Unspooling SingleThread

Words by Andrea Gemmet

Words by Andrea Gemmet

In our spacious suite at SingleThread Inn in Healdsburg, Natalie Aman is deftly orchestrating an intimate meal. Downstairs in its restaurant, her fiance is pouring wine for diners who are oohing and aahing their way through the highly acclaimed 10-course tasting menu. My husband and I are here to experience the more relaxed way to sample Chef Kyle Connaughton’s exquisite Japanese-influenced cuisine: a four-course, in-room donabe dinner.

When we exclaim that it must be rare to work with your partner, Natalie lets us in on a secret: They are far from the only couple on the staff. “We like to say that SingleThread is for lovers,” she declares.

After all, it takes a lot more than visionary culinary talent to earn three stars, the Michelin Guide’s highest honor. It’s not just the food but the entire experience, from being greeted by name at the door to the handwritten thank-you note when you leave. To get every detail exactly right requires a large and skillful team to achieve the “impeccable ingredients, precise, artistic presentation and pure, harmonious flavors,” described by the most recent Michelin Guide.

Photo: SingleThread / Cover Photo: Annie Barnett

And the many closely connected staffers behind the famed restaurant, its five-room inn and 24-acre farm just might be taking their cues from the top. SingleThread is the joint endeavor of Chef Kyle and his wife, head farmer Katina Connaughton. Head of hospitality Akeel Shah reveals that his own wife is chef de cuisine Marley Brown. “I met Marley at the restaurant in its first few months, and now we’re expecting our first baby,” Akeel shares. Perhaps it’s a natural expression of SingleThread’s desire to foster a friendlier kitchen culture in an elite restaurant, eschewing the “people yelling at you the whole time” scenario depicted on reality TV shows featuring Gordon Ramsey.

It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling here. The pervasive vibe at SingleThread is one of effortless, zen-like calm, where every detail is carefully considered, and the staff is adept at intuiting guests’ needs before they realize they want something. “We call it unconscious hospitality,” Akeel says. It’s SingleThread’s take on omotenashi—wholeheartedly taking care of guests—and a reflection of Kyle’s many years in Japan, where he studied and cooked in restaurants.

Photo: Annie Barnett

SingleThread’s intimate connection to the land, both through its nearby farm and its partnerships with local growers and artisans, is responsible for its ever-changing menu. The day’s harvest informs everything on your table, including the flower arrangements. Here, you’ll never eat exactly the same meal twice.

We’ve driven up on an unusually warm spring day in Sonoma County, strolling around downtown Healdsburg before arriving, hot and tired, at our wonderfully airy room at the Inn. On the kitchenette counter, a flower-filled bowl containing a welcome snack of onigiri rice balls thwarts my resolution to save room for dinner.

Exploring the suite, we discover both a coffee maker and a Cuzen Matcha machine for making freshly ground green tea. A deep soaking tub in the enormous bathroom beckons. Opposite the king-sized bed, a large flat-screen TV emits soothing, spa-like music while a documentary about SingleThread plays on a loop. Chef Kyle, when he drops in later to see how dinner is going, jokes that they need to update the film because his hair’s gotten a lot whiter since it was made.

Photo: Annie Barnett

We could have chosen to eat on the sunny rooftop or in the cozy common room, but staying put in our well-appointed suite was irresistible. I had half-expected something like room service, where the food is dropped off, but that was far from the case. The attentive service during the thoughtfully paced meal is akin to having a private dinner in a top-flight restaurant.
While the in-room donabe dining was envisioned from the start, SingleThread was open for about a year before launching it. “It’s one of my favorite things we do,” Akeel confides, calling it the perfect way to end a long day of wine-tasting and sightseeing, and describing the experience as “almost Japanese-style.”

Almost Japanese-style is a good way to describe a lot of things at SingleThread, from the pottery of the place settings and harmonious interiors to the ingredients and underlying philosophy. It’s not billed as a Japanese restaurant, but for anyone accustomed to kaiseki dining, the seasonal menu of small, intricately prepared dishes is going to feel very familiar.

Our donabe meal starts with an abridged version of the restaurant’s hassun, an artful array of small bites, including a tiny, briny firefly squid, a refreshing silken tofu topped with paper-thin zucchini and sparkling orange trout roe, and a scallop-topped shrimp tamago. Next is a course of shima-aji, pressed sushi made with striped jack, garnished with a deep-fried cherry blossom.

Photo: Annie Barnett

For the shabu-shabu main course, a handmade clay donabe pot arrives, filled with steaming liquid. Sauces and side dishes are aesthetically arranged, and a small end table is pressed into service. Natalie brings a large platter brimming with freshly picked farm vegetables, foraged mushrooms, housemade tofu and thin slices of A5 wagyu beef—all raw and ready to add to the simmering donabe atop a portable burner. Sommelier James Spain, who predicted I’d want my glass of crisp Cobb riesling followed by something red, appears with a delightful bottle of Reeve pinot noir from its Kiser Vineyard Suitcase Block.

Stewed strawberries provide a tangy-sweet contrast to an ethereal chocolatey concoction with black sesame. It’s the first time SingleThread has served a chocolate dessert, the fruit of a new relationship with Lydgate Farms in Hawaii. Magically, four hours have slipped by. We feel full, yet somehow virtuous from eating all those vegetables.

In the morning, we head to the rooftop, where our al fresco Japanese and English breakfasts are just as beautifully plated as our dinner. After checking out, we point the car toward Dry Creek Road and make a leisurely loop past SingleThread’s farm, crossing Lambert Bridge before heading home. As we pass acres of bright, leafy grape vines soaking up the sun, we share the small container of housemade yogurt sherbet marbled with strawberries from our room’s freezer. It tastes like spring.

Scoring a table at SingleThread can be tricky. If you book a room at SingleThread Inn, you’re guaranteed a table for two at the restaurant. singlethreadfarms.com