As our trip to the Pacific Northwest was a celebration of many things including my sister’s upcoming completion of her Masters of Fine Arts I wanted to do something special to celebrate – a situation perfect for a “destination meal” and given the subject matter of her thesis (knowyourmeat.wordpress.com) a task well suited for a restaurant priding itself on local sourcing, ethical practices, and sustainability. While many contenders were considered given the vast bounty of produce, farming, and seafood as well as the number of artisan producers and skilled chefs in the area one name invariably stood out above the rest – The Herbfarm, a restaurant that many seemed to consider expensive, preachy, and even “dinner theater” but a restaurant that everyone seemed to agree produced some amazing food.
Having done my research to learn a bit of history about the restaurant and subsequently requesting a reservation for the last of their yearly menus, one titled “The Moon and the Stars,” my first interaction with the staff would be via e-mail and then phone – a dialogue discussing special occasions, allergies or intolerances, private tables versus communal seating, an explanation that wine or house pressed juices were included in the price, and finally an invitation to arrive early for a tour – all flanked by noting on their website, promotional mailings, and even their answering machine that they are “the only AAA 5-Diamond restaurant west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, rated #1 in the Pacific Northwest for both food and service by the Zagat Guide.”
Flash forward nearly two months to the day from the time that I made reservations and all I can say is that despite a couple of great days of eating and more to come I was very excited for dinner. Sure The Herbfarm is not shy about touting their accolades – as a matter of fact I really cannot think of any restaurant that seems MORE proud of what they are doing than Carrie Van Dyck and Ron Zimmerman’s Woodinville establishment – but with a map in hand, e-mail updates about the meal, and even suggestions for hotels and cab/limo services in the area I had to admit they were putting on quite the show of hospitality even before we pulled into the drive and were greeted like old friends by the valet before being led into the cozy parlor where reservations were confirmed, coats collected, and each of us were handed a glass of Hot Cider with Lemon Thyme before being invited to mingle with the other guests and browse the (enormous and impressive) wine cellar until the festivities began.
Sipping our tea and mentioning for the first of many times how the whole event reminded us more of a formal dinner party than a restaurant it would not be long before a young woman came and gathered us all into the foyer where we were greeted by Carrie Van Dyck, standing on the stairs and telling us the story of the previous restaurant, the fire, and the subsequent build out of the current location. Clearly proud of what she and Ron have accomplished the discussion next led into a description of the farm, their links with local farmers, and the importance of sustainability followed by a “tasting” and “smelling” of various herbs that would be incorporated into our meal, an aromatic introduction that seamlessly led into our final formal welcome and the doors being opened to the festively decorated dining room.
Having opted for the communal table instead of a small two top our the hostess led us to the seats closest to the kitchen and with a great view both of the kitchen and the room I took a minute taking it all in – the high rafters, the gleaming stainless steel of the kitchen, the hard woods and Christmas Trees – a truly beautiful scene. Turning my attention next to the table I was again pleased – a cute ornament with our last name at my space and a pewter frame congratulating my sister on her MFA in her seat – both these things along with hand crafted plates, pewter chalices, and a variety of wine glasses plus the night’s secret menu tucked into our napkins…again, pure class with just a touch of whimsy.
Met next by the house sommelier just as we were getting situated our next welcome would be the bubbly sort, specifically Oregon Brut with a half ounce of Western Juniper Elixer added to produce an aromatic sparkling composition familiar and dry but entirely unique. Having heard that the pours at The Herbfarm could be quite heavy I worried about my relatively low tolerance (and more about the already inebriated couple across from us) and sipped slowly but all things being equal this meal would end up being the most I’ve ever drank in one night, though thankfully spread across nearly five hours and plenty of food.
With Carrie next stopping by to explain the “rules” of the common table in terms of conversation starters, free flowing wine service, and encouragement to go meet the house recycling crew (a pair of pigs named Basil and Borage) at any time it would not be long before the meal would commence and with the house musician softly playing guitar at the back of the room the night started with a trio of amuses described both in print and in presentation as “In Neptune’s Dreams – Poached Scallop with Yellowstone Paddlefish Caviar, Dill, Scallop Crema / Chilled Poached Shigoku Oyster on Parsley Root Panna Cotta, Pickled Wild Chicken of the Woods Mushroom, and Melted Leek / Spot Prawn in a Nage of Jerusalem Artichokes and Olympic Peninsula Saffron.” Clearly priding themselves on each ingredient and the sourcing of much of their protein and produce these three selections would comprise one to two bites each and with the first two showing a delicate hand in balancing sweetness and brine with herbal essences throughout the best of the group for myself was the prawn – a snappy specimen that bathed daintily in the sunchoke puree with lofty top notes of saffron perfuming the finish.
With the amuses all nicely prepared the bread girl, a well traveled young lady with a great smile and bountiful basket would arrive for the first of many times presenting us all with House churned Holstein Cow butter and warm butter rolls plus a seeded Rye loaf – each tasty but the butter rolls vastly more so and myself as well as the gentleman across me consuming at least half a dozen each. With the bread in place and more bubbly poured it was at this point that we would return to the theater of the evening as the curtains were drawn and Mr. Zimmerman and Chef Weber (the youngest chef overseeing a 5-Diamond restaurant anywhere in North America) introduced us to the menu, the concept, the wines, and everyone in the front and back of the house before re-opening the curtains, taking a bow, and promising us a stellar evening.
With the kitchen now in full gear, conversation flowing between folks from England, Washington, California, and Ohio, and more wine poured – this time a smooth 2008 Efeste Sauvignon Blanc with “Feral” Wild Yeast from Evergreen Vineyard that would prove quite suitable for my palate – the next course would arrive entitled “Hey Jude – Confit of St. Jude Fishing Vessel Washington Coast Albacore Tuna, Tuna Tartar with Celery Root, Fresh Radish, Fennel Bulb, Klipsun Vineyard Verjus Vinaigrette” and reportedly drawing all of its ingredients from within 50 miles of the restaurant this organically plated course would prove to be both light and memorable largely due to the interplay of the two distinctly different fish preparations – one nearly “sweet” and melting in the mouth with the other focusing more on the natural brine and texture of the fish – with the bitters of the celery root and the mandolined radishes.
With two delicate courses to start the menu would soon take a turn to the decadence promised on the menu’s description with the first of three ample savories entitled “O Fine Swine – Our Gloucestershire Old Spot Shoulder Schnitzel and It’s Hazelnut-smoked Loin with Mustard Braised Turnips, Lemon Thyme Spaetzle, Vinegar-Red Cabbage Puree, and Live Mustard Greens.” A shockingly sizable portion given the fact that we were only 1/3 into the menu and paired with my favorite wine of the evening by far, a sweet and dry 2010 Dowsett Gerurztraminer from Celilo Vineyard, I think just about everyone at the table looked wide-eyed at this entrée sized portion of pig when it arrived yet when it was all said and done there wasn’t a speck left on anyone’s plate. Again opting to present the protein in two forms, the first a breaded sausage with great crunch and creamy center while the second tasted like a briny ham with a smoky finish, what really brought this dish out for me was the cabbage puree – a flavor as bold as the color and a perfect vegetal balance to the pork particularly when taken with the lightly added mustard flavors.
At this point nearly two hours into the meal with wine still flowing freely as others emptied their glasses the fourth course of the night would invariably be my favorite not only because it contained my favorite protein, but because it did so with finesse. Titled “Just Ducky – Rotisserie Muscovy Duck Breast with Pumpkin-Farro Risotto, Seared Duck Leg Confit with Caramelized Onion and Lavender-Quince Jam, Oregon Winter Black Truffled Duck Jus” I fully enjoyed watching this preparation from my privileged vantage point as the 20 or so ducks were taken off the large rotisserie, broken down, and plated by one half of the kitchen while the other half worked under the watchful eye of Chef Weber preparing the rest of the dish. Beginning first with the protein, again in two forms, the breast itself was lacquered a fruity sucrose with a nice ribbon of fat and rosy pink flesh while the confit was supple and rich with crunchy bits mixed in – a textbook example of each and a large portion to boot. Moving next to the accoutrements – for someone who loves pumpkin, quince, and truffles all I can say is that if I wanted to nit-pick the risotto could have been a bit more toothsome, but since I’ll choose not to do so this was probably one of the ten best duck dishes I have ever had and the 2008 Westrey Pinot Noir fromOracle Vineyard did a lovely job of accentuating both the sweet and the savory notes – particularly in bringing out the lavender atop the confit/jam section of the plate.
Having just consumed what constitutes two entrée sized portions at a typical fine dining restaurant and still with the “main course” to come we decided as a group at this time to take a breather, grab our coats, and go visit Basil and Borage. Trudging across the parking lot, food buckets (and for some of us wine glasses as well) in hand, it would be only a matter of moments before we stood in front of the pen and within seconds we were greeted by the pair – one a bully, the other much more docile, and both cute as can be snorting, oinking, and squealing with delight as they ate and allowed themselves to be pet.
With our brief interlude allowing food to settle as the kitchen continued to work a quick hand-wash preceded our return to the dining room and upon seating we were all welcomed back by the sommelier who presented us with a hefty pour of 2005 Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard Meritage Red – a robust and earthy red a bit too strong for my palate but a winner amongst the rest of the table and the favorite of most with at least half of them refilling their glasses before our last dish even arrived…a main dish that would prove every bit as robust as the wine and a portion that even I looked at as over the top. Served to our table by the kitchen staff including Chef Weber himself, “Black Wagyu’s Prime – Whole Roasted Prime Rib of Wagyu Beef, Confit of Bintje Potatoes, Jumble of Wild Winter Mushrooms, Brussels Sprouts in Horseradish Cream, Woodoven-Roasted Carrots, Roasted Garlic, and Bone Marrow Sauce Bordelaise” would essentially quadruple my beef intake for the year 2011 and although generally not one to order beef I have to admit it was really quite impressive as the medium rare flesh literally melted in the mouth due to the high fat content while the multiple locally grown vegetables in various textures and flavors kept the rustic presentation fresh and interesting. By far and away the largest portion I have ever seen on a tasting menu I joked with Chef Weber at the end o the night that this dish truly did define the decadence they noted on the menu to which he laughed “yeah, I think we may have overdone it – only about three people in the dining room finished it…but everyone seemed to like it so at least we didn’t under-do it.”
With most members of the table now well sated and some also soused the next course would thankfully be a small bite of cheese entitled “Cheese to Nuts – Larkhaven Rosa Rugosa Cheese, Roasted Chestnuts, Feuille de Brik, Goat Cheese Dust, BC Maple Syrup, Shungiku” and with the base cheese earthy and crumbly I was particularly impressed by the use of the tangy goat cheese and sweet syrup to lend both smoothness and a wider flavor profile while the chestnuts characteristic flavor provided a smoky undertone. Generally not a fan of composed cheese courses this was one of the better ones and all the more impressive for using only locally sourced ingredients.
With the sommelier again circling as we all cleansed our hands with a warm lemonbalm scented towel it was at this point in the evening where one could truly rack up a stately bill as the restaurant offered a variety of bonus wine flights and dessert half bottles a la carte and with half of our table opting for a flight of ice wines the rest of us refrained sufficing for our seventh course, a light and fragrant palate cleanser entitled “Bow and Berry – Douglas Fir and Szechuan Peppercorn Sorbet with Cranberry Espuma” that although admittedly daring worked out quite well with the tartness of the froth acting to tame the intense ice cream. For certain not a hit with everyone at the table (I heard the words Pine-Sol and Air Freshener) I personally found this to be a nice refresher very much fitting the night’s theme although a little definitely went a long way.
With the night slowly winding down but the music still playing, conversation bolstered by the wine, and the team as pleasant and professional as ever our final wine would arrive first as a small pour and then as a larger refill in the form of 2007 Abacela Port from Estate Vineyard and admitting my substantial sweet tooth I not only loved the wine, but I found the dish that accompanied it to be absolutely divine. Titled “Sugar Plum Eggnog – Terrine of Chocolate, Marbled Chocolate-Brioche Bread Pudding, Sugar Plum Jam, Parsnip Ice Cream, Salted Chocolate Tuille, Bay Leaf-Eggnog Sauce” and featuring my favorite style of dessert hidden beneath a dense 62% chocolate terrine and a smear of jam plus the sweet-meets-savory ice cream and sauce I could only close my eyes and smile. Salty and sweet, crunchy and creamy, chocolate and vanilla, a bit of fruity sucrose, and just a touch of the unexpected – while a part of me was quite full another part of me only wished it would have been as big as the Wagyu.
Having been promised a nine-course meal I have to admit that under most circumstances I’d have found including the canapés, amuse, and mignardises (perhaps even the sorbet) in the nine courses a tad unacceptable but given the size of the protein courses served at The Herbfarm and the copious included pours of wine I was actually a bit relieved when I realized the final course of our evening was titled “Coffees, Teas, Native Brews, Sweets” and with at least nine different teas and four coffees offered with unlimited selections and refills my sister selected for two teas while I indulged in two full French presses – the first Stumptown’s complex and nutty Herbfarm Rich Dinner Blend and the second Fonte’s Indonesia Sumatra with a thick body and smooth caramel notes above a figgy sweet base.
Moving on the the mignardises, “Singing the Choir” would arrive featuring Penoche Brown Sugar Fudge, Currant White Chocolate, Sugarbeet Cake Made with ‘our beets,’ Holmquist DuChilly Hazelnut Brittle, and squares of to dark chocolate cranberry bark to take home – each tasty and well executed, particularly the nutty and dense beet cake and the buttery hazelnut brittle speckled with sea salt which the quartet and the end of the table requested more of even though they had failed to finish the beef or their dessert.
With the hour now approaching 11:00pm and the music dwindling while spirits and conversation remained jovial Carrie and Chef Weber began to circle the room eliciting feedback and thanking guests for “sharing the evening with us” before another set of servers stopped by with checks for those who’d not opted to pay in advance. Invited to stay as long as we liked and opting to finish my second press of coffee we continued to chat with the folks at our table about other fine dining experiences both local and far with each of us coming to a similar conclusion; that although we had all been to more prestigious restaurants and we had all eaten better meals for a lower price it was hard to recall any meal or dinner party with strangers being so well orchestrated, so delicious, and so much fun.