Most everything I had heard about The Herbfarm Restaurant made it sound impossibly perfect. The original herb nursery, created in 1984, a short drive into the mountains east of Seattle, is a destination for garden lovers, and several of my foodie friends would swoon at the mere mention of the restaurant, open since 1986. Others told me, don't bother; it's not all it's cracked up to be. Getting a reservation at the original tiny 40-seat restaurant was harder than finding last-minute World Series tickets.
My timing never seemed to be right on previous trips to Seattle, and then a fire leveled the restaurant (but not the rest of the farm) in January 1997. Plans to rebuild have been mired in local government red tape ever since. Finally, last May, owners Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck struck a deal with Hedges Cellars in Issaquah, down I-90 en route to Seattle, to set up an interim restaurant that seats 50 in the winery, which already had a professional kitchen.
Planning a Seattle trip recently, I phoned for a reservation. The only available seat was at the "European-style community table." I happily took it. I love the idea of dining with people I've never met.
Dinner at the Herbfarm is a leisurely five-hour experience. The menu showcases the herbs from the farm and exceptional fresh ingredients from the Pacific Northwest in each of its nine courses, accompanied by Washington and Oregon wines from the restaurant's 6,000-bottle cellar. I wish I could tell you that chef Jerry Traunfeld raises these ingredients to unsurpassed heights, creating a magical cuisine that can take its place alongside the very best the United States has to offer.
But I can't.
Traunfeld certainly makes a noble attempt, but I kept waiting for magic that never quite happened.
On the other hand, there is something about the Herbfarm that creates an unforgettable experience. Judy Roth, sitting across from me at the community table, described her connection with the place. She had moved to New York from Seattle to pursue a singing career. Late one afternoon she entered a supermarket in Greenwich Village.
"Five guys with Uzis took about 25 of us hostage for four hours," she said. "As I was lying face down on the floor, I kept saying to myself, 'If I get through this I'm going to move as close as I can to the Herbfarm.' I never realized until that moment how important this place was to me. It's a connection to something I can't explain.
"That was on a Thursday. The following Wednesday I was on the road back to Seattle."
She now lives about two miles from the farm, and last year she testified at a county zoning hearing on behalf of the Herbfarm's plans to build a new restaurant. The others around the table, all residents of the Seattle area, seemed equally ardent.
What does it take to engender that kind of devotion? I think it is the sincerity and grace evident in the food and its presentation; it celebrates the bounty of the earth without getting overly pretentious about it. Maybe it's the beauty of the farm itself, which has an enchanting series of herb display-gardens.
When Traunfeld's food is on the mark, it can be exquisite, as with Humboldt Bay king salmon wrapped in zucchini flower-petals, slow-baked to a silklike texture, accompanied by a pool of tangy sorrel sauce. Another highlight was thyme-marinated squab, grilled over charcoal and served with a sensational plum-and-lavender sauce, grilled eggplant and mint-infused mashed yellow potatoes.
But the kitchen can fumble. Putting brown sage butter on an already rich corn-marjoram custard made it too oily, and the seared rosemary-skewered scallops on the sample plate were slightly overcooked. Charentais melon-and-Muscat soup just tasted bland, although a little scoop of tarragon sorbet floating in it was great.
The hits outnumbered the misses, and each dish managed to balance the herb flavors so they remained clear without overpowering the other flavors. And the wines were well chosen; the supple texture of King Estate Pinot Gris Oregon Reserve 1997 wove artfully through the salmon dish and the Chateauneuf-du-Pape-like fruit and spice of the Glen Fiona Grenache Columbia Valley Noir 1995 added complementary flavors to the smoky squab.
The menu changes every few weeks, responding to seasonal ingredients. Earlier this year a menu celebrated the Copper River salmon run. This one, titled "Perfumes of August," featured the summer's first ripe tomatoes.
After the appetizer course, everything stopped while Van Dyck related the history of the farm (her mom left a wheelbarrow of excess chives at the roadside, and when people left money for what they took, the family decided to plant the farm); Traunfeld described the menu (defining Pacific Northwest as everything north of Mendocino, Calif., and west of Montana); and Zimmerman discussed the wines, with no discernible pretension.
They're not without a sense of humor at the Herbfarm. Zimmerman joked that, in keeping with the Northwest theme, the Madeira with dessert was from "northwest Africa." And the tea menu lists Smart Tea, an herb blend that "stimulates your brain," with a warning: "comes with an IQ quiz." A page of brain teasers arrived with the tea.
Between courses, Van Dyck passed around baskets of herbs used in the next course, so that everyone could see, touch and smell them. I think that was the first time I've seen hyssop, which was used in a summer fruit gratin for dessert.
It's quite a show, and it doesn't come cheap. The prix fixe currently stands at $135 per person, including unlimited pours on the wines, plus tax and a 15 percent service charge.
The future of the Herbfarm is unclear at the moment. Zimmerman and Van Dyck want to rebuild in Fall City with a larger restaurant, wine cellar and a few rooms for overnight guests. But new zoning laws and development uphill from the site have changed the landscape, so to speak. Discouraged by their inability to get approval for their plans in Fall City, Zimmerman and Van Dyck are contemplating moving the whole farm. One site under consideration is in Woodinville, home to Chateau Ste. Michelle, DeLille Cellars and a few other wineries. That would make Woodinville quite a food-and-wine destination.
-- Harvey Steiman, editor at large
The Herbfarm Restaurant
195 N.E. Gilman Blvd.
Issaquah, Wash. 98027
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