A Foraged Dinner at The Herbfarm
May 7th, 2011
Last weekend I was a guest at The Herbfarm, the only AAA 5-Diamond restaurant west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, rated number 1 in the Pacific Northwest for both food and service by the Zagat Guide.
Dining there is a true “culinary experience” that draws food aficionados from around the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at The Herbfarm Restaurant on three prior occasions dating back to 1995 when I dragged Bruce there to celebrate his appointment as Seattle’s deputy mayor. Our friends Jenny Ulum and Tim Gleason actually flew to Seattle from Eugene, Oregon, in order to join us at that meal.
The Herbfarm Restaurant proprietors Carrie Van Dyck and Ron Zimmerman hosted fellow writer Robyn Cannon and me for an unforgettable meal last Sunday evening. We’re talking a four-and-a-half-hour, nine-course extravaganza that celebrates locally grown ingredients prepared with innovation and ingenuity. I say unforgettable, in that years after an evening at The Herbfarm, one can instantly recall tasting (perhaps for the very first time) a specific dish or uncommon ingredient. Oh, and did I mention that each course is paired with a Northwest libation selected by Sommelier Tysan Dutta? The wines are chosen to complement and enhance every bite.
The Herbfarm’s history is long and not without drama (including a fire that destroyed the original Herbfarm location in Fall City, Washington, that was started by Ron’s parents in 1974 as a small nursery, followed by challenges trying to gain permission to rebuild).
I have such fond memories of the old-timey Herbfarm. When my oldest son Benjamin was little, I used to take him out there to see the herb garden and a few farm animals. We still have the lavender-filled stuffed bunny rabbit, which we found in the gift shop. Those expeditions usually involved bringing along another mom and child to have a picnic in the herb garden.
The Herbfarm Restaurant’s current location in Woodinville dates back to 2001 when Ron and Carrie had to pick up and move the entire restaurant. They constructed a charming English-Tudor style cottage that houses antiques, a vintage fireplace, and tables that overlook the kitchen-as-theatre all night long.
Robyn and I were staying at the adjacent Willows Lodge where we attended the Pacific Northwest Travel Writers Conference. And that’s how we ended up sneaking out of the proceedings late Sunday afternoon to join Carrie as she hosted the pre-dinner tour. The Herbfarm and Willows Lodge share a vegetable and herb garden where raised beds and clipped boxwood balls are interconnected by crunchy hazelnut shelled pathways.
Carrie picked and passed around some of the edible ingredients that diners might expect to taste that evening — tulip petals, sweet cicely, sorrell, lovage, thyme, fennel and lemon verbena. We stopped to visit the resident pair of Vietnamese potbelly pigs named Basil and Borage, who reside in a pen next to the composting area. That seems appropriate, doesn’t it?
Once we followed Carrie indoors and were seated for dinner, Ron took the stage to explain a bit more about the menu development. The Herbfarm creates 26 different themed menus each year, based on the seasonal availability of ingredients and the culinary whims of the chef Chris Weber and his team. By the way, Chef Chris is one of the youngest 5-star chefs in the country. Possibly THE youngest. What a talent!
Sunday’s menu theme — the Spring Forager’s Dinner — showcased wild-foraged foods of the region.
“Foraging used to be a way of life, but we have become more and more removed from the source of our food,” Ron explains. “Like Euell Gibbons, who taught America to forage in the ‘60s, I think it’s time we once again look to our own backyards and nature’s pantry for the different and timeless flavors of the wild. We live in a time of food abundance and convenience, but too many of us suspect we’ve paid a spiritual price by losing our sense of connectedness. The Spring Forager takes us back to some of those primal roots.”
Combing the countryside and tidelands from Oregon to British Columbia, The Herbfarm assembled a 9-course tribute to the spring flavors of the wild Northwest. Chef Chris Weber and his team fine-tune each meal depending on daily harvest.
Here’s what we were served:
First course: “From the Edge of the Sea,” included Kombu-Cured Albacore Tuna on Seaweed Crackers with Oregon Wasabi Root; Picked Sea Beans & Bull Kelp Stalk with Puget Sound Geoduck on Nori Seaweed Sauce; and Local Spot Prawn Soup with Smoked Quinault River Steelhead Roe & Chives. This was served with a Japanese Prickly Ash & Kafir Lime Leaf-infused Sake and Sparkling Wine Spritzer.
Second course: “Hen ‘n’ Nettle,” featured Pan-Roasted Eastern Washington Spring Chicken & its Crispy Confit with Poached Hama Hama Oysters, Radish, Stinging Nettle Sauce and Lovage Oil.
Third course: “Morel Support,” offered Spring Morel Mushrooms and Line-Caught Halibut, Savory Morel Jus, Wild Watercress and Caraway.
Fourth course: “Oxalic Interlude,” a palate cleanser, treated our tastebuds with Wood-Sorrel Sorbet, Lemon Geranium Gel and Lemony Leaves.
Fifth course: “Alexanders Kingpig,” a completely unusual pairing of King Salmon wrapped in Mangalitsa Heritage Pork Sausage; with Alexanders Seeds, Housemade Mustard-Artisan Cider Sauce, Miner’s Lettuce and Gathered Forest Wildlings.
Sixth course: A whole roasted suckling lamb and medallions of pastured lamb, spring onions roasted in the coals, New shallot Greened Mashed Potatoes, Foraged Fern Fiddleheads, and Rotisserie Drippings Sauce.
Seventh course: “Sheepish Evergreens,” presented Black Sheep Creamery Sheep Cheese, Herbfarm Spring Farm Honey, Alpine Lakes Sheep’s Milk Crisps with Pine, Alpine Heather Buds, Wild Western Juniper Berry Dust & Douglas Fir.
Eighth course: “Native Trees,” included Madrone Tree Bark-Caramel Bavarian, Whipped Big-Leaf Maple Syrup, Fresh Sage, and Crunchy Black Currants and its Powder.
Ninth course: “Wild Nibbles,” included Puffed Wild Rice Crispies, Sea Buckthorn Pate de Fruit, Licorice Fern Root Truffle, Rhubarb-Oxeye Daisy Tart, and a Knotweed Cookie.
By the end of our evening, Robyn and I left thoroughly enchanted by the creativity and passion experienced during our meal. We made fast new friends with our charming dining companions, Jeanne and Richard, who we fully expect to see again, either in their hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, or back here in Seattle. And now, since we both plan on writing stories about The Herbfarm Restaurant, I predict that Robyn will be as surprised by what I choose to report as I will be surprised by what she focuses on. That’s what happens when the same experience or moment in time is interpreted by two writers.
Here is a gallery of some more glimpses of our visit to The Herbfarm Restaurant: