Although I've lived here for more than a year, I still have a healthy number of restaurants on my must-try list, most of them splurges beyond Seattle proper. Last night, I had the chance to cross off one of those restaurants when I joined a Chefs Collaborative group at The Herbfarm.
Dinner at the Woodinville restaurant typically runs upward of $179 - you can score a reservation next weekend for $225 - so the event special rate of $140, including wine, tax and tip, counted as an irresistible deal. Since the dinner was pitched to chefs, the price also included a tour of the five-acre farm where the restaurant raises its cherry tomatoes, flint corn, quince, fennel, Pellegrini beans, Alexandria strawberries and a raft of other fruits and vegetables that consent to grow in the flood-prone valley.
The sprawling farm produces more food than the restaurant can use, so the surplus is distributed to volunteers (I still wince every time I have to use that term in conjunction with a for-profit business, but it's accepted small farm practice to rely on the labor of aspiring agrarians.) What the restaurant retains becomes the backbone for its thematic nine-course dinners, such as last night's "Indian Summer" salute.
The farm tour was the only deviation from the standard Herbfarm evening, which previous diners had warned me was "weird." The restaurant is bedecked in fading French country chintz, making it look something like a 1970s movie version of antebellum opulence. And dinner service unfolds as predictably as a James Caan script: There's a stroll through the 26,000-bottle wine cellar and cookbook library, a tasting tour of the herb garden (everyone agreed it would be nice to make a meal of begonia petals), and - once everyone's seated -- staff introductions and lengthy descriptions of each dish and the wine chosen to accompany it. Owners Ron Zimmerman and Carrie van Dyck are extraordinarily gracious and hospitable, but I can appreciate how their ease with the rules of the game they've crafted could strike diners as weird: I often felt like I'd wandered into their longstanding Dungeons & Dragons game.
Chris Weber, 26, is less than a decade removed from dishwashing: Restaurant press materials tout him as "the youngest chef heading up any of the 42 AAA 5-Diamond restaurants of North America," and his youth is evident on his plates. The menu's crawling with ideas of varying success. On Weber's mutton plate, for example, the rich belly was excellent, while the dry sausage was oddly seasoned. But the lure of presenting one protein in four postures apparently trumped concerns about perfection. The same drive to do everything was problematic when applied to black cod, which was overwhelmed by a matsutake sauce: Either the fish or the mushrooms could have held down the dish without assistance.
Still, there were lots of lovely plates, including a terrific sweet corn fritter that one of my tablemates, an IT specialist from Edmonds, described as a "corn dog without the dog." The arancini was served alongside house-cured prosciutto, a highly coherent and rewarding flavor coupling. And the finest surprises involved crisp and crunch, including a tangle of crisped leek, pickled radish and the toasted pumpkin seed granola which accompanied an excellent wood rotisserie-grilled squab with caramelized squash
But many of the most interesting discoveries were wine-related. The selected wines were Northwestern, original and good (with the exception of an Efeste Lola Chardonnay, which clashed with the food); An Arneis from Ponzi Vineyards was the standout.
Although it was probably irrational to worry about wine service at The Herbfarm, I hesitated at the evening's outset when we were prompted to select an herb to flavor our sparkling wine. I'm not in the habit of tinkering with my wine, which perhaps reflects too much piety on my part. But tossing a rose geranium leaf in your glass is the kind of thing you do at The Herbfarm, which is proudly quirky. I'm not sure I'd ever want to pay $225 for the food I sampled at Herbfarm -- or even another $140 to repeat the experience -- but what I appreciated most about the restaurant was its steady allegiance to its own traditions and culinary worldview.
Although The Herbfarm has garnered plenty of praise for its visionary farm-to-table approach, which was groundbreaking in the 1990s, the restaurant is a bastion of old-fashioned dining rather than forward-looking trends. Even if the kitchen is helmed by an upstart and staffed by an alum of the Modernist Cuisine lab, it's not about to bend to borrowed fashion.
Somewhat anachronistically too, the service at Herbfarm is extraordinary (the diners seated with me in the restaurant's back corner delighted at taking the long walk to the bathroom, because they'd return to a folded napkin with an herb atop it), and perfectly in keeping with the feel of a restaurant where the owners deign to clear dishes. Much like the roadside country inns after which it was modeled, The Herbfarm is dedicated to its guests' comfort. That may be weird in Seattle, but it's certainly a welcome departure.