Poor Healdsburg. It’s just so damn charming, with its many quality restaurants and wineries and bars and cute shops, that the out-of-towners keep comin’ (like moths to a flame), and the locals get no peace. Things keep getting nicer, and more expensive, and the laid-back country charm is getting overrun and squeezed out a bit. Fie upon you, city slickers! (And I’m not helping matters by writing this piece.)
Of course, the biggest buzz to hit Healdsburg of late has been the arrival of SINGLE THREAD, most definitely my favorite dining experience of 2016, and my March meal there this year is still bright in my mind. It’s not only destination-worthy, it’s also one of those meals that’s worth saving for, truly. There are a lot of expensive tasting menus with amped-up luxury and hyped omakase going on in the SF dining scene and beyond, but this is a completely different level of luxury, one that is rooted in craft and rarity and nature.
Kyle and Katina Connaughton have created something so personal here (the two of them have been together since they were 15), and it all reflects their deep experience with and love for Japan (including Kyle’s seminal time working at Michel Bras Toya Japon in Hokkaido), and cooking, and nature, and ingredients, and craft. You can see what an extreme labor of love and thought Single Thread is—every square inch—and the more questions you ask, the deeper you go.
The award-winning design by AvroKO is so intentional, from the edges and width of the walnut tables to comfortably accommodate glassware to the brass finishes, the layout, the finely tuned lighting, the custom everything. The space feels simple and soothing yet dense with detail, like the Fibonacci series-inspired pattern on the kitchen doors that close at the end of service (and on the carpet). Those woven screens throughout the dining room? They represent different months, and the patterns are actually inspired by the DNA sequence of plants, like tomatoes (for August). Geek out at nature’s amazing math to your heart’s content.
It’s a very textural experience, you notice how everything feels in your hand, from the cutlery to the napkins to the table, from the nubby texture of ceramic to the lightest wooden spoon. It’s also very peaceful—the volume of the restaurant is quite modulated. (Although one clunker for me has been the music—I was always paying too much attention to it, which didn’t seem right.)
Guests are initially invited to the rooftop to decompress from their drive from San Francisco (which is rarely pleasant) or wherever they’re coming in from, and any dietary restrictions or aversions are discussed over a welcome beverage and bite. Now that our warm weather has arrived and their rooftop garden is growing in, you may not want to leave.
When you walk down to your table, you’ll discover it’s covered with the most exquisite place setting, the hassun course, a landscape of moss and branches with tiers tucked with bowls and plates and cups, each filled with small servings and bites, with some that you eat with your hands. It’s like you just sat down on a mushroom and started an Alice in Wonderland forest meal. Citrus-braised kohlrabi with Meyer lemon gel. Lightly pickled Kusshi oysters with freshly grated wasabi hiding under a layer of Passmore Ranch caviar and the tiniest blossoms. Roasted onion with melted potato topped with Dungeness crab. Carrots (lightly fermented) over a black sesame cream. Salt-braised celery root with a bergamot remoulade. It goes on.
Working closely with whatever Katina and crew are growing in their nearby five-acre sustainable farm, the kitchen has access to the freshest ingredients, which they want to present at the height of their flavor and expression. (Although they also know there is also something so exciting about being served the very first peas of the season on a cold night in March.) The menu is meant to shift not only with the seasons, but also the microshifts within the seasons, week by week, day by day. Each meal is designed to be a celebration of the moment—fleeting as it may be. A stunning foie gras mousse course—a series of nested circles, including an orb of persimmon and hickory nut, in a bed of glistening colorful leaves—was also a nod to the full moon outside.
Some restaurants have a full-time forager, but here, they have two full-time florists dedicated to assembling all the beautiful presentations of leaves, mosses, flowers, and other treasures that will find their way to your table throughout the evening. In a way, I don’t want to talk about it too much—there’s so much delight and wonder that unfolds with each course. (To add to the storytelling, your menu isn’t presented until the end of the meal, so you get to enjoy a surprise each time your servers approach your table.)
The experience definitely has an affinity to Japanese kaiseki—I was calling it Wine Country/NorCal kaiseki—with a purity of flavor, and dedication to the beauty of nature and craft. Japanese ingredients like umeboshi, ponzu, and shiso seamlessly intermingle with the bounty of Northern California. Flavors are never too strong, nor too subdued. They are balanced, with touches of pickled or fermented acidity counteracting any richness. They are not showy, but so gorgeous.
I found one of my meals here to be downright emotional—it really touched me, all this care for the guest. (Kyle and Katina’s hospitality has been inspired by ryokans in Japan, and the desire to to anticipate your every need.) Every detail is so carefully considered: the special water cups made from titanium have a chamber inside to trap the condensation, so they don’t sweat on the table, but also stay cold (or hot). The collection of rare donabe pots that some of your courses will be presented tableside in. The thoughtful expression of nature. The Zalto glassware that feels like it could fly away from your hand. The wine service from wine director Evan Hufford is so select and spot-on (which spans California selections to rare sakes), the tea service, the wondrous desserts from Matthew Siciliano that again make you feel like you became a sprite in the forest as you eat robin’s-egg blue shells made of chocolate with lemon verbena ganache inside. It’s a Midsummer, or Midwinter, or Mid-September’s, Night Dream.
The 11-course meal is $295, which includes service and tax. Wine pairings are additional ($200, or $385 for reserve pairings). You buy advance tickets on Tock, which are available up to two months in advance and are released on the first of each month.
And if you’re flush enough to stay on the premises, there is an inn upstairs with five peaceful and of course well-appointed rooms, with the same painstaking level of care and detail as the restaurant, from the in-room beers to the sound system that let’s you run your own music. (Inn guests also have an advantage in securing dinner reservations.) The property used to be a post office and is leased from the Seghesio family (as is the farm land).
I know not everyone in Healdsburg is thrilled with the arrival of this premium luxury property, complete with Tesla chargers, but what Kyle and Katina have created is not soulless luxury—it’s quite the opposite. It’s extremely rooted, but also rare, and artisan, and that all costs money. So I say only you can decide what you can afford, but if you’re looking for a memorable meal that will make you think, “Wow, they really love Northern California and here’s why,” you should book dinner here. And they just started lunch service on the weekend (but the price is the same), so there’s another option, and you don’t have to worry about the cost of staying overnight in Healdsburg that way. I feel like we are so lucky to have this restaurant nearby, don’t miss it.
One more thing to note: Single Thread is hosting a special event on Sunday August 13th: a screening of Eric Wolfinger’s full-length documentary, Dashi Journey, at SHED, plus a dinner at Single Thread with guest chef Shinobu Namae from Tokyo (L’Effervescence). Tickets.
Okay, so let’s talk about some other reasons to head to Healdsburg this summer:
—The patio at BRAVAS BAR DE TAPAS is such a fun place to be, with weekend paella in the summer, and the lengthy tapas menu just keeps getting better. You want their cava sangria, salmorejo (a smooth Andalusian-style gazpacho), plates of pan tomate and jamón Ibérico, and the cider-braised chorizo and Cloche Farm shishito peppers, which will all get you into summertime mode (many ingredients come from their farm). Even if you just come by for cocktails or sherry and a couple of tapas, it’s just right.
—The charcuterie and day boat scallops en croûte at VALETTE. The rest of the menu is full of seasonal and elegant dishes that highlight local produce and artisans (the brothers who own and run the restaurant have deep roots in the area and know everyone), plus you’ll get to explore a list full of boutique wines. But again, don’t miss chef Dustin Valette’s abundant housemade salumi platter; the scallops are also a showstopper.
—Cool off with some inventive and seasonal ice cream at NOBLE FOLK, like Japanese almond matcha or toasted sesame and maple. And there’s pie. And incredibly nice people who run it who love to feature the bounty of their community.
—Take a break from all the wine drinking at SONOMA CIDER, a father-and-son business that makes organic ciders, with many limited runs and experiments on draft (23 taps!), and don’t miss their apple brandy. There’s also music on Fridays, entertainment, a small but mighty kitchen, a patio, and a fun local scene. Open for lunch, happy hour, and dinner.
—You can also take a break from California wine at BERGAMOT ALLEY, where you’ll find Champagnes, chenin blanc from the Loire, and Sicilian reds, and they make some wicked grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s one of the few places open late (until 1am Tue-Sat), and the kitchen is open until midnight (Tue-Sun). Don’t miss their annual Seven % Solution event, focused on celebrating and perpetuating varietal diversity in California—this year it’s on Saturday July 22nd, tickets here.
—Have a nightcap at DUKE’S SPIRITED COCKTAILS right on the plaza (in the former John & Zeke’s). You’ll be easily distracted by the impressive selection of spirits, and the drinks are fun, seasonal (garden-fresh!), and well made (the partners are Steven Maduro, Laura Sanfilippo, Tara Heffernon, and Cappy Sorentino from Spoonbar, so they know what’s up). Try their carbonated drinks on tap—I was partial to Ms. Bojangles, made with Four Roses bourbon, house root beer, Fernet Branca, bitters, and phosphate. There are plenty of tables for your group, and the bar is looooong—pull on up.
—Stop by for breakfast or brunch at SHED CAFÉ. Perry Hoffman took over as culinary director and is offering a fantastic breakfast, like a rustic lemon ricotta pancake, and my dream dish of smoked trout and sunchokes with crème fraîche, pickled onions, chervil, preserved lemon, capers, poppy seeds, and toasted bread. Even the polenta and eggs were beautifully presented with fresh greens on top from their farm. They also have courses, classes, guest chefs, and more; keep up with the calendar when you subscribe to SHED’s newsletter.
—If you would rather have someone take you around to multiple places (with no wait!), one option is a food tour with SAVOR HEALDSBURG. They offer a variety of options, from farms to restaurants to tasting rooms and wineries, and will introduce you to the makers, give you some interesting backstories, and of course make sure you taste the best each place has to offer.
—Looking for a different place to have lunch? LAMBERT BRIDGE WINERY has an ongoing series of guest chef weekend lunches each month, like one coming up July 14th-16th with Mateo of Mateo’s Cocina Latina, paired with small-lot wines in the winery’s private cellar (and hosted by a Lambert Bridge wine educator). Seatings at 11am and 3pm; the chef’s table experience lasts approximately two hours. Each seating open to 10 guests. Tickets are $95 for Lambert Bridge members and $125 for nonmembers. Check the site for upcoming chefs and other special events, like the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour Dinner on Saturday August 5th. Reserve via email here.
—Accommodations can be tough to score in Healdsburg. The HOTEL HEALDSBURG is always a coveted reservation, with their updated natural modern-meets-shabby chic rooms in soothing colors, spa, and sixty-foot pool in the back (and it’s the site of Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, which has a new chef).
And then there’s their sister hotel, the eco-chic H2HOTEL, with Spoonbar conveniently downstairs. Both hotels offer some great packages and deals, especially in the off-season, so subscribe to their newsletters for updates.
—If you’re traveling with a group, like a few couples, or in my case, a couple with a baby, look into the spacious suite-style accommodations at TWO THIRTY-FIVE LUXURY SUITES. There are four suites, each with three bedrooms and bathrooms. While the style was a bit suburban for my taste, we enjoyed having a shared living room, dining room, and kitchen so we could hang out together. And the beds were dreamy (the sheets were supersoft), the location off the plaza can’t be beat, there’s easy parking, and their hospitality was homey and warm. It would be perfect for a girls’ getaway, and they also offer some great deals in the winter.
One more thing:
—Now, I know this is in nearby Geyserville, but for me, a summertime meal on the back patio of DIAVOLA is something I live for. Dino Bugica’s top-notch salumi, fire-kissed pizzas, perfect salads, badass tripe, seasonal dishes like soft-shell crab, and pastas, and…oh, good luck, you’re just going to have to show up hungry.
And there’s also Bugica’s Geyserville Gun Club a few doors up, where you can wait for your table with a *craft cocktail *(for just $10!), and even grab a bite.
Kudos to JORDAN WINERY for this excellent online resource they just launched—Wine Country Table—full of tips about local restaurants, bars, wineries, experiences, and more. It’s a wealth of info. (And ask about the new release of the Jordan Cuvée by Champagne AR Lenoble, which you can only purchase from the winery—feel free to bring a bottle back for me, heh.)
I also have some past Healdsburg tips here, scroll down and take a look!