Farmhouse Flavors at Healdsburg’s Little Saint

As head chef of the highly anticipated Little Saint cafe and restaurant in Healdsburg, Brian Oliver has spent the past seven months researching the intricacies of plant-based emulsifiers.

He made it his mission to make sure aquafaba (chickpea water) didn’t taste like beans and took on the challenge of creating satisfying buttercream without butter or cream. When constructing an all-vegetable menu with the exacting standards of a Michelin-starred restaurant, sometimes it’s as much about chemistry as it is cooking.

“In the first few months, we weren’t trying to come up with a menu, but exploring the world of plant-based foods,” Oliver said during the restaurant’s April 22 debut. “There was a lot of play around.”

More than a food hall, the 10,000 square foot building that once housed SHED Modern Grange has been transformed into a versatile art, music and performance space with a 72-seat restaurant, bar and market selling wine and produce. A collab between Kyle and Katina Connaughton of Healdsburg’s upscale Single Thread; designer Ken Fulk; philanthropist Jeff Ubben and his wife, animal activist Laurie Ubben; and program director Jenny Hess, Little Saint aims to forge a new vision of vegan dining and sustainable living.

Chef Bryan Oliver of Little Saint in downtown Healdsburg. (Chad Surmick/The Democratic Press)
Chef Bryan Oliver’s Saintly Greens with red wine dressing at Little Saint in downtown Healdsburg. (Chad Surmick/The Democratic Press)

Not that Little Saint is all about over-constructed and unnecessarily valuable dishes. Thirty acres of dedicated farmland in the Alexander Valley provides the still-warm, seasonal fruits and vegetables from the garden that form the basis of the menu, and Oliver aims to create irresistible cuisine that is simply free of animal protein.

Still, he said, having the narrow parameters of a meat-free, dairy-free and egg-free menu did a compelling job.

“It’s almost liberating, in many ways, to have boundaries when cooking. You kind of stay in certain lanes,” he said.

Although the Little Saint team is still getting its bearings, a year of delay has allowed staff more time for research and development. The deliberately cozy atmosphere and professionalism are evident from the start.

Farm to your plate

You won’t find fresh tomatoes on the Little Saint menu until tomatoes are in season in Sonoma County. The menu here is guided by exactly what happens on Connaughton’s 24-acre Single Thread Farm and nearby Little Saint Farm.

Avoiding animal protein was a natural evolution, according to Kyle Connaughton.

The couple’s unwavering commitment to micro-seasonality – using ingredients only at their moments of peak perfection – has earned Single Thread international acclaim and three Michelin stars just five years after it opened. Little Saint offers the same farm-to-table philosophy at a fraction of the price, with dishes ranging from $5 hummus or lavash to $39 cauliflower biryani for two, with an average range of $14 to $24 for many dishes.

“The menu reflects this time of the season, showcasing what’s here in Sonoma County today,” said Kyle Connaughton.

It also means storing, marinating and drying ingredients for later use and a “closed loop” that encourages the least waste possible.

For example, bar executive Matthew Seigel’s Little Saint bar program uses the cooking water from beets and purple carrots to add color and an earthy bass note to cocktails. Chickpea water becomes foam. Together with Oliver, he tries to find uses for almost everything that goes in or out of the kitchen.

Little Saint cocktail party in Healdsburg. (Chad Surmick/The Democratic Press)
Little Saint cocktail party in Healdsburg. (Chad Surmick/The Democratic Press)

Drinks like the Frances Fizz combine pisco and Aperol, purple carrots and a sprinkle of dehydrated beetroot powder, sumac and salt. It’s dangerously delicious.

The baking program, overseen by Single Thread pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth, is particularly difficult without butter, eggs or milk. It uses vegan butter, nut and grain milk, and egg substitutes like flax.

“I wouldn’t take this opportunity unless I was prepared to fail,” Ellsworth said. “The hard part is getting regular consistency and understanding why. Making a batch is not the same as making 25 times the retail amount. Sometimes the easiest things are the hardest. »

Keep in mind that dishes change frequently, even daily, but anything on the menu will impress.

Best bets

A “Larder” take-out selection is available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It includes dips, prepared salads (beet salad with coconut yogurt, potato salad with soy milk aioli, fresh asparagus farro), green salads, drinks and desserts. Bread by Melissa Yanc and Sean McGaughey of Quail and Condor is also available. It’s a good dip in the flavors of Little Saint.

Soft Lavash ($5) with Shichimi Togarashi ($5), Quail and Condor Seed Sourdough ($5) with Red Lentil Hummus, Pumpkin Seed Dip, and Cultured Cashew Spread (all three dips for $14 ): The chorus of flavors works so harmoniously. Tear up pocket bread drizzled with dukkha-like togarashi (chili, seaweed, sesame seeds, orange zest) to dip in red lentil hummus with chili oil. Pumpkin seed dip has an earthier, nuttier flavor. We love the Cultured Cashew Spread the most, a creamy and tangy dip similar to cream cheese.

Cultured cashew spread, pumpkin seed dip, red lentil hummus with sweet lavash at Little Saint in Healdsburg. (Heather Irwin/The Press Democrat)

Saintly Greens ($12): It’s what all salads dream of being – the current mix of sunny greens, herbs and lettuces, plus maybe a slice of radish or carrot. An incredibly simple red wine dressing dresses up this natural beauty without overpowering it.

Roasted Beets ($15): This one is worth trying even if you hate beets. Marinated golden beets are mixed with fresh tangerines, pistachios and mint. Each bite is slightly different, but the spiciness of the citrus and mint elevates the vigorous root vegetables.

Purple Haze Carrots ($16): These dark purple carrots are cooked barely tender, adding sweetness without falling apart. Crispy Black Rice looks a bit earthy, a playful leaf to the earthy vegetable, but adds a subtle crunch. A vegan version of XO sauce (a smoky garlic condiment typically made with dried fish and scallops) adds umami without the seafood.

Cauliflower Biryani for two ($39): Basmati rice, curried cauliflower and pickled golden raisins are cooked in a wood oven and garnished with crispy onions and dried rose petals. Easily enough for three (or four), it’s a hearty Indian-inspired rice dish that lets the aromatic spices of cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper and nutmeg do the talking. Sweet pickled kohlrabi and zesty citrus sauce enhance the flavors even more.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Pie ($14): You can’t go wrong with the seasonal fruit dessert. Sweet Strawberry Sauce is topped with crunchy, tangy rhubarb for a light end to meal.

Little Saint: The coffee and pastry bar is open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. The takeaway cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Table service in the restaurant is from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; reservations are highly recommended as seating is limited, first come, first served. No reservations are necessary for the bar. 25 North Street, Healdsburg, littlesainthealdsburg.com.

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