old-world whites––one from the Loire Valley and another from Germany. Arnaud Lambert makes glorious chenin blanc from parcels just south of Saumur in the the Loire. Their Clos de la Rue boasts limestone soils and a bit more oak than Lambert's other wines, giving this complex white some wonderful concentration and weight. Meanwhile, a riesling from K. F. Groebe teemed with exotic fruits and lemongrass, with fruit from what is considered their grand cru site. Fantastic choices.
Shima aji is a striped jack with some lovely heft nearly reminiscent of a fattier mackerel bite. In the spirit of a Japanese kaiseki meal, Chef Kyle started us out with a beautiful basket enclosing several pieces of shima aji sashimi curled into little vessels for gooseberry, passionfruit, cucumber, and other magnificent, fresh things. Unimaginably delicious, and a perfect palate reset for the heftier courses to come.
The first local pairing was next––Lioco makes a breathtaking portfolio of wines that are frankly impossible to keep track of, but the sommelier team at ST seems to agree that the chardonnay from Tidal Break vineyard, sitting in the shadow of a Buddhist monastery just three miles from the coast, is their finest work. The ocean air produces a wine of remarkable freshness, salinity, and acidity, perfect with seafood courses. From the old world, the reserve pairing presented a chardonnay from première cru sites in Saint-Aubin, the producer Pascal Clément crafting a transparent wine resplendent with acidity and aromatics of flowers and candied citrus.
The next dish resembled one I'd had during each prior meal at SingleThread, and also featured an ingredient I've seen at many a sushi omakase or kaiseki meal––black cod, smoked before our eyes in a donabe called an ibushi-gin, this time served with late-season cherry tomatoes, pickled pearl onions, and a tomato dashi, as well as heirloom smoked sesame seeds for a crust. This is routinely some of my favorite of SingleThread's work––they delicately smoke the pristine fish over aromatic ingredients like hay and dried flowers, lending a remarkable nuance to the malleable cod flesh, with the flavors of ripe and savory heirloom tomatoes.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is among both my favorite names and and also wine regions in France. La Crau, the rocky plateau upon which Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe's vines grow, is considered by many to be the best site in the AOC. Their blanc is anchored by clairette blanche and grenache blanc, with notes of anise and creamy fruits underlying a salinity evocative of the rocky soils. Alongside, a vibrant friulano from cult producer Borgo del Tiglio lent a grassy and citrusy pairing for the fatty duck liver course to come. Still... eight wines so far, and only one from Sonoma County?
As mentioned, a duck liver mousse came next, served below a salad with crisp greens perfect for scoops of the decadent foie and crumbled pistachios and little bursts of finger lime. Alongside, a truffle and miso cake incorporated with pear paired perfectly with the salad and mousse.
You will always have sake at SingleThread, and it will always be some of the most spectacular sake you can get in the States. The first was a particularly cool project from Ninki Shuzo––rice from the Central Valley of California is fermented with Japanese mountain water from Fukushima for a full-bodied sake replete with luscious tropical fruit and a clean finish. The second uses a very time-intensive method to separate the sake from the lees, where no pressure is applied and the sake simply drips to separate, resulting in what is widely believed to be the purest manifestation of sake. This "Divine Droplets" sake from Toko was much more restrained and nuanced than the Uka––with intense aromas of peach skins and pepper. I will say I was a bit bummed that they seem to have done away with their rather charming practice of allowing each diner to select a sake cup from among Kyle and Katina's collection; it was always a fun part of a meal here and played right in to the selfless hospitality that is such a hallmark of SingleThread's ethos.
Appropriate for the sake pairing, the next course featured some deeply traditional and treasured Japanese techniques and ingredients, the focus being the revered matsutake mushroom. Matsutake commands an almost religious following in Japan, and it is notoriously difficult to find and essentially impossible to cultivate because it grows only in "disrupted" pine forests, like those that have been logged or burned––this makes it expensive and has also nourished an entire culture and trade surrounding its harvesting and distribution (I strongly recommend the engrossing anthropological tome The Mushroom at the End of the World from Anna Tsing for a look into the wild world of the matsutake trade).
But first, a slice of pristine amadai, a tiny type of sea bream, with crispy scales presented in a sunchoke purée.
Alongside came the real centerpiece of the course: a donabe hot-pot lightly bubbling with matsutake, silken tofu, and pine nut. As the donabe heated up, the tofu slowly disintegrated into the matsutake-scented broth, making for a creamy, subtle, and comforting soup. Sublime.
Following the "pine" theme, the next little nibble served as a palate cleanser before the "main" course to come. A granita of sudachi (an aromatic Japanese citrus), ginger, and honey was served over a crumble of pine nuts, served in a donabe full of ice and beautiful conifer boughs. The pine boughs were nostalgia-inducing, triggering memories of my wonderful meal with the SingleThread team in my home of Utah where they used various conifers from the property to decorate the dishes.
Red wine was next for the coming duck course, with pinot from both Sonoma County and Burgundy. The "reserve" pairing leaned once again into old world producers with a première cru from Volnay. Domaine Tawse treats this pinot from the acclaimed Frémiets vineyard with 50% whole-cluster fermentation, resulting in an intensely perfumed and expressive wine with some excellent tension and depth. While the somm seemed like he felt begrudgingly obligated to put a Sonoma pinot on the pairing slate, he happened to pour one of my favorite producers from a very coastal site, Peay. Their Ama pinot is their middle-ground offering in terms of body and concentration, and this 2013 was absolutely spectacular––to my mind, far more interesting than the Volnay despite the somm seeming to brush it off when compared to the Burgundy.
Chef Kyle does filthy things with duck––this Duclair duck breast was magnificently cooked with a perfectly crispy skin, served with late-season Jimmy Nardello peppers, potato purée, zingy shiso, and duck jus. Nothing fancy here, and no reinventing of the wheel. Just damn good duck, and once again one of the best pieces of the bird I've tasted.
You'll always close the savory courses at SingleThread with grains and a cut of incredibly fatty meat, so the biggest of the red wines close out the pre-dessert pairing slate. The standard pairing offered a fascinating wine from Ronchi di Cialla made from ribolla nera, a grape the proprietor brought back from near-extinction. It's spicy, racy, and concentrated––a wonderful red that reminded me of an aged merlot. The other was the first (!) local wine in the reserve pairing, from one of the most spectacular producers in Sonoma, Radio-Coteau. Syrah from cool climates is sort of like my scandalous side mistress in my marriage to pinot noir, and this 2013 Timberline Syrah from the Russian River Valley was perhaps the most compelling example I've had, with lush fruit, pepper, and a good amount of oak. A stunner.
In Japan, "shime" refers to the last dish after a long meal with alcohol––this was what I believe I remember as a sort of rice porridge with sourdough and green onion cream and a little "taco" with short rib, all seasoned with bright green peppercorn. A wonderful way to close the meal, and I clung to every last drop of the Radio-Coteau in a forlorn hope the savory portion of the meal wouldn't end.
Sauternes is a classic dessert wine from the Graves region of Bordeaux. Made from semillon, it is highly regarded as a dessert-pairing wine for its dance between honeyed sweetness and remarkable, food-friendly acidity. You know you are dealing with a landmark producer when the younger Sauternes is part of the reserve pairing––Château d'Yquem is widely considered the greatest producer of Sauternes, and their 2007 a killer vintage, while the standard pairing deployed a 1999 from Lafaurie-Peyraguey. The '99 was much sweeter and less nuanced, while the d'Yquem had a bit more restraint and nuance, with notes of earthy straw underlying the vibrant acidity of the wine.
Dessert at SingleThread usually consists of one composed course and a set of little dessert bites called wagashi mirroring the presentation of small bites at the beginning of the meal. The dessert course this evening was a green grape cannoli made with grains of paradise and creamy vanilla, given a heady herbaceous note with a dusting of Japanese green tea.
Wagashi closed the meal––four little bites: a spice apple and almond "egg" enclosed in a shea butter shell, a Japanese-style sweet rice cracker called senbei made with black sugar and huckleberry, a tart of dark chocolate and oak smoke, and a sinfully sweet barhi date crusted with soy flour crisps. Always a wonderful way to close the meal.
Many restaurants in this mould will send you away with a little bite to enjoy later; SingleThread sends you away with seeds from their farm. I didn't plant them this year, but I look forward to cultivating them next spring and summer!
SingleThread has rightly claimed the crown for the pinnacle of fine dining in Northern California's wine country, a particular honor given the staggering depth of amazing food out here. The French Laundry is old hat and Meadowood is still under construction; SingleThread is where it's at, and even the wellest-heeled of the well-heeled visitors to Napa will break through the mighty metaphysical barrier between Napa and Sonoma to sample it.
The problem is that SingleThread knows that. And they're kinda acting like they know it, too.
Many Healdsburg residents see SingleThread as the most salient manifestation of the Napa-ization of Sonoma, with their hometown at the epicenter, and it really bums them out. Million-dollar condos and $800/night hotels are replacing single family homes built decades ago. Amongst the shops along the charming square in central Healdsburg, it's rare to find a piece of clothing for anything near what someone might call a reasonable price. Some wineries around Healdsburg, in particular, look more and more like Napa both in terms of attitude and price. And I have personally met zero––yes, zero––residents of Healdsburg who have dined at SingleThread.
The first time I went to SingleThread, the whole culinary world was abuzz with what they were doing and what they represent. They'd collected three Michelin stars in two years. They were doing some of the most curated, ethical, and hyper-local ingredient sourcing in California––again, that's saying a lot out here. I heard positive things about the restaurant and their investments in the community from many people in the area. Moreover, their approach to hospitality was anything but uppity or pretentious, and the Japanese spirit of selflessness pervaded literally every interaction I had with their employees. Hell, they got me into wineries I'd otherwise only dream of visiting, curating my entire tasting itinerary for the week, just because I was to be a dinner guest there.
But this time, the vibe just wasn't quite the same. And despite everything that's still magical, there was just something a little gross.
Let's start with the menu price––the first time I dined here, just three years and change before, the menu was nearly a third less expensive. Their current price puts them in line with the most expensive restaurants in the world. Perhaps they know they're the game in wine country now, or perhaps their corporate relationships with luxury entities like the ritzy Chase Sapphire Reserve Credit Card has altered their perspective on the business (many of their special meals are "presented by" Chase, and some reservations are only available for certain credit card holders, something that is increasingly common at higher-end restaurants and a practice that makes me sick––"You only get to dine here if you have this credit card" is one of the most despicable instances of gatekeeping for principled food I can possibly imagine, and its increasing prominence in an already exclusive space should terrify any food lover without a seven-figure income).
The best example of SingleThread's evolution in the wrong direction, however, is not the more-exorbitant-than-before price, but the wine program.
By ordering both the "standard" and "reserve" pairing, Mom and I sampled every wine they pair with their menus––nearly 20 wines. Three (!) of these wines were from Sonoma County, one of the best wine regions in the world. Three. And those were the only new world wines served.
One of the things I loved so much about SingleThread's concept the first time I visited is their flagship pairing slate consisted of almost entirely local wines (I kicked myself afterward for going with the "reserve" pairing that time around, which was almost all old-world). And why not, of course? You have hundreds of world-class wineries at your doorstep, and supporting them is a direct investment in the community, the same community responsible for bringing visitors to this little hamlet 90 minutes north of San Francisco in the first place. Instead, this time, while this wine team is naturally best-in-class and chose phenomenal wines perfectly paired with each morsel of food, the vast majority of wines were old world––and this choice was made by a restaurant in wine country! Why does restaurant professing its strong ties to the local community need to fly a bunch of wine in from France and Italy (a very environmentally-unfriendly choice, too, for a restaurant that professes to value sustainability) when they have dozens, even hundreds, of wines that would pair just as well with their food within mere miles of their doorstep?
In fact, their engagement with their small community is one of the things I found so beguiling about SingleThread when I first visited. The same winery at which they organized your tasting that morning might have provided the pairing with your sashimi course at the restaurant that evening, or the duck you're eating might have come from a farm literal minutes from their storefront. Some of that sourcing is still intact, of course, but I'm suspicious now that SingleThread's closest friends are corporate sponsors like Chase and Audi, and not the little local winery making 500 pristine cases of Sonoma Coast pinot out of a warehouse in Windsor or the farm providing their pastured beef. Local bottles might be buried in their wine list, which admittedly is saturated with such producers, but they sure aren't the focus of the flagship pairing program anymore, which is the most visible manifestation of their beverage program's philosophies. Remarkably, it would be easy to forget you're in Sonoma when you're dining here now, whereas before they never would have let you forget where you were, and why that was important to them. It may have been easier, in fact, to have seen this dinner here having taken place in New York City than the middle of California wine country.
But the bottom line is the food here is still probably the best in the country. It's principled, thoughtful, inventive, pristine, surprising, and ultimately magnificent––every bite. The service is also still delightful––mostly chill and unstuffy, and overall pitch-perfect. And even these old world wines that are the object of my ire are pretty damn great; I'd go as far as to say that given the quality of the wines they serve, even with their standard pairing, this is one of the wine programs at this tier with the best bang-for-your-buck in the world.
Still, it makes me so sad that many restaurants I hold in such high esteem for their principled approach to fine dining are increasingly selling out to cater to the wealthiest extremes of their clientele, and teaming with corporate players, especially banks, that seem directly anathema to the values the espouse. Fine dining is an exclusive world, to be sure, and that's something everyone involved in the trade needs to grapple with, but a restaurant that has embedded so many of their roots in the local culture and community has a particular opportunity to resist the increasing exclusivity and corporatization of the space. While I'm sure I will dine here again, it's rather disheartening to see SingleThread, a restaurant particularly poised to hold their own against these currents, instead succumb to them.