The return of International travel finally feels on the horizon and Healdsburg's SingleThread restaurant is offering a taste of what's to come via a heavenly, four-hour journey to the shores of a Japanese island.
The three-Michelin-starred restaurant has partnered with San Francisco designer Ken Fulk for a special dining experience called Usu-Zan: A Homage to Wintertime in Hokkaido. While the original launch was paused during the last shutdown at the end of 2020, it's back and extended through May 31st.
Usu-Zan is the name of a small, active volcano in a remote village where SingleThread proprietors Kyle and Katina Connaughton lived while in Hokkaido. The Usu-Zan experience in Healdsburg takes place inside a massive tent adjacent to the restaurant, but you don't feel like you're in a tent at all once inside (and I've dined in a lot of tents in the past year). Instead, it feels like you're in a Japanese forest. Surrounded by greenery, the tent was filled with soft and neutral-toned traditional furnishings, like wooden screens that separate the space into small rooms and Japanese lanterns.
Designer Ken Fulk has set a dreamy zen-style backdrop for SingleThread's Hokkaido-inspired Usu-Zan dinners.(Joe Weaver)
Hokkaido is renowned for its seafood and thus the nine-course adventure was seafood-centric, with many of the ingredients sourced from producers the Connaughtons met throughout the island, as well as from SingleThread's own farm and purveyors in California and the Pacific Northwest. It was a unique and intimate perspective of the Connaughtons' everyday life, where their hearts lie in two places at once: Hokkaido and Healdsburg.
The restaurant set the tone for the evening from the moment we reached our table, which was already set with the first course, which is actually a collection of tiny bites that are individually plated on equally tiny plates and arranged into a whimsical, edible garden with real greenery and flowers. The spread featured many of my favorite treats, like oysters, salmon, crab, and caviar. It was a true work of art that I felt a little bit guilty eating...until that first, eye-closing bite.
There were two plates for every nibble (roughly a dozen each), so my husband and I didn't have to fight over any of it, and we got to choose our own adventure in terms of the order in which we grazed. Then suddenly, just as the intricacies of the first course were sinking in, an additional three bites were brought out, including a delicious duck breast with the most perfectly crisped skin and an egg custard that was delicately plated inside an eggshell and rested atop a nest of moss.
A double-layered ceramic box marked the true start of our epicurean journey. Inside were two interpretations of two varieties of scallops; the first was sourced from Lopez Island, the second from Hokkaido. I can honestly say that the cooked Washington scallop in a wild seaweed butter was one of the best single bites of my life.
SingleThread's hobayaki venison, grilled and served on a giant Mongolia leaf.(Joe Weaver)
Each dish has a story, like the uni ikura don, an elevated twist on the traditional sea urchin dish in Hokkaido. SingleThread replaced salmon for smoked trout roe, rice for an arrested malted potato—the smoothest and fluffiest potatoes I've ever eaten, they threatened to outshine the sea urchin—and added braised spinach.
The next course was an interactive, build-your-own-taco scenario. You don't usually expect to have to work for your dinner at a restaurant of such pedigree, but I personally enjoyed it and felt that it actually made the whole experience feel a bit more relaxed. Our servers brought out two pieces of cod from the Sonoma Coast, which were smoking over a little grill with cherry blossom wood; purple barley crepes; king trumpet mushrooms; and other fixings like a shio koji vinaigrette and a ginger and radish sauce made from the cod's roasted bones. Assembling the taco (and eating it) was quite messy, but also a nice break in the formality.
Another standout presentation was the hobayaki venison, grilled and served on a giant Mongolia leaf. Served in a caramelized carrot miso with slightly sweet, Hokkaido milk bread on the side, this was one of the night's most memorable dishes.
But the main event of the evening was the hot pot, cooked and served in a special handmade donabe from a family in the province of Iga and made to be shared amongst the table. While many other guests seemingly opted for the A-5 wagyu beef hot pot, we got the king crab and seafood version. There are also duck and vegetarian tofu options and the pricing of each varies.
I nearly clapped with glee when they brought out the towering plate of crab from North Hokkaido and the Okhotsk Sea—along with a second plate packed with mussels, clams, shrimp, salmon, tofu, and veggies—to inspect before they put it all together in the miso broth.
The king crab hot pot.(Camila Salazar Gomez)
One of the most common fine dining critiques is that the plates are always so small, often just a bite or two worth of food, but this hot pot alone would have easily filled us up. Alas, it was one of many courses, and our servers reassured us that we could take the rest home. They even packed up a jar of their delicious Chunky La-Yu condiment and we enjoyed the last of the hot pot again the next night. The hot pot then carried over into the final savory dish of the evening, a rice porridge with king crab, egg, and chive that tasted like a seafood version of chicken noodle soup, the perfect cure for pandemic burnout.
Dessert came in a few waves and included burnt orange shaved ice served in a hollowed-out mandarin, a traditional Japanese dessert. The magical, four-hour evening concluded much like it started, with us nibbling an assortment of small bites, though this time they were sweet. We left happy and full, but diner's beware: This evening will only enliven one's insatiable appetite for travel.
// SingleThread's Usu-Zan experience is offered Thursdays through Mondays, starting at $375 per person; 131 North St. (Healdsburg), singlethreadfarms.com.