SingleThread has survived raging forest fire, the pressure that comes from the fastest three stars in Michelin history, and near suffocating critical adulation. Derek Guthrie visits the most significant modern restaurant in California, possibly America, and asks: Does that mean it’s the best?
When restaurants close for a few days it’s usually down to staff holidays, a burst pipe, or possibly poisoning a few customers. In October 2019 SingleThread closed when chefs and waiters were suddenly evacuated along with rest of the town’s population. A forest fire was headed their way, a big one, and when that alarm sounds in Northern California it’s time to run.
Last year, nearby Paradise was engulfed in flames, with the tragic loss of 86 lives and 18000 buildings. Lessons were learnt, the most important one being: when told, drop everything and get the hell out, fast.
Thanks to the efforts of three thousand firefighting heroes, this new fire was battled, contained, and finally extinguished without loss of life. The SingleThread was allowed to reopen after a week and Healdsburg escaped conflagration. Normalcy of a sort returned to this sleepy town.
Back in December 2016, SingleThread didn’t so much open as erupt. Critics declared it the “opening of the year” before so much as a canapé had been nibbled. Michelin later concurred, fast tracking a third star in record time. When the fire was raging it wasn’t just the restaurant building under threat, there’s a farm too, up and running for two years previously to get the crop rotation right. The farm-to-table movement was born hereabouts, the foundation for California’s sophisticated, modern cuisine.
Chef/patron and former LA punk Kyle Connaughton has brought something new to the party. Like Jiro, he dreamt of sushi, training in Japanese kitchens, learning a little of the language, working his passage to Tokyo. It wasn’t just the food that began to fascinate him, but the hospitality, that ability of Japanese restaurateurs to make everyone welcome and happy. It’s called omotenashi and is at its best in ryokans, Japan’s ancient inns. Now you can find it in Healdsburg.
SingleThread is regularly mislabelled “Japanese” when it ain’t: it’s Californian
Kyle developed his repertoire in Hokkaido, Northern Japan, immersing himself deep into the Nippon culinary labyrinth, cooking, foraging, exploring. His wife Katina, a kindred spirit in LA punk, quickly developed her talents in sustainable agriculture, with an accent on, of all things, strawberries: superstrains like Sachinoka can excel under glass despite the wintry climate of Hokkaido. She now runs the farm.
Hokkaido gets cold, as evidenced by the island capital Sapporo City, which hosts the biggest snow carving competition in the world. On freezing nights, Kyle and Katina soon discovered the value, and warmth, to be found in open hearth clay pot cooking. He later co-authored (with Naoko Takei Moore) an explanatory tome on the subject, Donabe, the art of one-pot comfort food, sharing and sociability. (Overnight guests can eschew dinner entirely in favour of a cosy hotpot in one of five luxurious bedrooms).
Naoko also led Kyle to Iga, fifty miles from Osaka in the Mie prefecture of southern central Japan. Historically, the rough, porous clay there is particularly well suited to pottery and now the Nagatani family, eighth generation potters, supply the Single Thread with beautifully textured pots and crockery. Break a plate in Healdsburg and they fire up the kilns in Iga.
Which all explains why SingleThread is regularly mislabelled “Japanese” when it ain’t: it’s Californian. More importantly, it’s very 21st century.
After Japan, Kyle immersed himself in the European circus of modern cuisine, running Heston Blumenthal’s experimental laboratory at The Fat Duck in Bray outside London when “molecular gastronomy” threatened to engulf the world. Heston’s modernist approach, bringing science to the kitchen, resonated with Kyle. He created some of the definitive recipes of the moment (Sound of the Sea, complete with iPod sound FX and edible sand was the first dish in a restaurant to make me laugh out loud. It’s still on the menu.) Today, Kyle possesses contemporary culinary algorithms inside his head, a matrix of skills, traditions, modern technology, sustainable farming, and taste.
Today, despite forest fires, farm and restaurant are in harmony, as are Kyle and Katina themselves
While the restaurant was being built, Katina was planting land a few miles away on a bend in the Russian River, a former vineyard. Seeding is dictated by five day harvest windows to ensure everything that eventually springs from the ground will be served at peak condition (“shun”). Something like 70% of the menu can now come from those fields, but the plan always included sourcing the best local produce too. The surrounding Sonoma County is productive, fertile terroir: top grade vegetables and fruit, bountiful Pacific coast fisheries, refined animal husbandry.
Today, despite forest fires, farm and restaurant are in harmony, as are Kyle and Katina themselves. They may have first met at high school in LA and shared a passion for punk but now their partnership, their grand idea, has worked. Hard work and global experiences have flowered. This is their life.
So what’s it like?
Two days before arriving at Single Thread I was at lunch with a restaurateur friend just back from Rene Redzepi’s recently opened new Noma (Two) in Copenhagen, a night he’d been looking forward to for weeks: Europe’s High Table of Nordic Cuisine.
“What was it like?” I asked expectantly.
He thought for a moment. “Um…well. I dunno really” The disappointing description that followed was, I realised, the result of impossibly high expectations rather than bad food. To be fair, how do you follow old Noma (One), world’s Top Gaff for three years on that list with something so new?
To be fair, how do you follow old Noma
Heavily conscious of my own high expectations, I pulled open the door of SingleThread, leaving the bright afternoon heat for a darkened, cool, reception area whose principal feature is a small window into the kitchen. I met Michael. We chatted. And laughed. And chatted some more. About everything and nothing. About food and weather and stuff. I became conscious that I wasn’t actually “checking in” and after about twenty minutes, during which he had casually shown me my room, I felt as if I’d been welcomed into someone’s home. Michael was my new friend. No forms, cards, keys (the doors have codes) deposits or signatures (everything is prebooked through Tok). I was laughing at the sheer simplicity of it all, the casual friendliness. Good start.
The high-ceilinged bedrooms are subtly luxurious, greys and natural tones in materials you would expect. Silent drawers slide open to reveal wines and drinks (all included), a quite extraordinary Teforia tea making machine for the best cuppa in America (that’s a no brainer) and a squirty Toto Japanese bidet toilet with a warm seat and self-opening lid that greets the user on entry and makes you LAUGH OUT LOUD, just as they do in downtown Tokyo.
Above the bed there’s an ornate white paper lantern of some intricacy, a design motif visible throughout the rest of the building, printed, stamped, embossed here and there. It’s an onion flower, onions being the only vegetable that can be grown all year round on the farm. It’s the single thread that binds everything together. Geddit?
At dinner, more laughter. Staff are friendly rather than stuffy, despite the demands of serving expensive eleven-course menus to a room full of diners with high expectations. The sommelier, Evan, is informed and bright, in charge of a repertoire that extends to an entire carte of non-alcoholic drink choices to match the menu. Movement is almost choreographed, virtually silent in the open kitchen, quietly chatty in the relaxed, buzzy dining room. Unseen, there’s an observation/communications system (Slack) which backs up this human effort. Essential information like allergies is relayed, courses are paced, your needs are being anticipated. Omotenashi has a robot helper.
“How do you even remember all that?” I asked, slightly awestruck. “I can do it again if you like!” he offered gleefully
The “amuse-bouche” is eleven separate taste bombs – slid onto the table as you arrive from rooftop drinks. Served as an elaborate herbaceous border, (it’s actually local moss on redwood from that nearby forest) showing off what the farm has produced that day alongside bright bites of sashimi, caviar, flowers, jellies, custards, ponzu this and shiso that. My Chicago waiter explained every detail. “How do you even remember all that?” I asked, slightly awestruck. “I can do it again if you like!” he offered gleefully.
Such presentation is very Kyoto, as is the freshness and clear seasonality. Both the farm and restaurant follow 72 microseasons and are building in more as they progress. Halfway through digging my little garden of pre-starters, three more arrived, warm – a potato dish, mirin sabayon, a savoury custard with seaweed. The ingredients change constantly for all three menus – fish, vegetable, and “omnivore”.
My first proper dish was a kaleidoscope of colour, a full taste detonation of concentrated fruit: flavoursome heirloom tomatoes varying from tiny to miniature, red and yellow, raw, poached, and roasted, set in a white gazpacho laced with pickled wasabi and Akabana Kampachi, dainty slices of exotic fish to accompany the fruits of the land rather than dominate. I didn’t want it to end. Until now, I regarded the datterino – preferably eaten whilst in Sicily – as the world’s perfect little tomato. These were even more tomato-ey. A lot more.
I knew why. I had visited the farm in the Spring, and Katina had offered me a ripe, red strawberry, just picked. It was the best strawberry I had ever tasted. “Impossible” my British inner voice protested. I grew up on Wimbledon, native varieties, cream teas with fresh fruit. But like the tomatoes, it was the best it’s possible to grow in Sonoma. Intensely flavoured, freshly picked, naked. It seems that while Kyle was dreaming of sushi, Katina had her own dreams. Of tomato and strawberry.
The menu follows the form, and spirit, of a kaiseki banquet, right down to the odd number of courses, and as such this very American restaurant – CalJap if you insist – is all about offering the best local, seasonal produce at its peak. Abalone from Santa Barbara, the farm’s own Duclair duck liver, summer squash blossoms with cod, and saddle of lamb. OK, there’s the occasional sliver of Miyazaki Japanese Black beef, with understated Australian truffle. So?
“I think this might just be the world’s best restaurant”
The evening is beautifully paced, with lights dimming imperceptibly, the food elegantly presented. The list of dressings, herbs and accompaniments is too extensive to list. No dish was bland, boring or overwrought. The house dashi is sublime. Portions are neat: a concluding savoury bowl of barley, braised lamb tongue and fresh radish was substantial without being bulky.
Of three desserts, the first was a serpentine cucumber – deliciously firm, slightly sweet – boosted by chamomile, pistachio and fresh herbs; the second plum with almond and bay leaf; the climax that strawberry with frozen matcha, tarragon, jam, jasmine and yuzu. Beautifully, tenderly sweet.
An expansive roof terrace, overlooking Healdsburg’s sedate downtown crossroads, isn’t just for pre-dinner drinks and romantic twilight nibbles. Over breakfast the following morning of crepes, eggs, salad, homemade yoghurt and granola, cheese and cured meats, under the brightest possible early California sunshine (sunglasses are available for loan) I was asked by my friend what I thought.
“I think this might just be the world’s best restaurant” I considered. “If it’s not, I don’t know what is”. C
SingleThread Farms, 131 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448, United States
+1 707 723 4646; singlethreadfarms.com