Stir crazy at home, we decided to take a walk somewhere different. Walk, drive, what's the difference? We loaded up the little car and headed out to West Seattle via Georgetown. I thought I knew how to find the First Avenue Bridge, but as Boeing blazed by on both sides of Marginal Way, we could tell my navigational skills were failing. We have no GPS to guide us on our adventures. A little u-turn, crossing of a small draw bridge and a road closed barricade led us to the edge of South Park. Twisting turns here and there and we were headed further south. Another U-turn and some patience and we started to recognize a few features from last summer's trip over for dinner at an old friend's home
Really, we have been eating the last month. Just nothing all that pretty to show you. Michael continues to give Vij's Cookbook a work out, and while the flavors are great, it isn't the prettiest food to photograph. We rely on Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants when we can't see to cook - Top Gun, Szechuan Chef, Thien Phat are the most typical hangs.
Sometimes the food comes out and you just need to eat it now. There isn't time to take a picture, or think about what you want to say about the restaurant, the event, or the food. Yesterday was one of those days.
This was an extraordinary year for dining in the Pacific Northwest. We didn’t get far from home, but we did eat well. I am going to leave out the home cooked meals - at our home or at our friends, though they would rank high for fun, flavor and festivity.
Out of town:
We finall braved the wait and it was well worth it! Additionally, we ended up with the cookbook and Michael has been working his way through the recipes, learning to cook a new cuisine and bringing us much dining pleasure at home.
26 Brix & Saffron - Walla Walla
jimgermanbar & Whoopemup Cafe- Waitsburg
Los Hernandez - Yakima/Union Gap - fresh asparagus tamales!
The trip to Walla Walla was all about food and scenery. The meals we had were solid hits, with nothing that blew our socks off, unless you count the pastry at Colville Patisserie. Since we missed the open hours at jimgermanbar, it has crossed our minds to go back and spend an evening or two there, just from having met the owners.
It's our very own French Laundry; it's Trotter's-by-Redhook, it's... The Herbfarm, a seminal "eating experience" nestled into a luxury strip mall in Woodinville, the industrial/suburban wine country of Western Washington.
The World's Tiniest Architect, who's been under the weather lately, and is facing months more of same, was in need of a respite. She'd never been to the venerable destination, so we took up a generous, standing invitation by owners, Carrie Van Dyke, and Ron Zimmerman to sit down for the 5-hour feastivus.
The Herbfarm predates by a generation or three, the present model of upscale restaurants. Way before it was cool, they've been all about the cooking of wolves, the befriending of farmers; the fancy pricing, and inevitable braising of locally produced porky parts; the backyard herbs, and garden patch veggies; the hand-candled eggs and the other urban stabs at self-sustaining farm-to-table dining by eager and talented graduates of A-list restaurants and/or cooking schools.
Upscale, and food-intentional, the Herbfarm does not cater to local foodies, (who sometimes complain) but rather to food hadjis from around the world.
The epic, themed, single-seating, micro-seasonal, nine-course extravaganza with matching wines costs $492.55 for two.
The HF's been long and widely lauded in national print for over the 20-odd years of its existence, gracing every national best-in-the-US list from The New York Times Magazine to Food & Swine, to National Geographic, to the Woolly Pig News.
The Herbfarm is a farm; a restaurant, a mecca. It's food tourism in the best sense of the word.
The cost, and the sort of set-piece of the five-hour format tends to tamp down inclinations to become regulars, or to do anything close to hanging out in this renowned labyrinth packed with odd relics, good art, whimsical tiles, and European antiques, collected by Zimmerman who has a vivid EBay addiction.
Plenty has been written about the formulaic formatics of the HF -- things haven't changed much in that regard since the mash note I wrote to the place for the Seattle P-I just after 9-11. I was the restaurant critic on the paper at the time, and though the cost was a mere $160++ a head in those days, the paper would not pop for the three visits it would take for the basic journalistic requirement for restaurant reviews. So instead, I visited once and wrote a feature.
Last year, Jerry Traunfeld, renowned HB chef of 17 years left to open his own place, Poppy, in Seattle. (Our review is here.) It was the end of a sweet collaboration yielding four books, as well as international renown for the restaurant, and himself.
The new chef is Keith Luce, 40, who's worked impressively in New York, Europe, San Francisco, even The White House during the Clinton years. He's the very model of a modern major culinary general.
(photo: Chef Luce and unsuspecting steers)
The two, who take an active role in the daily operations are still married after lo these many, which says a lot about their relationship -- restaurant-operating is a known marriage-slayer; the HB is fussier, more demanding and has higher expectations on it than most eateries. Another major stressor: it burned to the ground in 1997.
The nightly program includes a witty recitation by Van Dyke in the foyer pointing out some of the more remarkable tchotchkes recounting the improbable Herbfarm history to the champagne-in-hand guests. She's charming, and introduces the nightly herbs letting everyone sniff on them and handle a leaf or two.
Once sat, Zimmerman introduces the wine, and the staff. The former is from a famously vast cellar in which you may wander before dinner; the latter, besides the decorated chef Keith Luce, are a collection of professionals, and externs, many with advanced liberal arts degrees, and fascinating lives leading up to their taking a place at this hallowed shrine. Ron Zimmerman describes wines and staff with dry humor and a thoroughness of memory that's enviable.
Though funny, and interesting, these mini-lectures by the owners have been derided by critics who have sat through them more than once. We were only casual visitors: having parachuted in twice in 8 years, so the rap was entertaining. If you were able to visit over the many micro-seasons they celebrate, the talks could become tedious.
Themes change as the attached gardens pump out the groceries and... when they're not. When we visited in December, it was before the snows, but long after the garden patches had been tucked-in snug in their mulch and well into the time in which chefs must start bringing out the preserves, and the preserved; finding interesting ways to present pickles and cheese, and confits.
Tables are elaborately set with a forest of stemware, an array of silverware, layers of ceramic chargers, candles, evergreen foliage and framed, hand-printed place cards.
Strict attention must be given by lots of be-aproned people to satisfy the details of each course. Squads of sharp-eyed servers including waiters, waitresses, captains, lieutenants, bussers, go-fers, sommeliers, shoe-shiners, lapel-brushers, calligraphers, and brow-wipers doted upon us unobtrusively foreseeing and fulfilling needs we scarce knew we had.
(It's a hell of a way to live, and we miss it, now that we're home).
I'm won't into a bite-by-bite, but some dishes really stood out in this sip & bite-marathon.
A plate of amuse-bouche had house-cured steelhead with cauliflower mousse, paddlefish caviar, rye croutons and suehlihung, a kind of mustard green. Another was Dungeness crab with sorrel cream dill, and Golden Trout roe with beet froth.
(Did I mention they have chickens for their own eggs, make their own bread, butter and cheese?)
Other notables: a leg/thigh of quail ("A Quail in Winter ") with a winter squash gratin with savoy cabbage, huckleberries, and foie gras mayo. "Noodling Mussels," an unlikely combination which surpassed the sum of its impressive and luxurious parts were with "hand-rolled" noodles with roasted mussels, burdock root slices, radish pickled corn, and a poached egg which tying it all together.
We sat at a "European Common Table" with two other couples, a UW applied physics professor, his Montessori-teaching wife (Lane & Elaine), a electrical contractor and his at-home momming wife from from Sacramento, (Chrissy and Jimbo) and a single man, (Gavin) a plastic surgeon from Sydney, Australia.
Interestingly, (or perhaps not) the Sacto folks, particularly the missus, were of the Republican persuasion, and it didn't take long for battle-lines to be drawn. The longer we were at working down the line of promptly re-filled Reidel stemware, (a stunning Poet's Leap Riesling leapt out; a 2003 Andrew Will Meritage jumped up) the hotter the talk got.
I tried to stay out of this fray, which was impossible, of course, so I delivered a couple of my signature political lectures (lectures are de rigeur at HF) and didn't get mad. But it got a tiny sticky-wicket between the professor and the lady from Sacto who said she didn't want The Gay to be able to sue her church and make her pastor perform marriage ceremonies on people with identical genitalia.
It was not exactly the wisest of dinner conversation topics among strangers, and the parties started fingering their knife handles, their faces reaching the color of the frothed beet juice on their plates. Fortunately the crack HF staff grokked the situ instantly and "accidentally" spilled some hot and cold, beverages on the two (one on each) which distracted them sufficiently to change the subject, and got them back into the existential biting and chewing, ah-ing and ooh-ing.
It was amusing to watch this unfold -- talk radio come to life in these improbable surroundings. As always, it was fascinating in an anthropological way to view actual Republicans live, on the hoof, and in full throat.
Meanwhile, the ever-changing plates of foodstuffs placed in front of us were gobbled by the group... boudin-style turkey sausage with ragouted lentils, black trumpet mushrooms, duck prosciutto and crispy bits of wild boar belly; buffalo satay roasted on lavender sticks; an amazing venison shank pavé braised, confit-ed, then crusted somehow and served with slices of blood-rare venison loin and truffled veggie purée.
It was an parade of succulence, and imagination: umami-fied, well-executed, winter dishes in the elegant little heaps of the "new food" style.
There were exotic palate cleansers of Doug fir sorbet, and minty quinine elixer. then the desserts.. punkin pie cheesecake, cognac bread puddin', and house-made chocolates.
Herb Farm is such a production that it discourages advanced eaters of modest income like ourselves to come more often. The price isn't that crazy for nine courses with all those wines at many restaurants where we eat regularly. But we wouldn't be ordering that much ordinarily.
It's the kind of place that people say: "you should at least go once..." That's too bad. It' be cool to visit more often taking seasonal advantage of the gardeners and the foragers and get a better feel for the soul of Chef Luce.
We'd like to come sit at the bar, eat little plates of things, and chat with the help.
That said, we'll probably be back in eight or nine years, and in the meantime we'll be dreaming of quail legs and turkey boudin and chunks of roast bison skewered on lavender sticks.
(Read Seattle P-I's Rebekah Denn's excellent 5-part series on The Herbfarm for the story from the inside).