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Turning Japanese

A new crop of North Bay restaurants look East for inspiration

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SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Farther south in Napa, David Lu opened Eight Noodle Shop a year and a half ago for the simple reason that he loved noodles. "At the time," he says, "there was no other noodle shop in town."

Lu says Napa County has plenty of Mediterranean-, Italian- and French-inspired restaurants (he cooked at many of them), but felt the diners would respond to his restaurant. "They want something different and unique."

Lu, whose family is Chinese, figures the lack of "something different" stems from the region's homogeneity. But that appears to be changing, if not in ethnicity then in culinary sensibilities.

Erik Johnson, executive chef at Healdsburg's J Vineyards & Winery, works in several Japanese-inspired dishes into his tasting menus. He makes what he calls a "Sonoma County dashi" with locally grown shiitake mushrooms and bacon from Sonoma County Meats. The kombu (a thick seaweed) comes from local seaweed harvester Heidi Herrmann. It's the backbone of the dashi, the classic Japanese stock.

"I'm definitely a Japanophile," he says, "but it's great to get local stuff rather than from Japan." The salinity and funk of the seaweed are a great match for some of the winery's estate Pinot Noirs, he says.

One of the stars of the moment is chef Curtis Di Fede's Miminashi. Di Fede co-opened Napa's excellent Oenotri, a southern Italian restaurant, but he left to go in a totally different direction with Miminashi. The menu ranges from izakaya to ramen and sashimi, and expresses Di Fede's passion for Japanese food. Before opening Oenotri, he worked at Terra and Wagamama, a Japanese restaurant in London.

JUST ONE BITE

While his career has taken him to Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in London and the R&D kitchens of Chipotle in New York, Japanese cuisine is Kyle Connaughton's first and enduring passion.

It was a bite of sushi when he was nine years old that changed his life. That first taste of Japanese food in Southern California sent Connaughton on a journey into Japanese cuisine, culture and philosophy that continues today.

There are few non-Japanese chefs in the world with as much knowledge and training in Japanese food as Connaughton. He's been visiting the country since he was a boy. He speaks Japanese and lived there for three years. He attended two Japanese culinary academies and worked at two celebrated restaurants in Japan. He also spent three years writing a book on donabe cookware (Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Claypot Cooking), earthen vessels made by a family of masters that go back eight generations. He just got back from Japan three weeks ago where he presented a paper on the rise of umami-loaded foods in the American diet.

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"It all started with flavors," says Connaughton of his immersion in Japanese cuisine. Now, he says, the dedication to craftsmanship and mastery of skills are what most attract him to Japanese cuisine and culture.

ICHIBAN Kyle Connaughton's Single Thread is the most anticipated restaurant debut of 2016. - ERIC WOLFINGER
  • Eric Wolfinger
  • ICHIBAN Kyle Connaughton's Single Thread is the most anticipated restaurant debut of 2016.

This culinary journey has taken him to Healdsburg where he and Katina are in the final stages of opening Single Thread restaurant and inn, easily the North Bay's most anticipated restaurant of the year. It could open as soon as September.

Connaughton will oversee the kitchen, while his wife runs the restaurant's farm on the Russian River and tends the restaurant's rooftop garden. She's growing varieties of Japanese vegetables that aren't available here. Each day, produce from the farm will be transformed into that day's meal.

Like his fellow North Bay chefs mentioned above, Connaughton is quick to add that Single Thread will not be a Japanese restaurant. Think of it as a Japanese-inspired restaurant rooted in Sonoma County. The multicourse, kaiseki-style menu is meant to capture "that day, that moment of time," he says.

In many ways, that reverence for seasonality and the best expression of flavor and ingredients is very Japanese, and yet importing ingredients from Japan would be very un-Japanese.

"We want to showcase the best Sonoma County has to offer," Connaughton says. "We would never import vegetables. That would be crazy, especially given where we are."

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