Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Herbfarm

So as part of this year's birthday activities, the Lovely Bride and I went with our friends Sig and Anne to The Herbfarm up in Woodenville, a nigh-legendary restaurant which offers themed, multi-course meals with seasonal, local produce grown on their farm. The LB first discovered it in an article in the Chicago Tribune, which we then kept dutifully up on our refrigerator for the past 15+ years. And when we finally got a new refrigerator, we made arrangements to go to The Herbfarm. Of course during this interim, the original Herbfarm burned down, the head chef changed, and they went through temporary quarters before settling in Woodenville next to the Red Hook brewery and near the Chateau St. Micheal winery.

But the TL:DR of this tale is that Sig and Anne were wonderful dinner conversation, and we had an incredible time.

The meal itself ran about five hours, with nine courses. Actually, there was a tour beforehand of The Herbfarm's herb local garden, which we caught up with in-process. The Herbfarm itself is part of a complex that includes the Willows resort and the Barking Frog, which is a more traditional restaurant for people who don't have five hours and metric tons of cash and are more comfortable with choices on the menu.

The restaurant specializes in a farm-to-table menu, and runs a number of themes throughout the year, such as a menu that highlights basil, or mushrooms, or potatoes. As I write this, their theme is "Knife, Fork, and Smoke: Fire, Coals, Smoke, and Primitive Cooking", but for for our particular menu they had a culinary challenge - "The 100 Mile Dinner". Everything on the plate had to come from within 100 miles of the chandelier hanging in the dining room.

And this proved to be a bit of a challenge, since common items like pepper and coffee were right out, while the staff made their own salt and baking powder (Well, actually, slateratus, an 18th century precursor. but an improvement over the ground deer antler they had used previously instead of baking powder).

If you think of the Herbfarm as culinary theater you are not far off. After the tour, we were ushered into a intimate, curios-filled dining area with a plethora of tables tucked throughout its expanse. Small framed cards wish Sig and myself our respective happy birthdays. The owner/founder (Ron Zimmerman) speaks on the theme (the other owner/founder, Carrie Van Dyck, I believe gives the garden tour), and hands it off to the head chef (Chris Weber). Each course gets a precis on its origins. The sommelier (Jory Lopaka) speaks about the wine pairings (all within 100 miles, as well). The chefs and waitstaff are introduced. The curtain behind them is pulled back to reveal the kitchen. A classical guitarist (Patricio Contreras) starts to play, and the meal begins (the following menu for that evening is pulled from their website):

Our 1-Mile Farm
Stuffed Zucchini Blossom, 660-Day-Aged Gloucestershire Old Spot Ham, Caramelized Eggplant with Garlic,Wood-Roasted Carrot, Herbfarm Tomatoes, Black Radish, Filet Beans, Young Leek, Wild Native Nodding Onion Vinaigrette.

The World in an Oyster
Baked Oyster, with Scrambled Egg and Lovage.
Borage Stem Noodles, Green Coriander Seed, Oyster Emulsion.
Half-Shell Shigoku Oyster, Green Grape Granité, Tangerine Gem Marigold.

Salmon Says
British Columbian Kombu Kelp and Smoked-Salmon-Head Soup,
Reef-Netted Lummi Island Sockeye Salmon,
Early Chanterelles, Tokyo Turnip, Sweet Goldenrod.

Duck. Grain. Greens.
Pan-Roasted Moulard Duck Breast,
Bluebird Farm Whole Grain Rye Risotto with Fermented Hazelnut & Shiso,
Roasted Gravenstein Apple, Seared Cabbage with Green Juniper Dust.

Island Pig
Grilled Lopez Island Pork Shoulder with Globe Basil& Big Leaf Maple Syrup,
La Ratte Mashed and Riesling-Grapeseed-Fried New Potatoes,
Shishito Pepper, Walla Walla Onion, Baby Fennel. Serrata Basil Pesto.

Foie & Corn Chips
Terrine of Puyallup Valley Foie Gras, Roy's Calais Flint Corn Chips,
Our Honey Imbued with Olympic Peninsula Saffron, Sheep’s Milk Yogurt.

Hyssop Haven
Red Haven Peach Sorbet, Wood-Roasted Peach,
Sparkling Anise Hyssop Soda.

Berry, Bough, Balsamico
Sourdough & Saleratus Waffle, Smoked Lardo, Wild Berries in
Vancouver Island Balsamic Vinegar, Douglas Fir & Cedar-Bough Ice Cream.

Native Beverages, Herbals, and Teas
Leaf Tisanes, Real Teas, Herbal Teas, Native Root and Bark Decotation.

Sweet Bits
Frosted White Currants • Strawberry Mousse with Rose Geranium • Sugar Beet Cake with Lemon Thyme & Blueberries• Salted Caramel in Cinnamon Basil Leaf

Accompanying Dinner: 
House Churned Holstein Cow Butter •
Metchosin Southern Vancouver Island Red Fife Wheat Sourdough Loaf

The meal is notable for not only its richness but of the individual workmanship of every dish. I was reading a book recently called Consider the Fork, which talks about technology in the kitchen, and it pointed out that in the past, smooth sauces and light foams were highly prized, as they represented the amount of effort that went into preparation. Then, with the Cuisinart in the 80s, we saw an overload of easily-made sauces across the board, and so today the artisinal hand-crafting of individual components, shaped and presented by hand, is a sign of greater effort. And such is the case here - each course is not a thing, but a deliberate selection of a ingredients that, combined, provide a rich experience. The plates are small, succinct, and delicious, and you end the evening not bloated from a surfeit of flesh, but rather satisfied, well-informed, and at rest. That is a great challenge to any meal, and the restaurant lives up to its reputation.

The restaurant is also extremely nimble at responding to dietary restrictions, and will inquire upon making reservations. The LB is allergic to eggs, and Anne to shellfish, so the baked oyster with scrambled egg was referred to at our table as the "spouse-killer". Yet the kitchen responded with replacements that both delighted the women without making them feeling like they were getting lesser meals because of their restrictions.

The pacing was luxurious yet we were never left waiting. Instead, the wine and conversation carried us smoothly through the meal in a relaxed, delightful state. And you cannot rush a meal like this. The duck breast was perfect, the salmon-head soup was comforting, and the foie gras showed ultimate respect for the ingredient (I had tried foie at Canlis, and while good, I wouldn't order it again. This was a magnitude greater). Even the riskier elements (a Doug Fir ice cream, making you feel like you were in an episode of Iron Chef) were measured and inspired a smile at the whimsy as opposed to a cringe at the presumption.

And yes, we were one of the last tables to close, so involved were we in our meals and discussions. On leaving, they presented us with a sample of their hand-made salt. And several days later, we got a thank-you card from one of our servers.

Expensive? Absolutely. Value for the money spent? Definitely. The destination for that perfect evening, or that significant-number birthday or anniversary? Of course. The Herbfarm has developed a great reputation and has lived up to it. Even a month later, I am still remembering the courses and the tastes. A wonderful evening.

More later,