If you’re a fan of the Netflix show, Chef’s Table, now in its third season, you will know what I mean when I say that eating at SingleThread—the new dining experience that has taken up residence in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of San Francisco—is rather like stepping inside a live episode.
The show, known for featuring mould-breaking chefs and restaurants from all around the world, has a knack for beautiful story-telling, breathtaking visual imagery and prompting you (or at least me) to immediately book a flight and grab a dining partner. What video can’t convey through smell and taste, Chef’s Table more than makes up for with stunning tablescapes, intimate insights and compelling cinematography.
The good news is that a visit to SingleThread is all that—and so much more—because you get to sample the edible works of art laid out before you, pick up the pottery, caress the wooden bowls (yes, I actually did that), coerce the crystal wineglasses into making music for you, ooh and aah to your companions over the smoothness of the knife handles and even play with the high-tech lavatory controls. But let’s not rush this.
First, Single Thread is the brainchild of Kyle and Katina Connaughton—a husband/wife/chef/farmer duo—who searched for a while for the perfect location for their dining “inn”, embracing the Japanese concept of omotenashi or hospitality. In fact, the entire experience was heavily influenced by the pair’s experiences with Japanese cuisine and traditions, and is delivered with a “Sonoma lens.” Yes, this is highly contrived, but actually, that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment, especially if you’re willing to just sink into it and let it wash over you like a gentle, warm, crystal blue ocean.
Kyle and Katina were intrigued to discover that a three-story partially-constructed building (originally intended to be a sausage production site and retail store) in Healdsburg had become available. Complete with a handful of guestrooms and a roof terrace where—in clement weather, they planned to invite guests to decompress with an aperitif and appetizers before embarking on their culinary journey—they decided to make this brand new location the heart of their gastronomic operations. SingleThread also includes a farm which is located on five acres between the Russian River and the San Lorenzo Ranch in Healdsburg,
On arrival, we enter SingleThread’s wood-paneled lobby, which offers a framed view of the perfectly quiet, perfectly gleaming kitchen. You have to imagine that some serious zen principles of working and “being” are at play here. Most kitchens do not evoke this air of calm and control, especially as a workplace for over 15 people.
We’re offered a skinny, delicate porcelain cup of warm, spiced cider—through a hatch from the kitchen—and observe kitchen staff using tweezers to identify and pluck the perfect micro green (yes, singular, as in one leaf) for a dish.
From here on out, the evening unfolds, one act after another: pure theater. We are shown to our table and seated in front of a veritable tableau of foraged, farmed and fished delights. From oysters to mushrooms to carrots. And this is how the meal begins.
Our server describes what is laid out in front of us, but frankly, there, is so much to take in that I forget it all in an instant. There are four us eating together and we take it in turns to call out which bite to enjoy next and decode what might be contained in each mouthful.
There is no menu to review, or even hold in-hand, as we enjoy the 11 courses that are presented to us during the four-hour-plus extravaganza. I spend a lot of time quizzing my friends to see if any of us have a good memory.
According to spokeswoman, Kristine Keefer, “The guests’ meal is synchronized to their exact requirements. Let’s say you forgot to share that one guest has dietary restrictions – that’s no problem.”
When I ask Kristine why the menu can’t be present throughout the meal, she explains that the copy of the menu we are sent home with is printed up after we’ve eaten, so it can accurately reflect any changes made on the fly. While I understand this, I’d still rather have a menu to refer to as I eat.
Overall the meal is inventive and highly enjoyable. There are certain morsels that are to die-for. For instance, whoever makes the custards is a genius. They are velvety, smooth, and incredible. Served in eye-catching ways. One custardy mouthful is presented in a perfectly decapitated, pale blue chicken’s egg shell. I ask if I can keep the shell, but apparently they are re-used.
The foie gras takes us all by surprise. By the time we come to eat it, we had forgotten what the dish contained, but the insane buttery, almost as-hard-as-chocolate texture, which melted in an instant on the tongue, was spectacular. And when we were reminded that this was indeed the cured foie gras, it came as no surprise given its unctuous fattiness.
We spend just as much time admiring the decor, glassware, pottery and even the silverware, as we do taking in the food. The ceramics are Japanese for the most part, and each piece is handmade by the Nagatani Family of Iga, Japan. Truly, no expense appears to have been spared. The bathrooms feature 3-4 different types of tile and a self-opening, self-heated toilet seat. This feature becomes the topic of conversation for at least a course, as each of us takes it in turn to see whether the seat’s sensor is really working.
It’s with zero sense of irony that our server encourages us to pick a steak knife to eat our duck with, and tells us that the handles were fashioned from wood gathered on the farm’s property, while the blades were honed from steel gathered from the remains of a VW van.
This little tidbit sparks a conversation amongst of when/if marketing goes too far. As humans, we have been telling stories to each other since time began. In parts of the world you can still see cave paintings scratched out in charcoal from thousands of years ago, if you’re lucky. We have an urge to share what we have learned, seen and heard. That is why I’m writing this story for you now. But, does it lack authenticity when the stories are artfully contrived and then presented to us with a flourish? The answer is it’s probably down to your personal appetite or desire to be lured into a scene. In this case, a highly curated, beautiful dining scene.
The desserts were delicious, and even though I had no intention of wiping my plate clean, the hearth roasted sweet potato with chicory ice cream and “crunchy chocolate stuff” (my words) was so good, that before I knew it, it was all gone. And the sweet petit fours, including the little egg in a perfect nest of moss, were each perfect bites.
We didn’t opt for the wine pairing, but we did bring a bottle of wine. Corkage ($75) is waived as long as you order one bottle off the wine list.
Reservations can be made here, and like any good show, you pay in advance. At close to $300 per head, without wine, a night at Single Thread is probably a once in a lifetime occasion for most of us, or at least a rarity.
With Michelin stars in its future, 2017 is probably a good year to snag a table before making a reservation becomes an impossibility.
SingleThread Restaurant is at 131 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448