As chef de cuisine of the much-anticipated Little Saint cafe and restaurant in Healdsburg, Brian Oliver has spent the last seven months studying the subtleties of plant-based emulsifiers.
He’s been on a mission to make sure aquafaba (chickpea water) doesn’t taste like beans and has tackled the challenges of creating a satisfying buttercream without butter or cream. When building an entirely plant-based menu with a Michelin-starred restaurant’s exacting standards, sometimes it’s as much about chemistry as it is about cuisine.
“In the first few months, we were not trying to figure out a menu but exploring the world of plant-based foods,” Oliver said at the restaurant’s April 22 debut. “There was a lot of playing around.”
More than a food hall, the 10,000-square-foot building that once housed SHED Modern Grange has been transformed into multi-use art, music and performance space with a 72-seat restaurant, bar and market selling wine and produce. A collaboration between Kyle and Katina Connaughton of Healdsburg’s upscale Single Thread; designer Ken Fulk; philanthropist Jeff Ubben and his wife, animal activist Laurie Ubben; and program director Jenny Hess, Little Saint aims to forge a new vision for vegan dining and sustainable living.
Not that Little Saint is all about over-constructed, needlessly precious dishes. Thirty acres of dedicated farmland in the Alexander Valley provide the still-warm-from-the-garden seasonal fruits and vegetables that form the menu’s foundation, and Oliver aims to create crave-able cuisine that just happens not to include animal protein.
Still, he said, having the narrow parameters of a meatless, dairy-free and egg-free menu has made for compelling work.
“It’s almost freeing, in a lot of ways, to have limitations when you cook. You kind of stay in certain lanes,” he said.
Though the Little Saint team is still getting its bearings, a year of delays afforded the staff extra time for research and development. The purposefully cozy vibe and professionalism have been evident from the start.
Farm to your plate
You won’t find a fresh tomato on the menu at Little Saint until tomatoes are in season in Sonoma County. Here, the menu is driven by exactly what’s happening on the Connaughton’s 24-acre Single Thread Farm and the nearby Little Saint Farm.
Eschewing animal proteins was a natural evolution, according to Kyle Connaughton.
The couple’s steadfast commitment to micro-seasonality — using ingredients only at their moments of peak perfection— has brought international acclaim and three Michelin stars to Single Thread just five years after it opened. Little Saint delivers that same farm-to-table ethos at a fraction of the prices, with dishes from $5 hummus or lavash to $39 cauliflower biryani for two, with a middle $14 to $24 range for many dishes.
“The menu reflects this moment in the season, showcasing what’s here in Sonoma County today,” Kyle Connaughton said.
That also means preserving, pickling and drying ingredients for later use and a “closed loop” that encourages as little waste as possible.
For instance, Executive Bar Director Matthew Seigel’s Little Saint bar program uses the cooking water from beets and purple carrots to add color and an earthy bass note to cocktails. Chickpea water becomes foam. Working with Oliver, he tries to find uses for nearly everything coming into or out of the kitchen.
Drinks like the Frances Fizz combine pisco and Aperol, purple carrots and a sprinkle of dehydrated beet powder, sumac and salt. It’s dangerously delicious.
The pastry program, overseen by Single Thread’s pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth, is especially challenging without butter, eggs or milk. He uses vegan butter, nut and grain milk and egg replacements like flax.
“I wouldn’t take this opportunity unless I was willing to fail,” Ellsworth said. “The difficult part is getting the consistency regular and figuring out why. Making one batch isn’t the same as making 25 times the amount for retail. Sometimes the easiest things are the hardest.”
Keep in mind that dishes frequently change, even daily, but whatever’s on the menu will impress.
A grab-and-go “Larder” selection is available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It includes dips, prepared salads (beet salad with coconut yogurt, potato salad with soy milk aioli, farro with fresh asparagus), green salads, beverages and desserts. Bread from Melissa Yanc and Sean McGaughey of Quail and Condor are also available. It’s a good toe-dip into the flavors of Little Saint.
Soft Lavash ($5) with Shichimi Togarashi ($5), Quail and Condor Seeded Levain ($5) with Red Lentil Hummus, Pumpkin Seed Dip and Cultured Cashew Spread (all three dips for $14): The chorus of flavors work so harmoniously. Rip up the pocketed bread showered with dukkha-mimicking togarashi (chile, seaweed, sesame seed, orange peel) to dip in red lentil hummus with chile oil. Pumpkin seed dip has an earthier, nuttier flavor. We’re most fond of the cultured cashew spread, a creamy and tart cream-cheese like dip.
Saintly Greens ($12): This is what every salad dreams of being — today’s mix of sunny field greens, herbs and lettuces, plus perhaps a slice of radish or carrot. An impossibly simple red wine vinaigrette dresses this natural beauty without overpowering it.
Roasted Beets ($15): This one is worth trying even if you hate beets. Pickled golden beets are tossed with fresh mandarins, pistachio and mint. Every bite is slightly different, but the zing of citrus and mint elevates the stalwart root veggies.
Purple Haze Carrots ($16): These deep purple carrots are cooked to just-tender, adding sweetness without falling apart. Crispy black rice looks a bit like dirt, a playful foil to the ground-dwelling vegetable, but adds a subtle crunch. A vegan version of XO sauce (a garlicky, smoky condiment usually made with dried fish and scallops) on top adds umami without the seafood.
Cauliflower Biryani for two ($39): Basmati rice, curried cauliflower and pickled golden raisins are finished in a wood-fired oven and topped with crispy onions and dried rose petals. Easily enough for three (or four), it’s a hearty Indian-inspired rice dish that lets the aromatic spices of cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper and nutmeg do all the talking. Sweet pickled kohlrabi and citrus hot sauce ramp up the flavors even more.
Rhubarb and Strawberry Tart ($14): You can’t go wrong with the seasonal fruit dessert. Sweet strawberry sauce is topped with crisp, acidic rhubarb for a light end to the meal.
Little Saint: The coffee and pastry bar is open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. The grab-and-go cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Table service at the restaurant is from 6 to 9:30 p.m.; reservations are highly recommended as there is limited first-come, first-served seating. No reservations are needed for the bar. 25 North St., Healdsburg, littlesainthealdsburg.com.