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Farm to Fantasia

Single Thread takes seasonal fine dining to a beautiful, crazy, and altogether exquisite extreme.

SLIDESHOW

A micro-seasoned spread at Single Thread.

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Single Thread’s kitchen.

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A savory custard.

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There is a time to reap and a time to sow. There is also a time to savor matsutake mushrooms, the firm and fragrant fungi whose reputation rivals that of truffles. For me, that moment came on an early-winter night, roughly two hours into a four-hour, 11-course meal at Single Thread, the earnest, extravagant, hotly anticipated food pilgrim’s paradise that launched in downtown Healdsburg late last year. I specify the time because time is of the essence to Kyle and Katina Connaughton, the husband and wife who own the place. He is the chef. She runs the nearby farm that supplies Single Thread with some of its produce. Both of them abide not by the seasons but by the micro-seasons, of which there aren’t four but dozens. Accordingly, Connaughton modifies each of his three $225 prix fixe menus (vegetarian, pescatarian, and omnivore; wine pairings start at $155) every five days, the better to capture ingredients at their short-lived peak.

Like other micro-seasons, the matsutake’s would soon vanish. But at that instant, the mushrooms were there, slivered into a medley of black cod, romanesco, and leeks, all beautifully roasted in a donabe, or Japanese clay pot, and goosed with white tamari. Matsutake enriched a purée, too, their piney flavor perfuming a konbu dashi that invoked an ocean wave washing across a forest floor.

I ate the whole thing quickly because it was delicious but also out of fear that the mushrooms’ prime might pass, forcing the server to whisk the dish away from me, mid-bite. 

I jest, of course. Despite the cartoon-flip-book pace of its menu changes, nothing at Single Thread feels remotely rushed. An atmosphere of Zen calm radiates from the open kitchen, where chef and staff work in monastic quiet.

Though Single Thread is not a Japanese restaurant, it is shaped by Kyle Connaughton’s fondness for Japanese traditions, which he fell for as a kid growing up in Los Angeles and then pursued in kitchens throughout Japan. Next came a high post at London’s Michelin-starred Fat Duck, which gave way to Healdsburg and Connaughton’s Northern California distillation of all that had come before: an intensely farm-to-table restaurant that tilts toward the East. 

When you arrive at Single Thread, you’re led past the second floor—home to five guest rooms that start at $700 a night—to the rooftop garden, where you’re eased into the evening with palate teasers. On the frigid night I visited, the rooftop kitchen warmed me and a friend with hot apple cider, followed by ceramic cups containing a few spoonfuls of malted-potato-and-caramelized-onion soup, garnished with mild and flaky black cod.

Soon, though, we were downstairs, seated and presented with our first full course, which our server described as a “snapshot of Sonoma County.”

It was composed of 11 cold and room-temperature bites arrayed on wood and ceramic plates and bowls that themselves were bedded on a pine-and-lichen landscape. Among them were florets of peacock broccoli, a kale-and-broccoli cross, with sesame dressing; roasted kabocha squash with nutty, fermented farro; and little rolls of yuba, or tofu skin, wrapped around sweet shreds of Dungeness crab. Best of all were two farm eggs, their emptied shells refilled with a savory custard studded with diced chanterelles and grapes. 

The above should go some way toward painting a picture of an exacting chef, though saying that Connaughton is detail oriented is like saying that Ahab had an interest in a whale. His meticulousness is matched by the finer points in Single Thread’s design, which include cut-off corners on the wooden tables, removed so that servers can lean with less intrusion, and tiles on the dining room walls fashioned out of clay from the restaurant’s farm. 

Some of the details verge on parody. Try not to think of Portlandia when you enter the bathroom and the toilet seat opens automatically in salute, or when a server tells you that the patterns on the handwoven screens hanging in the dining room represent the DNA strands of seasonal ingredients. Satire certainly wasn’t far from my mind just before the meat course, when a server appeared with a wooden box. Inside were six bespoke steak knives, their blades made of recycled steel from a 1968 Volkswagen, a detail our server recited with a straight face. “Choose one that speaks to you,” she added. The utensils were silent, but their presence spoke volumes about the Single Thread experience. 

As it turned out, a fork would have sufficed to cut the wagyu beef that arrived moments later. Charred on the hearth over eucalyptus, it was served, in pink-centered slices, with pumpkin purée and shaved chestnuts on a strip of eucalyptus bark that was curled and blackened at its edges. It had been quick-torched on the open fire as well, and traces of woodsy smoke haunted the meat.

There is much more I could tell you about my meal, but by the time you read this, many micro-seasons will have passed. I will say that the only dish approximating a miss was a dessert of Japanese pumpkin sorbet and frozen chocolate mousse, spooned into a large bowl over sage-scented pear-and-vanilla compote. The sorbet and mousse looked like scrambled eggs and taco meat, respectively, and the combination of their sweetness and quantity was cloying. Far better was pastry chef Matthew Siciliano’s frozen fromage blanc marshmallow. Dusted with toasted amaranth, it bobbed in a black bowl, ringed by slivers of poached quince and bathed in the quince’s poaching liquid. I’d be happy to toast that marshmallow over an open flame all year round. 

But all things must pass, even four-hour dinners. And before long, I was off on the drive home, never to return to Single Thread, at least not for this review. This critic’s expense account, alas, is no match for the restaurant’s grandeur. So what you’re getting here is my version of a snapshot. Still, I consider it a faithful portrait: Regardless of which micro-season the restaurant is observing when you visit, I’m confident that you’ll catch Connaughton cooking at his peak.

Single Thread
131 North St. (at Center St.), Healdsburg
3½ stars


Originally published in the February issue of
San Francisco

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