California Road Trip: Day Two

May 20, 2017

Heading north from Los Gatos toward the Napa Valley, if you stay on the east side of the bay you drive through tawny hills and cross lovely little waterways.  You also, surprisingly, hit a lot of traffic. What should take a couple of hours stretches to three, then more.  

No matter, we’re among friends and we talk the entire way.

Actually, we do more than that. We argue over where to eat.  So many choices!  In the end we opt for the two day old Acacia House at Las Alcobas Hotel, mostly out of curiosity. Chris Cosentino is a chef I admire; he won Top Chef Masters one of the years I was judging, absolutely crushing the competition. But his virile offal-centric cooking strikes me as a strange choice for a boutique hotel.

It seems even odder once we arrive: Las Alcobas is so graciously old fashioned you expect to step onto that deep wrap-around porch and find people fanning themselves as they drink sweet tea and speak in southern accents. How can Chris fit in here? 

But the man, it turns out, is a cat of many spots. The appropriate adjective for the food he’s serving here is… lovely.  Like that little salad above, with its uni, its uni butter, its infant vegetables, this is very pretty food.

And very delicious.

I loved his version of chips and dips: thick labeneh is swirled with olive oil and lemon juice, crowned with caviar and a tiara of potato chips.

And look what a dainty dish he makes of lamb tartare with flatbread!

This icy little salad comes with a white bean pesto dip.

But my favorite – the dish that stays with me – is this spring bouquet of pasta.  Deep green pea rigatoni is tossed with sweet fresh peas and topped with pea greens then spun into parmesan-enriched creme fraiche. Hiding underneath it all, like little gifts, are small morels. (I should, perhaps mention, that those in need of more manly food are well served here as well: there’s a great burger, a steak, a monster mole sandwich…. And coming soon is home-brewed beer.)

This lovely, refreshing little rose popsicle makes the perfect ending.

And then, over the hill and through the Russian River Valley to Healdsburg and the fantastic Healdsburg Hotel.  I love this modern inn with its comfortable beds and delicious bathrooms. But we’ve come to experience the most written-about new restaurant in the country. Can Singlethread  be as good as the hype?

How to talk about Singlethread?  It’s the dream – the crazy dream – of Kyle and Katinka Connaughton who have spent their entire lives working toward this fantastic creation. They’ve built what looks like a Japanese farmhouse in the middle of Healdsburg.  They also have a small farm a few miles away where they raise fruits, herbs, vegetables and rare chickens. 

Kyle and Katina obsess about the details – down to the double-walled  titanium water glasses, that keep water icy cold and coffee very hot.  (You’re going to covet them, but it turns out each little cup costs $175 .)  The wine glasses are so thin you’re afraid they’ll snap off in your hand.  And the kitchen has cameras trained on your table, in order to perfectly time your meal. 

The meal is a California kaiseki. (Kyle grew up partly in Japan, and then worked at Miyamasou and Michel Bras’ restaurant, Toyo Japon in Hokkeido. Meanwhile Katinka was working on Japanese farms and the couple forged a relationship with the great donabe makers, the  Nagatani family, who make the clay cooking pots and much of the pottery.)

We sat down to find that huge still-life above already arranged across the table.  It was the most delightful little treasure hunt offering dozens of hidden treats.  Eating slowly, it could easily take an hour to make your way through all the delights on the table. My favorites were the gently pickled oyster, the geoduck in gelee, crab claws, uni, sashimi. And I loved this tiny little egg with caviar.

Next up: kanpachi with frozen cara cara orange,

This little jewel was sugar snap pea blossoms, Dungeness crab, salsify, preserved lemon.  

A walk in the woods….

King salmon with char roe and myoga.

Poached foie gras with a tea of last year’s tomatoes and turnips

Black cod, maitake mushrooms, leeks, broth of young lettuces

This was the most remarkable slice of duck: a Duclair which tasted so wild I imagined I was tasting everything the bird had consumed during its journey through the world:   morels, white mushrooms, asparagus, green garlic.  

The heart of the duck is buried in here, along with grains, herbs and a little farro beignet.

A shiso sorbet created a little interlude, followed by  hojicha ice cream with a cherry compote.

Singlethread is an extraordinary experience – but it’s not for everyone.  This is a contemplative temple of dining that demands your attention. If you’re planning a meal here, I’d suggest going with a couple rather than a group. You want to look across the table to someone who enjoys eating as much as you do, someone whose main desire is to focus on the food. And then, if you’re really lucky, you can retire to one of the rooms in the inn upstairs.

Up tomorrow: pure fun. Great salad, oysters… and the most extraordinary place to stay.

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