Little Saint does the most — through plant-based dishes
Yeses, it’s a vegan restaurant. And from the dynamic team behind the three-star Michelin SingleThread, The World’s 50 Best’s SingleThread, no less. Opened on Earth Day, April 22, 2002, in Healdsburg’s former SHED, Little Saint’s sprawling 10,000 square foot space is home to an all-day cafe, bar, wine and produce shop fine dining, a full restaurant and art gallery with live music — and reasonable $70 evening tasting menus (plus optional $40 wine pairings) or a la carte options. Renowned designer Ken Fulk refreshed the interior, teaming up with local artisans, warming the space with handmade tiles, vibrant fabrics and local art.
This “plant-based” restaurant is run by Kyle and Katina Connaughton: Kyle, SingleThread chef who previously ran three Michelin restaurants in England and Japan, and his wife Katina, farmer extraordinaire, who farmed in Japan, now in Wine Country with their 24- acre SingleThread farm and new five-acre Little Saint farm. They teamed up with Bryan Oliver, who was a chef at SHED under chef Perry Hoffman (who runs the Boonville Special Hotel in Mendocino County), and who is now Little Saint’s executive chef.
None of the chefs are vegan, but often cook that way, especially given our environmental realities and our future. Given the glory of NorCal products alone, there’s no end of delicious plant possibilities, so you factor in Katina’s farms, growing rare and varied products, and you see how easily it can play out. Katina and her team focus on healthy soil on the farms, while Kyle and Oliver’s playful experimentation with the vast array of plants, the huge space is now a temple to all things veg and fruit… but it is not difficult.
In fact, on a recent Thursday night, my husband Dan, The Renaissance Man, and I found the live music atmospheric but a bit loud. Still, it kept things convivial, while an enclosed rear patio and side deck where we sat were sufficiently removed, celebrating the warm summer night, while still being part of the buzz inside ( here the music is loud, but did not overpower the conversation) .
Little Saint is elevated but utterly laid back, the plating striking, the service heartfelt, although we experienced long gaps between courses at dinner. More importantly, the Connaughtons are adding to the global conversation about what is possible without animals, a crucial conversation in sustainability and longevity, without sacrificing artful deliciousness.
Don’t consider it a vegan restaurant. It’s a restaurant for everyone, a restaurant that will fill and satiate you, showcasing the immense wealth of North America’s key growth belt: California, which feeds the nation, growing more than half of its products.
When a slew of mini plates arrive with dips, vegetable parfaits, and lavash flatbread delicately sprinkled with olive oil and shichimi togarashi, it looks and tastes like pure California, with everything that comes SingleThread and Little Saint farms. We dug into brine-marinated carrots dusted with wild fennel pollen, Meyer lemon-marinated olives and bay berries, with Katrina cucumbers, Tokyo turnips, broccolini and other raw veggies to scoop up the dipping sauces. . Vibrant bread + butter marinated zucchini and onions in mustard seeds were my favorite of these small bites of banchan, an explosion of flavors.
Then the dips: split pea hummus accented with spicy zhoug, pumpkin seed dip in chili oil, cultured cashew “cream” sprinkled with charred spring onions, and a special carrot tahini dip in black sesame oil. We could make a meal of dips, lavash, and vegetables alone and walk away happy. It is an ideal meal at the bar or at the counter with a glass of wine or cocktails.
We moved on to arguably my favorite dish of the whole meal, featuring a fruit that California grows for the entire United States: strawberries. These are Albion strawberries in gazpacho form, the fresh, pink soup brimming with pickled green strawberries, a whisper of jalapeno, lavender olive oil, almond cream and lavender buds wildly aromatic. It tastes like California summer in all its glory, cooling the dry heat with sweet, tart, aromatic goodness.
Ordering the tasting menu with extra dishes (way too much food, but the only way to try more) a tasting menu of cheese balls made with fennel and soy was a quintessential snack marked by many the fermented apricot chili jam and flaky homemade cookies/crackers that crumbled easily but tasted fabulous.
Even more rewarding were toasted slices of sourdough seed bread – made by the Quail & Condor bakery down the street – slathered with a vibrant orange zucchini “’nduja”. No, it’s not spreadable pork sausage, but it does present those umami joys with a blend of zucchini, miso, paprika, cayenne, sun-dried tomatoes, and shio koji yeast. It’s not meaty but it’s layered with umami depth. Slices of squash ceviche and summer flame peach, a carpaccio of crimini mushrooms and a cucumber and kohlrabi salad (with pistachios, nam prik sauce, coriander) follow one another with a lively and summery lightness .
But heavy and hearty is not lacking here. Japanese eggplant is filling, its starchy richness contrasting with red cabbage, black puffed rice and purslane (a succulent) in an umami-rich, tahini-textured XO sauce. The other hearty specialty was the herbal tasting spaetzle from the menu, which was fluffier and softer than the traditional German spaetzle, almost dissolving in your mouth. Served in a hot, oven-roasted mini cast-iron skillet with tomatoes and citrus fruits, it’s sprinkled with sumac crumbs and marigold flowers. While I preferred this to the equally hearty entrée of roasted Zephyr squash in sweet corn, chickpeas, red harissa paste, toasted almonds and bronzed fennel, the two were a ‘lesson’ in contrasts and rich and tasty vegetarian dishes.
There was no room for dessert, but that didn’t stop us from nearly finishing a bowl of stone fruits (apricots, plums, nectarines) at their peak, to perfection on coconut mousse, dukkah sunflower-sesame and berries. Once again, California summer at its best. A more common chocolate hazelnut pie in a miso caramel was amped up on other versions I’ve had, thanks to the right amount of salt and a super nutty crust. It worked well the next morning with an espresso.
On the drinks side, expect plenty of local wines and a few carefully selected international wines, with sections featuring some of California’s best underrated wine regions like the Santa Cruz Mountains, as well as non-alcoholic wines. from Leitz in Germany. Unfortunately, Little Saint’s Russian River Brewing Co. Pilsner collaboration – brewed just 7 miles down the 101 in Windsor – was out the night we dined, but mirrors the few thoughtful drink selections across all categories, from cider beer.
Cocktails include shaken and stirred sections, with some of the standouts being beautiful mocktails, like a smooth but vibrant Gala MET (pistachio, rose, maca/Peruvian ginseng, hibiscus, blood orange, sumac, salt) or bold Beet the Chaleur (beets, cinnamon, plum vinegar, sparkling water, All the Bitter alcohol-free bitters), which gains in body and character thanks to this vinegary shrub.
In “alcohol included” cocktails, The Green Initiative (Nadar Climate Positive gin, Sauvignon Blanc, Midori, Holy Basil, Green Chartreuse, Sparkling Water) disappointed me a little, playing too soft and sweet, instead of sparkle grassy which I was hoping for given the ingredients. Whey Out There was more integrated and interesting, a cocktail of bourbon, scotch and fernet that wasn’t spirits, but rather tiki-esque. It is served high over crushed ice, rich in pistachio whey, lemon, bitters and mint, the Fernet unfolding in intriguing whispers of bitter herbs and mint. Armonia feels like it belongs in the family of classic sherry/vermouth cocktails (like the Adons) with its clever blend of Oloroso sherry and Salers Gentiane bitter aperitif, with a nutty depth of 123 Organic Reposado Tequila, with shio koji sprayed on top.
A paper bag stamped “Little Saint” containing two peaches was our take-out treat. These two absolutely perfect peaches were like a legendary Chez Panisse moment with Alice Waters’ impeccable local produce. But in this case, the peaches are grown on the restaurant’s own farms, with no accents, adjustments, or manipulations. But across the menu, the chefs’ skill and technique highlights, rather than bogs down, the purity of the ingredients, proving that it’s possible that even us meat-eaters, fruit-eaters seafood and dairy products, did not miss any of the above.
// 25 North Street, Healdsburg; www.littlesainthealdsburg.com