Though Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s highly-anticipated Healdsburg restaurant officially opens this week, the kitchen and dining room have been in full swing doing “friends and family” meals to iron out any wrinkles in the luxe, multi-course restaurant experience. But here, friends and family testing out the menu included esteemed toques John Ash and Top Chef Master’s winner Douglas Keane making their way through nine courses at nearby tables, as we got a first glimpse.
For more than a year, Connaughton and several key members of the staff have been preparing for the opening — which included preparing the Connaughton’s Healdsburg farm, along with a complete build-out of the North Street building with custom kitchen areas and carefully curated dining experience. It’s something to behold.
Let’s talk about the price, first. With a $295 price tag per person (not including wine or non-alcoholic pairings), the restaurant has had its share of critics even before opening, questioning the steep price tag for a restaurant that has yet to get a Michelin star or even a review. To put it in context, similarly haute dining experiences have similar costs. Chef Christopher Kostow’s 10-course tasting menu at the three-Michelin starred Meadowood is $330 per person (excluding wine) or $500 for a “counter menu” inside the kitchen. The also three-starred French Laundry is $310 per person without tax, tip or drinks. San Francisco’s Saison, which has the distinction of being the most expensive restaurant in the region, also three-stars, is $398-$498 (for special holidays) per person without tax, tip or drinks. Douglas Keane’s Cyrus, which closed in 2012, was over $800 for two people when we visited.
So, why in the world would someone pay that much for a single meal? Again, context. Meals like those at Meadowood, French Laundry, and what Connaughton hopes his restaurant will become, are bespoke experiences using precious ingredients (abalone, Mangalitsa pig, foie gras) as well as highly labor-intensive sauces and preparations. Food is served as art, with two or three chefs using tweezers to place each garnish, each tiny flower or microgreen. For a food connoisseur, it’s a one in a lifetime experience with as much beauty and joy as, say, driving a beautiful car or buying a well-crafted suit or dress. Though ephemeral, how is it different, exactly, from a stay in a luxurious hotel or even a penny-pinching weekend trip to Gualala (my own luxury indulgence)?
And memorable the experience was, from the moment we opened the door to the restaurant, to our final bite of chocolate. Walking into the silent, enclosed reception area sets the tone, where guests can peek through a window into the silent kitchen. Silent.
A massive door opens into the dining room, with just a handful of tables, the most fascinating of which is a theater table where guests can sit side by side, with an unobstructed view of the kitchen, where Connaughton and his staff work at two massive islands, hunched over a collection of pottery plates, bowls, donabe and hand-crafted flatware created in Japan. Truly the service ware is one of the most artful parts of the meal.
At Single Thread, the first course is served on a perfectly-arranged display of wood, moss and flowers, creating a sort of adventure in finding each tiny bite — from whelk inside it shell, to pheasant wrapped in a fig leaf, Miyagi oysters and a nibble of Dungeness crab with ponzu. It’s followed by a single blue egg nestled in a nest of moss, with smoke sabayon, then a dish of umeboshi plums and beets, red jewels on gently scalloped plate.
The courses continue for hours, one with a donut-shaped wooden plate with Mangalitsa jowl and watercress puree; abalone in onion sauce with foam, foie gras on a bed of persimmon leaves, fermented local farro in a matsutake mushroom broth, or guinea hen roulade in pumpkin puree. Each course is a simple bite or two, carefully thought out from plate and utensil to the carefully-placed microgreens.
That leaves plenty of room for a multi-course dessert menu that included frozen fromage blanc with quince reduction and puffed amarynth, or an “apple” made of chocolate, filled with cream and Gravenstein apple sorbet.
On-trend, Single Thread offers both wine pairings and a non-alcoholic pairing. Though the pairing still needs work to jive with the dishes, it was far more fun to try white tea, cucumber soda with lemon and mint, a turmeric shrub with smoked salt and grenadine, or a mocktail with spicy mustard greens, non-alcoholic “gin” and lime, or a matsutake mushroom and lemon verbena tea.
There are still details being worked out, and like any preview dinner, staff were still figuring out how to provide the kind of luxury service and attention that diners of this caliber will demand. We’re confident, however, that Single Thread will be a culinary jewel in the crown of the Sonoma County dining scene, showcasing the unique bounty of our county — from our farms to Connaughton’s beautiful tables.
A note: I was unable to get access to take photos of the food before posting this article, so what you see in the above photos is not necessarily representative of the meal we experienced. Hopefully we’ll be able to show you more pix soon.