I am a sucker for Zalto glassware. I love the mouthfeel of sipping out of an ultra thin glass (Shotoku Glass Co makes my favourite home drinkware). I’m also a sucker for the beautiful lines and weight balance of Cutipol flatware, particularly the Moon (and sometimes Goa) line. I love when restaurants showcase rustic ceramics from local makers. While not a sure sign that dinner will be fabulous, these non-food expressions suggest a certain mindset of the restauranteur that typically bode well for the food. Recent dinners at two restaurants checked all those boxes. What’s not to like?
Somni - Los Angeles, CA
At Somni, very little is not to like.
The decour is bright, clean, modern with whimsical accents. While everything is definitely beautiful and comfortable, this is not the place to go if you’re looking to gaze lovingly into your dining partner’s eyes across a sea of white table cloth. A 10-seater chef’s table surrounds an open plating kitchen (and further opens into the main cooking kitchen). Each course is presented by the kitchen staff with one member explaining the dish. They want your undivided attention and may interrupt your conversation flow. Food takes center stage here, and I love it.
And it was incredible. Tasty and delightful without gimmicks. Chef Aitor Zabala says it best: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”. No el Bulli spherification, foam only appeared once. Spoiler Alert. Some personal favourites. Chicken liver mousse on schmaltz cracklin, margherita pizza with a tomato meringue crust, croissant made from potato slices, dry aged steak tartare on a crispy shiso leaf tempura, smoked langoustine (LOVE), black truffle brioche, coconuty dungeness crab, and the damn highlight of the evening - grilled turbot wing with housemade teriyaki. The fish was so meaty we ate it like a rack of ribs. When it came to desserts, YJR said it best (damn boy can be poignant some times)...that he really appreciates the strong finish, “so often, dessert is treated as an after thought”. There were multiple dessert courses that were all delicious (I never feel this way, mostly because things are usually too sweet), but I remember the exploding matcha donut the best. (The staff is always helpful to remind you when things needed to be eaten in one bite. We did see a negroni that was encased in a strawberry run all over the counter a few seats down.)
The beverage pairing situation was something I rarely encounter. There were 20 some odd bites / dishes in the meal, but only 6 pairings. When the drinks are that delicious AND you have no idea how to pace yourself, it’s easy to get to the bottom of the glass before the pairing is over. What did they do about this? Pour you more. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ *Cue martini Bun* I find this to be far preferable to most other formats of wine pairings. It makes for a better, more relaxed experience. For one, not needing to taste a gajillion different wines (often which 75%+ are whites, blergh) means less palate fatigue. For another, the restaurant doesn’t appear stingy (arguably though, they’re pulling less bottles off the shelf, but they do have to pair each glass with a wider range of flavors and textures). The wines themselves were playful, but also delicious. Too often, restaurants err on one side or the other. I mean, I can only drink so much white wine with “notes of cement” or vin jaune. I’m also not here to drink a generically delicious Napa cab. We were actually able to finish most of our wines...which never happens for me. Less wastage YAY.
Service is on point. The entire kitchen staff interacted with all the guests (apparently, they were all given speech and performance training before opening). We had great banter with everyone - arguing SF vs LA food scene with chef Aitor (to be clear, we were for LA), discussing the mandarin dessert at Saison with chef Luca (apparently the ice cream uses a marshmallow base!!), and getting restaurant recs on where else to eat during our visit. No one was above picking up a dropped napkin. Chef was there to welcome (read: guide) me back in from using the hotel restrooms. Attentive without being stifling. While there were a few minor details that could be improved, I think the personable and charming service here definitely elevated the whole experience. Solid 2 Michelin star service.
The meal wasn’t perfect - there were a few lowlights for me (the icy cold avocado(?) cocktail starter, the green juice in the fish egg dish far outpowered the delicate roes, the caviar on bone marrow dish was too salty to taste any nuance), but they didn’t take away from an amazing dining experience. YJR said this was my best pick of tasting menu yet (at least in the US. Etxebarri and Tokyo are very very special). For me, this is definitely a top 3 American restaurant experience (Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Alinea were also fantastic).
SingleThread Restaurant - Healdsburg, CA
At SingleThread, it turns out, the single most important thing about a restaurant is not to like…the food.
I really want to like SingleThread Restaurant. I really do. I can’t imagine anything better than eating a fabulous dinner, tipsy off a wine pairing, rolling upstairs into a beautiful Japanese-inspired inn room, and finishing a weekend getaway with a delectable Japanese breakfast spread the next morning. I wish I could recommend the restaurant along with the inn to all my bougie-ass friends looking to spoil themselves rotten. Alas…
On the surface, everything is exactly right up my alley. Japanese Californian cuisine. Lots of seafood. Tasteful, Japanese-inspired decor with lots of dark wood. Aesop soap, check. Zalto wine glasses, check. Cutipol cutlery, check. Local maker ceramics, check. All of that tickle my fancy. So what’s wrong with it? It’s. Just. Not. Tasty. None of the other stuff matters if the food isn’t delicious. The execution was technically precise, but I rarely wanted to take another bite during my meal (save for the guinea fowl dish and the petit fours). The flavours were uninteresting, and honestly, kind of bland. To me, this is a shell of a three-Michelin-star restaurant that doesn’t embody the true spirit of a restaurant “worth a special trip for”, which, at the end of the day, is about phenomenal food.
Actually, I had decided to give SingleThread Restaurant another try. I first visited in March 2017, when they had first opened. Everyone (minus one pair of friends, M+O, bless them) loves this place. Chefs, food critics, bloggers, friends, co-workers. Everyone thinks SingleThread is the shit. I didn’t get it. Still don’t. I don’t think my palate or preferences are singular. After all, I love plenty of places that the same people also love.
If beautiful hardware won’t improve the software experience for you when you dine, skip SingleThread.