Usu-Zan by SingleThread at Blue Sky Ranch – Wanship, UT
It was a frigid evening and I was about three cocktails deep when a well-agorithmed article found its way to my feed––"SingleThread brings its Usu-Zan experience to Sundance." I fired off the article to my best foodie couple friends in Salt Lake City, Melia and JR, not necessarily expecting a phone call from JR thirty minutes later. "I mean... we kinda have to, right? Could you make it out here?"
An hour later, after some feigned "negotiation" and "hand-wringing," we'd snagged a table for three.
SingleThread, you may recall, was one of the first places featured on this self-same blog back in January of 2019, and was probably the best meal I'd had up until this fall's visit to Noma. Kyle and Katina Connaughton left the UK, where Kyle was working under the great Heston Blumenthal at Fat Duck, for Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, where Kyle took a post in Michel Bras' local kitchen and Katina embarked on biodynamic strawberry farming. Hokkaido had a profound effect on both of them, and their time in Japan laid the groundwork for their new project in Sonoma County, SingleThread, a restaurant, farm, and inn bringing Japanese hospitality, cooking, and ingredients to the brilliant hyper-seasonal produce and proteins of fertile Sonoma County. It earned three Michelin stars within two years of being open.
The "Usu-Zan" experience was SingleThread's second foray into post-pandemic, outdoor dining at their property in Healdsburg. Named after the small volcano near the town where they both worked in Hokkaido, the same volcano whose mineral-rich lava created soils which gave rise to the amazing biodiversity of the area's crops, the experience is an homage to the majesty and bounty of the island. Using a wealth of seasonal seafood, beef, and other products from Hokkaido, many of which were curated by local producers with whom the Connaughtons built relationships during their time in Hokkaido, paired with produce from their Sonoma farm and their neighbors, Usu-Zan is a holistic exploration of the culinary ecosystems and traditions of Hokkaido with SingleThread's hyper-local Sonoma Country twist.
I tried to get a table for one in May 2021 during a visit out west, but was rebuffed because the cornerstone of the meal, a Hokkaido-style donabe hot pot, is a decidedly family-style experience only suitable for sharing with two or more. I was glad to find some ever-rare companions this go around!
Sundance Film Festival obviously takes place in Northern Utah, and Blue Sky Ranch, fifteen minutes up the freeway from Sundance's home in Park City, outside a tiny hamlet called Wanship, is one of the most stunning, luxurious, wild-west-style resorts in the country. Catering to what was sure to be a well-heeled Sundance crowd, SingleThread decided to bring the Usu-Zan experience to Blue Sky. Holding tickets for this dinner, the three of us were thrilled to see that even when Sundance canceled their in-person events because of omicron, SingleThread stuck to their guns and hauled their entire operation out to the Wasatch Mountains.
We arrived by complimentary Audi Q5 at Blue Sky's event barn, stunningly decorated by the SingleThread team with natural elements evocative of Hokkaido and northern Utah, including conifer branches from all over the property. Traditional Japanese music was playing, and stunning Japanese prints of fish, which of course SingleThread brought with them, decorated the walls. They even brought their furniture from Healdsburg!
SingleThread is all about hospitality, and the warm welcome we received from every member of the front of house staff was entirely consistent with their ethos. We were sat around a table in a cordoned-off lounge in the front of the building for some tea and canapés––a standard welcome at SingleThread also features herbal tea before you enter the dining room to warm you up. The tea was steeped pineapple sage from their rooftop garden in Healdsburg, and had a complex, earthy, and herbaceous warmth that quickly conquered the northern Utah chill.
In addition to our tea, we were served one of each of two small canapés in a beautiful bowl full of snow and winter Utah foliage. Shigoku oysters from Washington were laced with yuzu, olive oil, and sudachi (a small green citrus), an impossibly perfect combination of flavors. Second, in small wraps of cabbage from the farm were perched squares of bluefin otoro garnished with pickled wasabi stem. Delicious, and a joyful welcome to the evening before we were brought into the stunning open dining room, with giant barn windows looking outside at the snow-covered Wasatch foothills. Adorning our table was a spectacular centerpiece filled with tiny bites and bouquets of cedar and pine from the ranch grounds, which we’d be gifted at the end of our meal along with our menus.
SingleThread always presents their opening course in the same way––a head-spinning amount of tiny cold dishes perched in various locations across a centerpiece that is itself a work of art, decorated with wild foliage from the property. It was particularly impressive to see the arrangement for three people strewn across the table, a veritable scavenger hunt of delicious things.
This time, rather than try to take notes and conquer the course relatively quickly, I took a recording of the server telling us about the dishes so as to have the opportunity to enjoy it without worrying about writing it all down, and the three of us took our time to converse between each bite and enjoy the regular refills of vintage 2012 Dom Pérignon. I found this more leisurely approach to be far more enjoyable and complete than the rushed, overwhelming tactics I used last time, notebook in hand and worried I wasn’t moving quickly enough for the waitstaff. We approached ninety minutes conquering the sum of these bites.
In order of the photos below:
Taizushi with snappy tai (sea bream) wrapped around pesto rice.
Pickled aji (mackerel) with ginger.
Fluke crudo, wrapped around braised burdock and carrot.
Carrot panna cotta topped with caviar (omfg).
Shima aji, quince, quince-miso purée.
A5 wagyu tartare.
Sawara with red Kuri squash.
Salmon, in a type of sashimi from Hokkaido where the fish is frozen beforehand, resulting in a melty texture.
There was also a dish of cauliflower from the farm with citrus and almond-miso dressing that I neglected to photograph. Whoops!
Congruent with my previous experience at SingleThread, midway through our journey through the garden of small cold dishes, we were each brought three hot dishes to enjoy right away, as they were temperature sensitive. The first two were tempura of cod milt roe and a dish of yuba, or tofu "skin," though I apparently didn't take notes on either of their accoutréments.
The last hot dish may have been the bite of the night. Miso-glazed cod, just barely cooked until it gave way to large flakes, was topped with a sort of togarashi spice and smoked in juniper from the property. This reminded me of the cod dish I enjoyed at SingleThread in 2019, which was delicately smoked over cherry blossoms. The coniferous smoke that emerged from the donabe when the lid was removed was enough to knock your socks off, but the cod itself, with the sweetness of miso, herbal spice of the togarashi condiment, and subtle smoke of the cedar, was, in the words of JR, “wildly successful.”
Oh, and here’s the Dom, which we likely nearly finished by ourselves!
You could have an entire meal of these small courses alone––I have had entire dinners that took half the amount of time this course did to finish. Each is thoughtful, stunningly presented, and a beautiful marriage of Japanese seafood and techniques and Sonoma produce.
But, lucky for us, much more was to come. SingleThread partnered with two nearly-brand-new wineries in Sonoma County for this dinner, each yielding small production, boutique wines worthy to be held against those of the most storied Sonoma producers. With the second course, a Riesling, called “Prism no. 2,” from SingleThread’s literal neighbor, Reeve, was served, taking fruit from the highest ridges of the Mendocino coast, a perfect environment for a grape which flourishes in areas of significant diurnal temperature shifts. The Riesling was dry and classic and could have been mistaken for a young Mosel Riesling of the highest caliber. Green and yellow fruits, flowers, generous acidity, and the distinct “petrol” aroma of the grape permeated the nose and palate, making a food-friendly pairing with the elements of the next dish.
And what a dish it was. A take on a traditional Hokkaido specialty, this ikuradon featured cooked spinach and melted leeks from the SingleThread farm, atop which was an airy, impossibly rich mousse of malted potato. The prize, however, was what they described as an “east coast, west coast” combo of ikura, or salmon roe, from Alaska (west), and itty-bitty lobes of the most glorious (east) coastal Hokkaido uni you could possibly imagine, topped with sea salt and ever so slightly torched. This was quite literal perfection in every bite. Each component contributed something wonderful and specific to the profile of the dish, with sweet spinach, allium-rich leeks, decadent potato, salty roe, and saline-smooth buttery sea urchin. An exercise in perfection. And check out that amazing bowl!
Sake is always a component of the beverage pairings at SingleThread, and you are invited to select a sake cup from a basket full of Kyle and Katina’s personal collection––yet another homage to their spirit of unbridled hospitality. The sake this evening, called in English "Heavenly Grace," comes from the mountainous Akita prefecture in the northwestern part of Honshu, Japan's main island. Producer Taiheizan uses a 17th century sake-making practice called kimoto, which involves sake makers mashing the rice, water, and koji together to produce an earthy base for fermentation. Daiginjo is a uniquely pure sake, so this technique is unusual for this style, but the sake as a result has underpinnings of depth and umami. At SingleThread, Sake is always poured into a vessel adorned with a beguiling arrangement of seasonal foliage, this time, again, from the pines around the property.
I will say, however, that I would not immediately select a sake to pair with the course that ensued. Beautifully grilled venison was served atop a magnolia leaf––magnolia leaves are a traditional element of food culture in Hokkaido due to their ability to preserve food. You can wrap food in a magnolia leaf, bury in the snow for months, and it will still be as fresh as when you stored it. Beneath the venison was a hazelnut and sunchoke miso, and garnishing the leaf were crispy sunchokes, maitake mushrooms, and microgreens and broccolini from the SingleThread farm, as well as a stunning spice blend featuring a critical black peppermint.
While delicious, this was the least successful course of the night, as I found the sunchoke miso overpoweringly sweet and wasn’t wild about the choice to pair with sake, especially such a good sake, which seemed to be wiped out by the stronger flavors of the food. Moreover, the venison, though perfectly grilled, was from New Zealand, which seemed rather silly to me since Utah has abundant wild deer populations and ostensibly some incredible local wild venison. During a meal like this, where there are far fewer courses than a normal tasting menu experience, a “miss” of a dish seems to hold much more magnitude. I will give them serious props for the presentation, however, which just screamed “Noma” to me (many of our dishes at Noma were served on leaves).
Our sommelier reappeared just after the venison course to ask us to consider whether we would prefer chardonnay or pinot noir with our hot pot. We all lean toward pinot, but wanting to try both among the table, Melia went for the chard. Both selections were from a brand-spanking-new winery that is already making serious waves in the California wine community called Marine Layer. Somehow these newcomers have gotten their hands on some of the most coveted fruit in the Sonoma Coast, and it shows in their wines. Burgundian in style but with a California soul, the delicate wines were absolutely glittering with brilliant fruit and acidity. The chardonnay had a distinct mineral component, tasting nearly like a Chablis and not anything like the much riper, stereotypical California chard. The pinot, meanwhile, was a dead-on-balls ideal wine for me––bright red fruit, aromas of earth and mushroom, with sparkly acidity and just enough structure to balance. A remarkable pinot for such a young winery, and one which I was happy to see refilled several times as we finished the sprawling hot pot course (Our somm: "This isn't exactly a bottomless glass of wine, but I will ensure that your glass will never be empty.").
A portable gas burner was placed in the center of the table in addition to a wide donabe filled with Utah mountain water. Alongside, thinly sliced Hokkaido A5 wagyu beef, donko shiitake and maitake mushrooms, Hakurei turnips, tofu, scallions, and seasonal leafy greens from the Sonoma farm filled an abundant plate of ingredients to dip into the broth. The course was a take on “shabu shabu,” which in Japanese roughly means “swish swish” (bish) to mirror the action of cooking the offerings in the hot water.
The condiments were the critical element of the hot pot––we each received a two-sided dipping tray of barrel-aged ponzu and a creamy sesame condiment, and a small round plate with kimchi, pickled carrot, a traditional Hokkaido chili crisp, a salty white sesame mélange, and two pastes––yuzu kosho and another traditional, spicy Hokkaido accoutrement of unknown constitution.
Finally, a crazy spicy sansho pepper togarashi was included for flavor, alongside a beautiful donabe filled with short grain rice from Hokkaido.
We took our server’s advice and started with the mushrooms to add flavor to the broth, and then proceeded to add the various other goodies in shifts until the plate was depleted. The remarkable element of this dish was how you could combine and experiment with the different flavors of the cooked ingredients and the condiments. Everything was delicious, though the condiments were certainly critical to the success of each bite since the cooking liquid was just water. Even when everything on the plate had been cooked and the shabu shabu broth resembled something closer to a cloudy stock, a sip of the broth was still not particularly potent in flavor. The dish overall was excellent, though I query whether we needed to accept the A5 wagyu upcharge when I’m sure the cheaper duck hot pot they offered was also just as (if not more) stunning.
Once the shabu shabu had been entirely conquered and our bellies were rather full, we moved on to the final savory course of the night, which was welcome given our full bellies but always a disappointing moment in a tasting menu knowing that the climax has passed. SingleThread always closes their savory courses with a seasonal grain topped with a singularly luxurious cut of meat––this time barley with a tiny cube of wagyu short rib. A warming beef consumée also graced the table as a final mouthwatering gulp with the last pour of Marine Layer pinot.
We were to enjoy the first dessert course at our table, paired with two different “GOAT” wines for contrast. Dom started the evening of pairings and ended it, this one a 2002 P2, or second press, which was magnificently complex and unlike any Champagne I have had the chance to sample. Another GOAT was served alongside––the iconic, untouched producer of Sauternes, Chateau d'Yquem, from the 1998 vintage, a Sauternes unlike any I’d ever sampled, with less honeyed sweetness, more acidity, and an enigmatic essence of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but reminded me of saffron. Amazing.
The dessert was a cooked, salty paste of red Kuri pumpkin and pumpkin seeds, a squash native to Hokkaido which, surprisingly, I’ve cooked before, topped with a custard of Okinawan black sugar and buttermilk meringue. Really wonderful dessert, and, as usual, I love the combination of sweet and salty.
We were escorted to the whiskey lounge, partitioned off from the main dining space at the back of the barn. High West Distillery’s new and massive facility is also on the Blue Sky property, so it was little surprise that the whiskey lounge offered pours of High West’s fantastic single malt or highballs/hot toddys (toddies?) made with High West’s feisty Double Rye. The High West single malt is a special treat you can only sample and purchase at their distillery, so I immediately zeroed in on a few neat pours of the spirit while we relaxed, conversed, and enjoyed our dessert.
Time to cleanse the palate first! Our first lounge bites featured a refreshing combo of tangerine sorbet and slices, yuzu granita, slightly salty shortbread crumble. Certainly did the job, and the shortbread was particularly excellent!
With my second pour of High West, the final dessert bites were served in a tea tray. These were a take on "wagashi," little Japanese confections. A caramelized hot chocolate with High West was first, followed by blood orange eggs coated in cocoa butter that burst when they hit the tongue. Finally, there were some little bites made with Gravenstein apples from Sonoma County, but their constitution is a mystery to me at this point. Apologies for the blurry photo––guess I had some wine and whiskey that night!
Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the east coast, SingleThread on the west––to my mind, the best two restaurants in the country, both from the perspective of the incredible food and also the work they are doing around sourcing, sustainability, and agriculture. I was so happy to be able to share the experience of SingleThread with Melia and JR in the place more important to me than anywhere else––my home of Utah.
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The Maestro is making some big life changes in the next several months, and the details of them will be revealed soon, but suffice it to say these changes will bring a serious influx of food and wine to the blog. Meanwhile, a couple of cool little trips will surely result in some meals to share. Exciting things ahead! Stay tuned, kiddos.