- SingleThread Farms Restaurant
- 131 North St, Healdsburg, CA
- 6 January, 2019
SingleThread Farms, deep in Sonoma wine country north of the Bay Area, is the brain child of Chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, farmer Katina Connaughton. Kyle earned his stripes at some of the world’s finest restaurants under the genius of some of the world’s greatest chefs, but it was his time in Japan and position at Michel Bras’ restaurant in Hokkaido that most influenced the way he thinks about food. Meanwhile, Katina immersed herself in sustainable, artisan farming practices while working on a strawberry farm in Hokkaido. Together, they have brought their ultimate vision to life in this restaurant, inn, and farm: an entire, immersive experience of hospitality in the Japanese tradition with the finest, hyper-local ingredients California has to offer. The restaurant, open for just two years, earned a third Michelin star this year, a surely unprecedented skyrocket to the highest culinary strata.
The Michelin Guide, which has little to do with the rotund tire dude (although it is the same company, and if you dine at too many of these restaurants you might start to resemble said tire dude) is considered by many to be the definitive guide to the very best restaurants in the cities in which the guide is circulated. Now, this is, of course, controversial, as is any rating system for restaurants. The Michelin Guide, the “50 Best” listing, Zagat… all of these have tremendous flaws in their methodologies, and their ratings are often contentious. However, this is somewhat intrinsic to the food world, which is very subjective and taste-specific, and while I don’t excuse the more pernicious of these biases in Michelin (for example, it tends to be a sort of “boys club” that overlooks many extraordinary female chefs, as does the culinary world at large), I do believe that it is, at least in the western world, a good general guideline for the quality of the food being produced at a restaurant.
Michelin defines stars this way: one star is “[a] very good restaurant in its category;” two stars is “[e]xcellent cooking, worth a detour;” and three stars, the highest honor bestowed by Michelin, denotes “[e]xceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” I’ve been lucky enough to dine at seven of the US’s three-star restaurants (and one more that used to be three but is now two) since my “culinary revolution” in college, and five of those have been in the Bay Area. That left me with three of these extraordinary restaurants to visit in the Bay Area, and I had the chance to check one of them off the list on this trip.
Describing SingleThread is a nearly impossible exercise. Every detail is so meticulously thought out and well-conceived that you could not possibly write, or even know, about it all. We are talking everything from the twelve screens (each representing a month of the year) that divide the dining room, woven in patterns that are derived from the DNA of a seasonal vegetable, to the tiles forged from clay near the farm, and knives made from the wood of the farm’s resident trees. It is all in the service of their hyper-local narrative, as well as the spirit of Japanese omotenashi, the “spirit of selfless hospitality, anticipating needs without having to be asked."
I wrapped up my wine tastings around 5:30 and took a drive around town before grabbing some shellfish at a local raw bar to tide me over before my 9PM meal at SingleThread. Because the reservation was so late, and since I had been up (and tasting wine!) since 7AM, I took a nap in my car (lol) to make sure I was not fatigued during the meal, though the sleep was not super useful since I was kinda concerned a cop might come tapping on the window. I was anxiously watching every minute on the clock before it finally became time to make my way to the SingleThread storefront.
They knew who I was when I entered just a few minutes before my 9PM reservation, and addressed me immediately, “You must be Dr. Knell, congratulations and welcome!” (I had told them I was celebrating completing my doctoral coursework last month). The emphasis on total, unpretentious hospitality had been apparent to me from first contact with the staff here when I asked to be placed on the reservation waitlist. They even went out of their way to set me up with the wine tasting appointments I experienced during the day, all for the low price of zero dollars.
After surrendering my coat, I was directed to a window looking into the kitchen from the foyer where I chatted with one of the cooks and was served a tea of ginger and “holy” basil. I had been chilled to the bone all day because of the cold and rainy weather and cool wine warehouses, and it was really wonderful to have something warm to welcome me. The tea was flavorful and delicious, and also helped cleanse my palate that was overworked from tasting about 40 wines throughout the day!
They led me into the dining room and sat me in the middle of the main space to the side of the beautiful plants in the center, which they rotate based on what is in season (Katina also grows flowers at the farm). The room is warm and comfortably designed, with an almost art-deco meets 70s meet Japanese styling (in the best way possible). The tables have a lovely brass inlay at their center, although mine wasn't exactly flush with the table, which made for some awkward wobbling of dishes.
Already on my table sat this stunning centerpiece of grasses, leaves, moss, firs, and a bunch of tiny dishes containing canapés hidden within the greenery. Atop my napkin was a small seasonal bouquet, which they tied to my menu and returned to me at the end of the meal. There were… count them… ten “cold” bites in this little forest, all meant to be snapshots of “Early Winter in Sonoma.” I had to take my tiny notebook out to remember what each was. In clockwise order, starting center left:
Kyoto carrots from the farm with cubes of sweet potato vinegar gelée and pea tendrils
Local Dungeness crab with shaved rind of Buddha’s hand (a wild-looking citrus)
A lightly pickled Shigoku oyster with wasabi
Young lettuce from the farm with a “soil” of black sesame and chicory, and herb tofu
Delicata squash from the farm with walnut and miso
Santa Barbara spiny lobster served with sea grapes and coral (coral…???)
Madai (sea bream) with preserved plum from last season
Shima aji (striped jack) with kombu (seaweed) and scallion
Parsnip panna cotta with shiso cream and bay scallop
Geoduck clam with kombu and cucumber
I gotta say, I was delighted but a bit overwhelmed at this point by the sheer volume of things in front of me. What a surprise, then, when THREE MORE little bites (this time “hot” bites) showed up, just when I’d started on the young lettuce. Had to make a detour from the cold dishes to enjoy these while hot:
Shima aji with a spaghetti squash maki roll
Softboiled egg from the farm and custard with aged cheese and shaved black truffle
Aerated purée of multiple types of farm potatoes with smoked kanpachi (amberjack) and preserved lemon (I wrote in my notebook “holy fuck”)
The sommelier, Alex, had introduced himself while I was navigating the first of the “cold” canapés, and poured the first of my “reserve” pairings: a 2006 Gérard Boulay “Clos de Beaujeu” Sancerre, the OG sauvignon blanc. The age on this sauv blanc really helped mellow out and balance the feisty acidity I’m used to from the grape, and produced a complex and expressive wine. “One of the greats,” Alex called it. Here’s the amazing thing: the Sancerre paired beautifully with literally every. single. one. of the 13 canapés. At a place like this, I don’t think that was an accident. My glass drained quickly, so had Alex pour a second glass for me so I could enjoy a few sips with each of the dishes.
45 minutes later, I’d already had an absolute feast of different and incredible flavors, and I was feeling a little on the overwhelmed side of things, yet had TEN full courses to go! Alex returned with a Riesling from one of my FAVE producers in the Mosel, a German wine region––Dr. H. Thanisch in Bernkasteler. The Thanisch family has been making wines since the 1600s, and Hugo Thanisch, who founded this label in 1895, left the winery to his widow. Since then, the winery’s ownership and oversight has been passed down to generation after generation of women in the Thanisch family. So awesome. They make everything from approachable $15–
20 bottles to high end, sought-after wines, and the Badstube vineyard grows some of the most prized grapes in the Mosel.
I love a Riesling with age, and this 2000 had really started to show off the potential of the grape to create complex wines of crazy depth. Since it’s almost 19 years old, the climate was much cooler in the Mosel than it is today, so sweeter Rieslings (Spätlese and Auslese) were more common and prized. This Spätlese had a honeyed and dried-fruit sweetness and present but not overwhelmig citrus acidity combined with the funk, complexity, and hint of oxidation and petrol consistent with the wine’s age.
This was paired with a simple and beautiful preparation of raw Akabana kanpachi (amberjack) with some winter citrus, like blood orange and grapefruit, a bit of Meyer lemon curd, and a “snow” made of frozen sorrel. The citrus and kanpachi played very well together, bringing citrus to the forefront of the Riesling’s flavor profile, while the sorrel had a lovely and bright herbaceous quality. In the middle of the dish there was this lovely little pungent wasabi moment that tied everything together, and sorta made me wish there was a touch more of it throughout!
“Fire, the wheel, and Grand Cru Champagne” says Alex as he pours for me a glass of Egly-Ouriet 2007 Brut Grand Cru Champagne from Ambonnay. This was a showstopper, with a pinot-leaning grape profile that added the expected body and a nice brightness from the remaining chardonnay. Nutty, with the brioche notes I love in a good pinot-focused Champagne, but simultaneously beautifully balanced by the brighter chardonnay, I was very taken with this particular wine, and must have gulped it down fairly quickly, because as soon as my glass was empty, before I could put it down, Alex was there with another pour.
Caviar is the standard complement to Champagne, and SingleThread sources this white sturgeon caviar from a company in Sacramento that farms it sustainably. The dollop of caviar was a sidepiece, however, to a few gorgeously tender slices of red abalone from Monterrey Bay, served atop a celtuce cream and salsify, and topped with slices of celtuse and a powder of dried wild seaweed. This was outstanding––creamy and decadent without being heavy-handed, with the richer root vegetables and caviar doing most of the umami work themselves.
My server explained that the next course was so special this year because it was rather unexpected. Apparently, the rain they’ve been having in northern Cal recently has given rise to little wild mushrooms much earlier than they normally expect them, and these tiny morels, chanterelles, and black trumpets (literally my three favorite mushrooms) had just been harvested from the forests on the north coast. On the plate, they presented the mushrooms along with some tiny shavings of young turnips, pine nuts, and a pine nut tuile, and, revealed in a danabe, a house made Kyoto-style silken tofu to add, spooning a generous portion on the other side of the bowl. This was topped off with a (slightly scant) pour of ponzu that they aged in a chardonnay barrel from a local winery and infused with shiitake mushroom essence. Every bite was just absurd; the tofu was creamy and silky, but not too rich for the fungus to shine, and the 2015 Francois Guisson Meursault, as Burgundian chardonnay often does, paired beautifully with the full umami of the mushroom and characteristic rich flavor of the pine nut.
I know little about roussanne, the varietal that was served as the next wine pairing, but Alex explained that he believed it would be the eventual "replacement" of chardonnay in California, since chard is finicky and requires a lot of extra care and even added steps to make beautifully, while roussanne achieves a lot of the same nutty richness of chard naturally as it ages, and is suited to the CA climate. This 2014 Domaine de la Grange des Pères from the Languedoc on the southern coast of France is from a cult winery, and the roussanne was gorgeous, with the sort of hazelnut richness that Alex described and a lovely, nuanced and aromatic mineral note. I need to start exploring this varietal!
The next course was a roulade (kinda like a big slice of sausage) of local guinea hen and foie gras, served with a few preparations of sunchoke (purée with vanilla bean, crumble with sesame and broccoli blossom, and twice-fried), broccoli, and guinea hen jus. Although still very good, this was my least favorite course––I found that the foie didn't add the richness I expected and the jus was just a shade on the too-salty side. I really liked each of the sunchoke preparations, however, especially the purée with vanilla bean that augmented the nice sweetness of the sunchoke.
I was next presented with a selection of clay sake cups to choose from, and I chose the simplest and "humblest" one, which Alex and I joked was like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (the cup of a carpenter), for my aged daiginjo sake. Aged sake is pretty darn rare these days, and this Dewazakura "Snow Country" sake from Yamagata is aged in Japanese clay vessels under the goddamn snow for five years. What the hell. The sake was complex and full with some nice tropical fruit, and the presentation was absolutely stunning.
The dish that was paired with the sake may be the most carefully thought out dish I have ever had, brimming with a delicate Japanese-inspired nuance and presenting constantly evolving flavors. This black cod had been lightly smoked over cherry blossoms––yes, cherry blossoms––and then brushed with miso and bruléed (torched). They served the cod with some beautiful Bloomsdale spinach from the farm, yuba (tofu skin), a few slices of raw matsutake mushroom, scallions, and an herbal dashi broth with essence of lemongrass and lemon verbena. The fish was flaky and elegant, and had a nice sweetness from the miso, while the lemongrass in the dashi provided a perfect aromatic foil. Delicate and absolutely incredible.
Time for red wine, and as I'd hoped, it was pinot noir, and from Burgundy at that! The silky, elegant Burgundian-style pinots are my absolute favorite, and this 2009 Domaine Faiveley Chambolle-Musigny "Les Fuées" 1er Cru hit the spot. Beautiful strawberry aromas with a subtle earthy, mushroom-like component, and as smooth and silky as they come on the palate. I wanted more and more.
So Burgundy is great... but this fucking duck, y'all. They get it from a farm in Sonoma that primarily raises rabbits (go figure) and served it with sliced duck heart, roasted and puréed butternut, honeynut, and koginut squash, a crumble of pepitas and sesame, and a little "boat" of pearl onion (look at that cute thing!!), with chervil oil and vegetable jus dotted over the squash purée. I could not get enough of this duck. The skin was crispy, perfectly seasoned, and SO flavorful, and there was a thin layer of duck fat that wasn't overwhelming but added a characteristic umami-laden richness to the tender meat. I have never had better duck––it had just the right amount of gaminess, and that crispy skin and decadent duck fat... I'll have dreams about it for years to come, and the silky but earthy Burgundy was perfectly paired.
Cool fact, too––the knives they give guests for their meat dishes are from dear old Athens, Georgia, and are made from harvested trees from the Sonoma farm and repurposed metal from a 1968 VW bus. So wild!
The final savory course of the night was one that regularly appears in various forms on the menu: seasonal Sonoma grains. This iteration was purple barley, cooked and puffed, various permutations of pear, chestnuts, and the most beautiful (but almost offensively tiny) piece of short rib I've ever seen––cooked 72 hours and marbled to the nines. They paired this with a R. Rostaing 1998 Côte-Rôtie, a very traditional syrah which had aged nicely and was medium-bodied and perfectly balanced between bright, clean fruit and subtle mineral funk. The issue is that there was so little short rib in the dish that it was difficult to combine all the flavors, and the syrah didn't speak particularly well with the barley alone, but otherwise the course was, much like the rest of them, delicious, and the perfect way to end the savory portion of the menu on a cold and rainy January night.
As a nice palate-cleansing first dessert, I was served a sorbet of beet root atop a fermented black rice purée, accompanied by an olive oil "marshmallow" meringue, black sesame and chocolate crumble, and pomegranate seeds. I love when desserts have dual elements of sweet and salty, and the salinity of the fermented black rice was glorious with the sweeter elements of the dish. I gotta say I was kinda like "okay cool it with the sesame" after seeing it on so many of the courses, but I definitely get how it speaks to the Japanese essence of the place.
My dessert wine for the night was a Vouvray (chenin blanc) from Domaine des Clos Naudin, 2011 vintage––this is one of three or so vintages that produced wines that were so good that the winemaker dubbed "droplets of gold." The wine was sweet but not overwhelming, and loaded with green apple aromas, acidity, and flavor.
The dessert I neglected to photograph (as I did with the second and third course, but was thankfully bailed out by the folks at the table next to me) but consisted of Sonoma sweet cream ice cream served with various apple preparations (oh look, perfect w the Vouvray!), miso, barley, and a crazy thin arlette pastry tuile. Simple and delicious.
As the last course (weep) of the night, I was presented with some beautiful final bites (wagashi) served in a sort of truncated version of the presentation from the beginning. Here we had a chestnut cream truffle, burnt honey custard with blood orange, a Thai rooibos tea ganache with puffed amaranth and (again) sesame, and the winner, a delicate white chocolate egg with "golden milk" inside, which is flavored with turmeric, ginger, and (guess what) sesame. Since I had a bit of a drive back to the city, I elected for a rich Guatemalan coffee "curated" by Sparrow Coffee, which I can only assume is a local roaster.
As I left, I was presented with the menu, a handwritten note from Kyle and Katina, the little seasonal bouquet on my napkin at the beginning (which I couldn't take to China, so left for my AirBnb hosts), which was tied around the menu, and seeds for beets that came from the farm.
There was truly nothing that stood out as "bad" about this meal, and there were no "misses" that took me out of the total atmosphere and magnificence of the experience. My only criticism, besides the stupid and ridiculous disappointment I had that I didn't get like an extra glass of Champagne or some little treat as part of a meal "celebrating" finishing my coursework, is that the first course had just SO many things that it was pretty a overwhelming way to begin everything. The other thing I will say is that I wish I had done the standard wine pairings rather than the reserve pairings. The reserve pairings, while magnificent, were all old-world, classic wines, while the regular pairings are much more in line with Kyle and Katina's hyperlocal philosophy. As I listened to Alex describing them to the table behind me, the standard pairing wines looked immensely more interesting than the magnificent but classic reserve wines, which I think suits a place like this. I was actually a bit surprised and disappointed to not see any local or even domestic wine in the lineup, since they surely can find exceptional local producers that produce library wines worthy of a "reserve" pairing. Next time I go, I will definitely stick to the standard pairing.
Is this the best meal I have ever had? Very possibly. The spirit that they strive to embrace is in every detail, from the hyperlocal focus of the ingredients (and the way these details manifest themselves in other elements, like decor and even flatware) to the spirit of "total hospitality" that comes through in the convivial and unpretentious service and other things like the kindness of arranging private wine tastings for me during the day of my meal (and at places I'd never have been able to get into otherwise). The details and nuances of the food are so meticulous and precise, and it creates thoughtful, elegant, and nearly always perfectly executed food that the culinary world at home and abroad will be talking about for a long, long time.
More than any place I've eaten, this place deserves the three Michelin stars and numerous other accolades it has garnered in just two years of being open. Michelin says that three-star restaurants are "worth a special journey." I can think of no restaurant where I more agree with that sentiment than SingleThread. I hope I get many chances to make that special journey to dine here, and take family and friends with whom to share this magical place.