SingleThread's kaiseki-influenced dining features creatively presented small plates

Japanese Cuisine a Favorite of Yours?

If so, head to California’s wine country.

BY GAYLE KECK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEXANDER RUBIN

This cooking style gets top billing at three new Japanese-influenced restaurants in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Their chefs - all with coveted Michelin stars in their backgrounds - don't disappoint.

Click here to get a closer look at these Japanese-influenced restaurants

1. SINGLETHREAD
Husband and Wife Team Winning Raves Nationally

It happens when the waiter sets a simple wooden spoon in front of me midway through my meal at SingleThread. I'm momentarily overwhelmed with a touch of the so-called Florence syndrome, the dizzying state that affects some visitors when they're exposed to that Italian city's masterpieces. But I'm in Northern California's Sonoma County, dining at one of the most talked-about new restaurants in the U.S.

SingleThread is one of three new Japanese-influenced venues to open in the wine country over the last 18 months. Each of the chefs has Michelin stars in his background and each brings a unique interpretation to the cuisine. I'm visiting to get a taste of their cooking, a bold departure from typical Cal-European wine country fare.

At SingleThread, I blink back tears when I gaze at the lovely grain and harmonious shape of that cedarwood spoon, realizing it isn't just the implement but everything about the meal leading up to that moment that has impacted me. It began when I arrived, with a peek into the kitchen, where a cook handed me a welcome drink. Then it continued on the restaurant's roof deck, with a glass of wine and three perfect bites, delivered on a platter resembling a Zen rock garden. One of those bites was a pea pod just picked from the restaurant's 5-acre farm.

Chef Kyle Connaughton heads up SingleThread's kitchen, while his wife, Katina, runs their farm, puts together the restaurant's magnificent floral displays, and adorns serving plates with miniature landscapes. Connaughton worked at two Michelin three-star restaurants: Michel Bras in Japan (2003-2006) and the Fat Duck in England (2006-2011).

The restaurant's name stands for the "single thread" connecting farm to kitchen, an expression of the Japanese concept shun, to serve each ingredient at its perfect moment in time. Connaughton's prix fixe menus loosely follow the structure of a kaiseki meal - the rarefied Kyoto style of dining featuring a parade of artful small plates - but with creative nods to American tastes and wine-friendly dining.

Entering the main restaurant, I discover a miniature moss garden on my table, studded with eight small dishes, including a caviar-topped oyster, tiny pickled carrots, sashimi, and tempura matsutake mushrooms. That's followed by an eggshell from one of the farm's Ameraucana chickens filled with savory custard (similar to Japanese chawanmushi), pureed spinach, and smoked sabayon - set in a nest of lichen gathered from farm trees.

The meal proceeds through 10 more courses, focusing first on seafood with a Japanese influence paired with white wines. A standout is local salmon with shio koji (fermented rice seasoning) and young ginger from the farm. An umami-rich foie gras course pairs well with sake and leads to heartier dishes, including North Coast black cod with vegetables cooked in a donabe, a lidded earthenware pot Connaughton uses to steam, smoke, and simmer ingredients. Duck and rich wagyu beef courses deliver a French sensibility, made to match with red wines. Two dessert offerings, cooling lemon-verbena granita and roasted-tea ice cream, feature seasonal fruits (the farm also includes an heirloom orchard).

Every detail of the serving ware is exquisite, from a titanium drinking vessel to the glazed, earthen Japanese dishes, different with each course. At one point, I choose a steak knife from a case; at another, a server offers sake cups from a basket, where they nestle like precious Easter eggs.

The dining room is divided into four intimate areas, one looking into the open kitchen. Between courses, I admire the meditative way cooks work or I study the decor, warm with redwood paneling, woven room dividers, and tiles shaped from clay dug on the farm. Walnut tables are inlaid with brass, and banquettes lined with pillows account for much of the seating. It all feels luxe and harmonious.

As I leave, the mâitre d' presents me with a folder containing my personal menu, a handwritten note from Katina, and a packet of Kujo Negi scallion  seeds - the one crop that grows year-round on the farm. I feel like I've been on a wonderful journey, with a master chef and polished team as my guides. "We practice kaizen, the art of continuous improvement," my server explained when I arrived. But at SingleThread, there's precious little to improve.

Details: 131 North St., Healdsburg, Calif.; 707-723-4646; singlethreadfarms.com; reservations required; from $293 prix fixe, includes service and tax; wine pairings additional; allow three hours to dine


2. KENZO
You'll Think You're in Kyoto


A new Napa kaiseki restaurant with a modern, spare decor is the passion project of winery owners Kenzo and Natsuko Tsujimoto. Here, sit at the bar so you can watch Chef Eiji Onoyama, previously head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Tokyo branch of Kikunoi, the legendary Kyoto kaiseki restaurant. Onoyama speaks limited English but communicates through his food, turning out a stunning seasonal menu that pairs with Kenzo Estate wines.

I start with poached blue shrimp with shiitake mushrooms and a foam of Kenzo Estate olive oil. Next comes a lacquered box filled with refined appetizers - the traditional hassun course - including sea urchin with double-fermented soy sauce (a far cry from Kikkoman!) and abalone with a spicy-cool wasabi gelée.

Kenzo flies in its seafood daily from Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, so multiple fish courses prove spectacularly fresh. My favorite: the straw-smoked bluefin tuna in sesame sauce, paired with Kenzo's Yui Rosé. "Pink and pink!" Onoyama proclaims. Later, he brings out kombu seaweed and dried bonito to show how he makes dashi broth, a Japanese staple.

Wagyu tenderloin is a decadent delight, followed by the traditional sushi course, soup, and three desserts, including a velvety soy panna cotta with mango and a green-matcha-tea ice-cream sandwich. I find it shocking to walk out the door and into Napa, not Kyoto.

Details: 1339 Pearl St., Napa, Calif.; 707-294-2049; kenzonapa.com; $225 prix fixe, including service; wine pairings extra; allow two-and-a-half hours to dine


3. TWO BIRDS/ONE STONE
Chef Duo Teaming Up in the Kitchen


With dishes made for sharing, Two Birds/One Stone takes a more casual approach to Japanese cuisine. The result of a "bromance" between Chef Douglas Keane (who earned two Michelin stars at Sonoma's Cyrus) and Chef Sang Yoon (veteran of Michelin-starred kitchens in the U.S. and Paris), the restaurant reflects their love of Japanese cuisine, with touches of other Asian flavors. It's housed in an airy, barrel-vaulted space with a large outdoor terrace.

Every staff member I quiz has a different menu favorite, but all label the savory pancake (okonomiyaki) stellar - and I agree. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, the dish arrives topped with sambal mayonnaise and delicate shaved bonito that wafts in the rising heat. I can't stop eating it. Other must-haves include spinach in sesame-rice wine dressing (the best version of goma-ae ever), a dry-aged duck leg cooked confit-style then deep-fried, and crispy chicken wings in a spicy-sweet chili-yuzu glaze. I finish with white-miso soft-serve ice cream. Yes, it sounds odd, but the alchemy of savory and sweet amazes me.

With Two Birds/One Stone's generous corkage policy, you can bring one bottle of Napa/Sonoma wine free per customer; or choose from a list of bottles local winemakers produce specifically for the restaurant, plus a vast Japanese whiskey selection.

Details: 3020 St. Helena Highway North, St. Helena, Calif. (at Freemark Abbey Winery); 707-302-3777; twobirdsonestonenapa.com

 

New Hotels in Wine Country

LAS ALCOBAS NAPA VALLEY
There may be no better way to end a day in Napa Valley than relaxing on your super-size balcony at this 68-room Luxury Collection hotel in St. Helena. Gaze out over vineyards, warmed by a glass of cabernet and the flames leaping in your fire pit. King beds and soaking tubs in select rooms, chic Italian design (furnishings by Casa Zeta), bathrooms clad in Carrara marble mosaics, and a minibar chock-full of complimentary drinks and snacks seal the deal. Head to the gleaming white, circa-1905 Acacia House for food and libations by Chef Chris Cosentino, or sample treatments with ancient roots and get a custom aromatherapy blend at Atrio spa. From $695. 707-963-7000; lasalcobas.com

SINGLETHREAD INN
Just upstairs from the namesake restaurant are four airy rooms and one suite, all with fireplaces. You'll find treats from the kitchen and wake up to a tempting menu, including smoked trout, a full Japanese breakfast, and a frittata with farm vegetables. Huge bathrooms have soaking tubs and intriguing amenities such as jet-black toothbrushes infused with Japanese Binchotan charcoal, a breath freshener and antibacterial agent. From $800. 707-723-4646; singlethreadfarms.com

ARCHER HOTEL NAPA
For a more urban feel, head to this 183-room property, opening this fall in the heart of Napa's revived downtown. Its rooftop offers views plus a pool, with bar and bites by Charlie Palmer. Opt for a king suite, featuring wraparound photo murals, curtained beds, and generous balconies with fireplaces -  all with a modern sensibility and neutral  color palette. From $199. 855-437-9100; archerhotel.com/napa

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