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A Singular Experience

Inside Healdsburg's one-of-a-kind Single Thread

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From the outside, Single Thread looks more like an embassy than a restaurant. The cream-colored, two-story Italianate building occupies a corner lot in downtown Healdsburg. It's imposing and elegant. While it was once the site of a government building, the profusion of potted plants, black awnings and subtle signage reveals that it's now a house of luxury.

Open the heavy wooden door, step inside the dimly lit foyer, and you enter a carefully calibrated decompression chamber. Serenity pervades the hushed, small space. The attendants behind the reception desk don't ask for the name of your party or consult a reservation list, but rather greet you by name as if they already know you. They do.

The black and brown hues and earthy calm of the room stand in contrast to the brightly lit kitchen framed by an opening in the wall opposite the front door. Inside the proscenium, chefs in white coats, gray aprons and neat beards move with quiet focus, barely seeming to notice the guests peering in.

Unseen to diners in the kitchen is a wall of nine video monitors that track guests as they flow through different zones of the restaurant—the parking lot, the approach to the front door, the lobby, the hallway of the five-room inn upstairs, the dining room. The video system allows staff to know when someone is about to enter the restaurant. Kind of creepy, but such is Single Thread's attention to detail in the name of service and hospitality.

Before stepping into the dining room, guests are whisked up an elevator to the roof garden for an aperitif, an appetizer and a leisurely view of the western sky above Healdsburg before heading back down the elevator. Pushing through the dining room door reveals the inner sanctum. It feels like a living room with appealing rooms and corners.

Eames-like chairs were custom-made with seat backs at just the right angle to promote comfortable sitting while eating. Soft overhead lighting, potted plants, floral displays and handmade Japanese pottery arranged around the room like family heirlooms add to the elegant, but inviting effect. It's good to get comfortable. Meals last three to five hours.

The kitchen is fully open to the dining room. It's a gleaming room of stainless steel manned by chefs who move around workstations with the deliberate precision of lab techs, hunching over plates or searing meats on an open hearth in a quiet culinary ballet for all to see.

ONE OF A KIND

There is nothing in Sonoma County like Single Thread. While there are upscale restaurants, nothing compares to the ambition, vision and, yes, price of Single Thread. The nine-course,

kaiseki-style tasting menu is $294 per person. The wine pairing goes for $200. For the price, the caliber of the food and professionalism of the staff, the Sonoma County–influenced Japanese restaurant is in a category of one.

Shortly after it opened in December, the James Beard Foundation named Single Thread a semi-finalist for best new restaurant in America. The 2017 Michelin guide won't be out until the fall, and top new restaurants generally don't get more than one star, but there are exceptions, and I would not be surprised to see Single Thread collect two on its first time out. Over in Napa County, the French Laundry and Meadowood both have three stars, and Single Thread is clearly looking for entry into that exclusive club.

Single Thread is the creation of chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, Katina. High school sweethearts, the couple's career in food and farming has taken them all over the world—Japan, England, Seattle and Los Angeles. Single Thread is the first restaurant of their own.

"The vision was always to have a very small restaurant, just a few [hotel] rooms, something manageable, and for Katina to be able to farm," says Kyle, whose soft-spoken, cerebral manner calls to mind an academic, albeit one with an arm of vivid tattoos. "It matches almost 100 percent of what we saw in our mind's eye of how the pieces all work together. It was worth the time and the wait."

The road has been a long one. The Connaughtons moved to Healdsburg in 2012 with two daughters, a dream and little else.

"There's this notion that we arrived here one day and said, 'We're opening a restaurant,'" Kyle says, referencing some of their critics. "We moved out here without jobs or anything. There was no investor saying, 'come out and we'll back this.' It was 100 percent start-from-scratch."

The couple had been visiting Napa and Sonoma counties for years and, in spite of their Southern California roots, were drawn to the North Bay.

"It spoke to us much more than Los Angeles," Kyle says. "This is where we want to be."

While developing the plan for the restaurant and raising cash, Kyle worked as an editor for Modernist Cuisine, the publishing company and R&D firm founded by Microsoft CTO turned avant-garde chef Nathan Myhrvold, as well as doing private cooking events and teaching at the Culinary Institute of America. Katina, who honed her horticultural skills during their travels, helped create the landscaping for the Barlow in Sebastopol and worked as greenhouse supervisor for Santa Rosa Junior College's agriculture program.

AN EARLY OBSESSION

Kyle's passion for food began as a child, when his father, who sold Olympic-level gymnastics equipment, took him on extended business trips to Japan.

"Japan really spoke to me," he says. "There was something about the flavors and the aesthetic and the hospitality, the focus on a craft . . . Something just fused for me and it became a very early obsession."

Back home in Pasadena, Kyle worked as a bus boy in a sushi restaurant before enrolling in culinary school. While still passionate about Japanese cuisine, he switched gears and worked in many of L.A.'s top restaurants—Spago in Beverly Hills, Lucques, A.O.C. and Campanile, many of which were run by chefs who spent their early years in iconic Northern California progenitors like Chez Panisse and Stars. The rustic, farm-centric Northern California aesthetic took root in him alongside his Japanophilia.

"As much as I study, speak and learn Japanese, I will never be Japanese. California is my home and my culture."

When French chef Michel Bras, one of Kyle's culinary heroes, tapped him to work at Toya restaurant in Hokkaido, Kyle went running. It was the best of both worlds. He took full advantage of his time in Japan. On days (and nights) off, he also trained in kaiseki, sushi, soba and izakaya in other traditional Japanese restaurants.

From there he was hired as head of research and development at the Michelin three-star-rated Fat Duck in Bray, England, by famed culinary alchemist Heston Blumenthal. Blumenthal is renowned for his inventive, multi-sensory approach to cooking. When added to his experience at Modernist Cuisine, it's a résumé few chefs can match.

ON THE MENU

Kaiseki is a rarefied, highly symbolic style of Japanese cooking that's built around a multicourse structure and a deep reverence for presentation and seasonal ingredients. This seasonality goes beyond summer, fall, winter and spring, and draws on more discrete seasonal expressions, like early spring, late winter, etc.

Meals at Single Thread consist of nine courses as well as several small dishes. Each meal begins with hassun, an ever-changing, multi-item course that sets the theme for the dishes to follow. On my visit in late November (a media preview dinner before the restaurant opened to the public), the hassun consisted of mushrooms, sashimi, raw oysters, savory egg custard, and other one-bite wonders nestled in and around a multi-tiered section of wood, moss and leaves. Kyle calls it an "Easter egg hunt for adults." It was delicious fun and had me anticipating what was to come.

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Each course was distinct in terms of ingredients, plateware and cooking techniques, flowing from lighter vegetable and seafood dishes to more substantial flavors of guinea hen and foie gras. Bite after bite, course after course, it was extraordinary.

The black cod dish with leeks, brassicas and a chamomile dashi served in an earthen donabe vessel was among my favorites. Kyle is the author of a book on donabe cookware and cooking. The Japanese clay pot is opened tableside with a flourish to let diners inhale the heady aromas before the pot is taken back into the kitchen and the dish plated and brought out again.

While the style, ingredients and techniques are decidedly Japanese, Kyle stresses that Single Thread is not a Japanese restaurant. Some of the dishes—like the sunchokes with mangalitsa pork and preserved lemon, and the molded Gravenstein "apple" filled with whipped chestnut cream, apple butter and apple sorbet—tasted more of California than Japan.

The challenge of a multi-course meal is not to over- or underdo it. Kyle says he watches to see what plates look like when they come back into the kitchen, adjusting portions up or down to keep pace with diner's appetites. I did not leave hungry.

Of course, if your idea of fine dining is a cheeseburger with bacon and avocado, Single Thread—with its endless parade of multi-ingredient dishes, custom steak knives with handles made from wood sourced from the farm and proffered to diners from ornate boxes, and $5,000 toilets with warmed seats and lids that rise upon approach—will be insufferable. In that case, stick with the burger joint.

Kyle realizes this experience is not for everybody. Everyone has hobbies and passions, he says. Some would rather spend $1,000 on a Super Bowl ticket or $300 for a pair of jeans than pay for an extravagent meal. To each his own, he says.

"We don't have the expectation that people are going to say on a Wednesday night, 'Oh, let's pop down to Single Thread to have dinner,'" Kyle says. "That's OK. We want to be, maybe, the special place where you come to celebrate or when you have someone visiting from out of town and you're really proud of the county you live in and you want to have a place to take them and show the best of what's here. We want to be a place of pride for people that live here."

ON THE FARM

Katina spends her days at Single Thread's farm, just a few miles from the restaurant near the Russian River. Once she's done at the farm, she changes out of her muddy Blundstones and jeans to lead the restaurant's floral department, where she creates the elaborate garnishes for the hassun course and other dishes, as well as the restaurant's flower arrangements. But it's clear the farm is her passion.

With her neck-to-knuckles tattoos, black-frame glasses and knockout smile, she doesn't fit the Wrangler-wearing farmer image. But she's no dilettante. Katina oversaw the transformation of the five-acre farm from a weedy, former Chardonnay vineyard. With the help of her brother, daughter and daughter's boyfriend, her goal is to grow as much as 80 percent of the restaurant's produce. Her biggest challenge this winter? Slugs. The farm is not certified organic but uses chemical-free, organic methods.

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"The slugs have been the worst problem we've had," she says with a sigh.

In addition to staple crops like green onions (Single Thread's logo is a spherical bunch of green onion flowers drawn by Katina's Portland, Ore.–based tattoo artist), mustard, kale, carrots and cabbage, Katina grows obscure Japanese greens and vegetables. While she's already been farming the plot for 18 months, she admits she's still learning how best to work the land.

"It's going to take some time to get to know each other."

BLOWBACK

Though Healdsburg is arguably the culinary star of Sonoma County, not everyone was eager to see Single Thread come to town. Months before they opened, the Connaughtons were hit by a rash of opposition by those who saw it as a gilded enclave for the 1 percent. While Healdsburg had long since gone from sleepy farming community to a NorCal Aspen, critics said Single Thread went too far. Adding to that sentiment is the building itself. It's owned by winemaker Pete Seghesio and it's built on the site of downtown Healdsburg's post office, and, as such, the location evokes strong feelings of civic pride and ownership among many long-time city residents.

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Kyle has tried to see the upside to the criticism.

"It showed us that it was important to be part of the community and not just say we're going to come here and build some sort of ivory tower," he says. "You have to appreciate that people care that much about this community."

Once Single Thread opened, the negative sentiment seemed to fade and the glowing press reviews came in. But the criticism reignited with a vengeance when news broke in January that a mechanic's lien had been filed by Mike Behler, co-owner of Behler Construction, against the restaurant's New York developer. Behler claims developer Tony Greenberg failed to pay him and more than a dozen contractors nearly $400,000. The Connaughtons are not named in the lien, but it hasn't helped the restaurant's image.

"Normal people wonder how you could feel good about spending a small family's monthly grocery budget on one meal," a reader commented on a Press Democrat story about the contractor's dispute. "Furthermore, you supported people with Donald Trump's sense of business ethics, make the working class work on spec and then stiff them."

In a statement, developer Tony Greenberg said his firm did not withhold payment, but that Behler filed the lien before he had submitted a final bill. Greenberg says more than $400,000 has been set aside to pay Behler and his subcontractors "to ensure that 100 percent of whatever final payments Behler owes each and every subcontractor is covered. We implore Mr. Behler to pay all of his subcontractors in full or release the lien and allow us to pay them directly."

Behler says he did submit a final bill in December and payment for earlier bills have been delinquent.

"If we didn't file suit against them, they would just let it go and they wouldn't be required to pay us," he says.

In spite of the dispute, he wishes Kyle and Katina well.

"They seem like great people," he says. "We really have no issue with Kyle and Katina."

While the lien isn't the kind of publicity a new restaurant trying to win over locals wants, Kyle says they are committed to Healdsburg.

"We have to be ambassadors," he says, pointing to work they've done with the Sonoma Land Trust and local food pantries. "It's a small community. We need to show who we really are."

A STAR ON THE RISE

If a restaurant of Single Thread's caliber opened in Napa County, it would not be met with complaints over the high prices. Napa has been there, done that. In some ways, the Connaughtons are pioneers in Sonoma County, where the fine-dining scene is not on the same level as Napa's. The 2016 Michelin Guide lists only two restaurants in Sonoma County with the coveted stars: Terrapin Creek and Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant each have one star. In addition to three stars for Meadowood and the French Laundry, the guide awarded single stars to five other Napa County restaurants. That's a total of 11 stars.

Douglas Keene's Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg was Healdsburg's premier fine-dining restaurant. It earned two Michelin stars before it closed in 2012, but did not incur the kind of populist criticism leveled at Single Thread.

But Kyle sees Sonoma County's culinary star as rising, particularly in Healdsburg.

"If it wasn't me, it would be someone else. And there may be someone else behind me.

There's so much room here to showcase food at all different levels. I'm excited about the future."

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