Every so often, I have a meal where I feel like Alice must have, down the hole and through to Wonderland. An experience where I am swept away in awe, merriment, and amazement as I’m presented, course after course with fantastical creations. I buzz with energy as my senses are overloaded with textures and tastes in technicolor, but I savour each moment slowly because I’m aware that these special experiences have an ending. I felt this way a couple years ago when I was at the Willows Inn, and I was fortunate to feel the wonder again with my meal at SingleThread.
There is something magical about dining in a restaurant when you know the chef is on the rise, rather than already at the pinnacle. You can feel the energy from the push. The excitement from everyone involved is electric and infectious, and in very special cases, like at SingleThread, this translates into an extraordinary meal.
I found SingleThread almost by accident. I was planning a trip to Napa for my birthday, and on a whim, I thought I’d try to secure a reservation at The French Laundry. It’s been 7 years since I dined there, and I was interested in going back to the place that was “my reason for starting Call Me a Food Lover“. I am well-versed in the Tock system of reservations that The French Laundry uses so I was ready for the exact moment when the tables were released. Unfortunately that time came and reservations were gone with a blink of an eye. I knew getting a 2-top reservation was going to be difficult, but I didn’t realize it would be impossible. I was dejected. I have never not gotten a “hard to get” reservation before.
Not wanting to dwell, I started pursuing my other options. While there are other restaurants in Napa Valley that I knew I would have a great meal at, I was hoping for something “special”. I wasn’t convinced with any of the options, until I came upon SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn in Healdsburg.
While the restaurant may only be 6 months old, SingleThread has been an idea years in the making. Every detail from the decor, to the serving ware and of course the food was presented thoughtfully. Diners are meant to feel cared for from the moment you step through their door. Actually, my SingleThread experience started even before that.
When I booked my my birthday dinner reservation (through Tock) a month prior to my visit, I was put in touch with the concierge at SingleThread to help give me ideas on what to do during my time in Healdsburg. After a few emails exchanged, I was given a great itinerary for wine tasting and hikes which I was able to reference throughout my stay in Healdsburg.
I woke up on my birthday, excited in anticipation of my dinner, and with a great plan suggested to me with my interests in mind, (post on Healdsburg to follow). My lovely day wine touring the region helped build my excitement going in to my meal at SingleThread.
Arriving at the restaurant, we walked into what felt like a side door. As we entered the small space, my attention was directed towards a window which framed the kitchen. We were invited to step up to the window to look into the action as we were offered the first taste of the night. This was my first (of many) “wow” moments of the evening. Not only was the kitchen a gleaming sight to behold, but the myriad of gorgeous donabes (earthenware pots) lining the back wall were another sign of special things to come.
I hate to raise my expectations in advance of going to the meal. But everything I’d read about SingleThread was just up my alley… A chef who’d spent many years in Japan, and was tied closely not just to the cuisine, but in their ideas of hospitality as well. The chef’s wife Katina, who is in charge of the culinary farm is passionate about sustainable farming. “Local farm sourced ingredients, prepared closely in line with the seasons”, an idea close to kaiseki dining in Japan, which I appreciate as part of the core of who I am. “Careful attention to detail for the best customer experience elevated to the limit of perfection” is a concept that sets itself up with so much potential, but can easily end in disappointment. If you take care in all of the elements, lead with your heart and execute with your head, there is the opportunity for an ultimate dining experience. I am lucky to have experienced dining magic a few times before, but have also been served disappointment. So while I tried to temper my expectations as I walked in to SingleThread, I could not contain my excitement as I stood at that kitchen window, because I knew sensed it would be an extraordinary meal.
We were quickly whisked up an elevator and led to the rooftop patio for a drink and a few bites. I was happy that I chose the 7:30 reservation, as it was a warm night and the sun was just starting to set. Surrounded by garden planters filled with herbs, vegetables and small fruit trees, with a glass in hand in golden hour, everything felt just right as the first plate was presented before us.
I ate the first bites slowly because I knew that once we were done, they’d come to lead us to the dining room for the meal. I realized as I savored each little snack that there was no way I’d be able to keep up with photographing the meal, paying attention to the descriptions and also being able to just enjoy the dining experience. We devised a plan of covertly recording the server’s descriptions, which turned out to be a total game changer for me in terms of, one less thing I have to pay attention to. With that off my plate, and the colors of the sky just starting to change, I wished I could have stayed on the patio for another hour to watch the sunset, but I knew that dinner was waiting.
As we were seated, our first “course” was ready at the table. I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of the presentation.
I loved that each tiny plate contained just a few bites. The flavours of each were clean with notes of brightness. While the dishes seemed visually simple, they turned out to be complex to taste. Each left me wanting more, but there was so much on the table that my attention was quickly pulled towards the next.
As we were making a good dent in the original presentation, 3 hot dishes were placed on the table as well.
As the starting courses were cleared, I had a good sense that Chef Connaughton and his wife Katina were the “real deal”. Japan-meets Sonoma, with impeccable ingredients closely tied to the seasons, all flawlessly executed by the Chef. It was a winning combination all around.
Chef Connaughton came out to serve the finished donabe fish course and we were lucky to spend some moments chatting with him about the amazing meal.
The Chef explained that his techniques and flavour profiles were developed from his many years living in Japan and that SingleThread was his way to live out his obsession with Japanese earthenware, (a passion so great, he’s written a book on it). Every plate, cup or bowl used throughout the meal is sourced from makers in Japan the Chef has a relationship with. The shapes, colours and textures for each vessel are thoughtfully matched to the contents of the course served.
I can see how people might be put off by the “production” of a meal of this level. Too precise or stuffy, or too intricate to be enjoyable. I’ve had “experience meals” that were a let-down, too often in fact that I’ve mostly stayed away from this kind of dining for a few years. But a moment with Chef Connaughton and even a briefer moment with his wife Katina, and I understood that it’s not pretension, but passion that is driving SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn.
So many times, I’ve dined in environments where Chefs feel they have to challenge or confuse my senses to please them. But I am much simpler to satisfy than that. The combination of familiar West Coast ingredients combined with Japanese techniques and flavours presented with restraint and subtlety resulted in the ultimate comfort meal for me. I’m sure “comfort food” isn’t what most restaurants at this level are striving for, but for the Connaughton’s and their omotenashi philosophy, (where guests needs are treated wholeheartedly), I think my feelings are justified. Chef Kyle and Katina have a winning formula that has allowed them to exceed everyone’s expectations of a restaurant open just 6 months. I am so happy that SingleThread hit my radar on this trip. I’m equally happy that I snagged this meal before Michelin and other accolades pushes it the point of inaccessibility.
This was a birthday dinner that tops all of my previous birthday dinners to date. Lucky me…