Michelin’s credibility and bold vegan vision fail to inspire SingleThread spin-off

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On paper, he has as many assets as a thoroughbred racehorse. Opened last April, the ambitious Healdsburg restaurant comes from the SingleThread team, winner of a Michelin star and ranked among the 50 best restaurants in the world. Its menu of completely meatless delicacies is built in conjunction with its own farm (plus SingleThread’s recently expanded farm), and its position in the heart of Wine Country gives it access to some of California’s best food and wine producers.

When dining out, whether in the main dining room or the upstairs lounge where indie rock star Phoebe Bridgers performed a surprise show two weeks ago, you do so amid the silent rustle of gently swaying eucalyptus branches. Little Saint’s 10,000 square foot space – formerly the award-winning Shed – is filled with myriad concepts, including a coffee bar stocked with beans from independent roasters and a retail section with perfect stacks of summer and pottery squash.

So why is it not working?

Little Saint inhabits a space of 10,000 squares, with a coffee bar, cafe and shop.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

While there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the Bay Area, Little Saint is the area’s most prominent vegan restaurant opened from the great Ubuntu in Napa. Katina and Kyle Connaughton, whose company, Vertice Hospitality, operates the restaurant, also New York City Eleven Madison Park as a contemporary. This restaurant, another Michelin Guide favourite, replaced its $365 menu with a mostly vegan menu in 2021, hoping to draw more attention to meat’s role in the planet’s climate crisis. Since then it has generated mixed reviews and, perhaps more damningly, presentations highlighting the increase in food waste and worker exploitation.

But first, I need to clarify – Little Saint may technically be vegan, with no animal products, but their service staff are hesitant to use the word when you ask, preferring “plant-based” or “vegetable- forward” instead. It’s the gentle approach favored by peer-reviewed restaurants like San Francisco’s Wildseed and food-tech companies like Impossible Foods, who are careful not to scare off finicky meat eaters who don’t want to be seen in public doing too many lifestyle choices. You don’t experience it per se – you’re just ‘based’ there sometimes. With the exception of co-owner Laurie Ubben, a philanthropist and animal rights activist, most of those involved are not vegan.

Namely, these days, “plant-based” works as a signal that these companies are for omnivores who enjoy meat but may want to eat less of it for environmental or health reasons. “We’re not necessarily trying to convert people to go vegan, but we’re really trying to say that this way of eating can be really enjoyable,” said SingleThread chef and owner Kyle Connaughton. Robb Report.

Unfortunately for the mission, the restaurant stumbles upon even achieving its relatively modest goal of enjoyment.

Vegan spreads and snacks from the “Larder” menu at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

Vegan spreads and snacks from the “Larder” menu at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The dinner menu is divided into three categories: ‘From the pantry’, ‘From the fields’ and ‘From the wood-fired oven’, which basically go from smaller dishes to heartier, starchy ones. Committed to a relaxed style, the format favors family food.

The kitchen staff, led by former Shed chef Bryan Oliver, uses a variety of cooking techniques to extract as much flavor as possible from fruits and vegetables. Nuts and seeds are ground into creamy sauces and spreads, root vegetables are dehydrated to generate a meatier chew, and almost every dish includes a swirl or dollop of salsa verde or tart conserva. A wood-fired oven in the center of the open kitchen pumps out marbled discs of lavash and cast-iron pans of biryani.

But while SingleThread’s food is admirable for its delicacy and precision, Little Saint’s approach is like loading activated cashews into a shotgun. Although the restaurant claims to celebrate seasonal produce the way others might celebrate steak and pork belly, the heavy seasoning obscures the ingredients and confuses the palate. It’s like overcompensation.

Romaine bean salad (with Mayfair dressing, horseradish, tomatoes and sumac breadcrumbs) at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

Romaine bean salad (with Mayfair dressing, horseradish, tomatoes and sumac breadcrumbs) at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

On my visits, too many dishes I tried were marred by chaotic flavors. Juicy Blanched Roman Beans ($15) were just spectators in a tussle between a creamy, anchovy-less, but aggressively seasoned Mayfair dressing; sour sumac breadcrumbs; sour grape tomatoes and grated horseradish. A Tokyo Cucumber and Turnip Salad ($17) was also blasted with too much acid from a Thai-style nam prik dressing that made its accompanying mashed pistachios taste muddy. You come out craving the daily purity of ants on a log.

In a family meal, we do not expect to eat the entire dish; it’s more like speed dating, where each encounter has a few moments to make a memorable impression. But even the brief jokes I had with these dishes were too much.

The over-complication of things was made even more dramatic in a carrot dish I tried in late spring. The thick, cigar-sized roasted carrots ($16) were literally buried under a pile of shredded red cabbage and puffed rice, covered in black ash. When I caught a carrot, it was mostly raw. And it was the best of the dishes I tried that night.

The yellow corn and mushroom biryani (with basmati rice, pickled raisins and fried onions) at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

The yellow corn and mushroom biryani (with basmati rice, pickled raisins and fried onions) at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

One of the must-haves on the menu is a biryani ($41) meant for two, and I had high hopes for that, given its advertised turn in the wood-fired oven and the proliferation of vegetarian versions in the sub. Indian continent. It looked the part, covered in golden curls of fried onions, plump pickled raisins and tiny pink rose petals. But underneath the basmati rice was a bland layer of sweet corn and mixed mushrooms, the latter sadly soft and rubbery, having steamed in the oven while cooking.

The upstairs living room at Little Saint in Healdsburg, California.

The upstairs living room at Little Saint in Healdsburg, California.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

But there were positives during my visits where everything – the ambitions and the space that houses them – clicked.

The upstairs bar just opened a few weeks ago with a small menu of bar snacks, like heirloom popcorn sprinkled with grilled nori ($7) and eggplant dip ($8). The balcony on the west side of the building overlooks Foss Creek and is bathed in sunlight as it moves in the golden hour, making it a particularly pleasant place to sit.

Here, the food is simplified to fit the setting, and that’s why it works. You could really taste the sweetness of the corn in the Creamy Corn Dip ($16), which was served in a cast iron skillet with chunky, toasted pieces of sourdough from Healdsburg Quail & Condor Bakery. And a plate of zucchini tempura ($17) had a bang-on fry and two delicious sauces served on the side: a perky kumquat sauce inspired by peppery Japanese yuzu kosho and creamy cashew-based ranch.

Tempura zucchini served with cashew ranch and kumquat kosho, a menu item at Little Saint Lounge in Healdsburg, California.

Tempura zucchini served with cashew ranch and kumquat kosho, a menu item at Little Saint Lounge in Healdsburg, California.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

During the day, the café-bar and café are open with simple menus: the first with a few vegan pastries and the second with a bowl of cereal of the day ($17) and prepared salads ($7 or $13) in a deli box. Little Saint feels more like the community space it aspires to be then, and you can lounge comfortably on the front patio or downstairs lounge with coffee and cake.

That said, the cereal bowl, consisting mostly of rice with about a third cup of root vegetables and greens served on top, seemed very expensive for what it was. This points to another challenge that Little Saint clearly faces, and it’s one that vegan and vegetarian communities have solved in various ways for millennia: protein. Oakland’s Millennium makes full use of traditional plant proteins like tempeh and tofu to round out its menu; Lion Dance Cafe loads its noodles with spicy peanuts and yuba. If anything, if you feel full at the end of a meal at Little Saint, it’s probably because you’ve filled up on carbs more than anything else. A small number of dishes on the current dinner menu contain a decent amount of vegetable protein.

This fact is another blow to the restaurant’s goal of appealing to meat eaters, especially those who feel they need animal products at every meal to feel full. For a concept that seems fully aware of the trade-offs it makes in the name of popular appeal, this seems like a strange oversight.

As things stand, I don’t know if Little Saint is going to convince anyone to eat more vegetables.

Soleil Ho is the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @hooleil

25 North St. (at Foss Street), Healdsburg. 707-433-8207 or www.littlesainthealdsburg.com

Hours: 6am-9pm Monday and Thursday-Sunday; 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Wednesday.

Accessibility: Good access to the tables. Access by elevator to the living room upstairs. Heavy doors at the entrance. Gendered toilets.

Noise level: Moderate

Meal for two, excluding drinks: 80$-100$

What to order: Corn dip, zucchini tempura

Meatless options: The full menu is vegan.

Drinks: Full bar.

Transportation: Street parking.

Best Practices: Go grab a snack in the upstairs living room.


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