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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.
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."