As we entered The Herbfarm
via its unassuming front door, Brian and I were welcomed with a glass of sparkling rosé and a crackling fire in a vintage, sea-themed fireplace. Glasses in hand, we were invited to peruse the chef’s 1,000-book library loft or check out the restaurant’s highly acclaimed wine cellar before dinner. It was clear we were in for a far-from-ordinary dinner. At The Herbfarm, the Woodinville restaurant whose extravagant dinners are legendary, that would be an understatement.
The Herbfarm is the only restaurant in Washington state to achieve a AAA Five Diamond
rating this year, an honor bestowed on it annually for 16 years, now. It’s in an elite category: Only 2 percent of the 31,000 restaurants in North America rated by AAA annually achieve this ranking. Receiving a Five Diamond rating denotes “leading edge cuisine of the finest ingredients, uniquely prepared by an acclaimed chef, served by expert service staff led by maître d’ in extraordinary surroundings,” according to AAA’s inspection guidelines.
Seasonality is key at The Herbfarm, with the best ingredients available each week from land, sea and forest serving as culinary inspiration for thematic, 9-course dinners. A Menu for a Native Forager’s Dinner is the theme April 26 through May 13, when wild native plants are woven into a springtime menu, and Salmon Nation, May 17 through June 3, offers the rich taste sensation of this Northwest icon from the waters of the Copper, Yukon and Columbia rivers.
Prepared by executive chef Chris Weber, beautifully crafted dishes are the stars of the show in the richly adorned, two-story dining room whose open kitchen allows peeks into the preparations. The imaginative dishes are sourced primarily from Washington, with many ingredients coming from as nearby as the kitchen garden just outside or The Herbfarm’s own farm, just a mile south.
On our visit, Ron Zimmerman—co-founder of The Herbfarm, along with his wife, Carrie Van Dyck—presided over the wine cellar, a close-quartered nook with ceiling-high walls of fine wines, patiently answering questions posed by dinner guests. How many wines? 26,000, with 4,252 choices. An example of the rarest? A single bottle of 1790 Madeira inexplicably left behind in an antique Lisbon wine cellar (1 oz. is $425), found by Ron and Carrie. A wine list as thick as a dictionary sat atop a wine barrel. Wines are an integral part of the experience, with each dish paired with a companion varietal. The fact that this epicurean mecca is located in Woodinville only burnishes its wine-centric reputation. But wines are only one element of The Herbfarm’s magic.
An array of rarely encountered ingredients inspire Herbfarm dishes, giving diners the unique chance to sample foods they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Weber seems to be as much at home outdoors, foraging for intriguing, seldom-encountered foods, as he is in the kitchen. It’s clear he and his staff hold a remarkable body of knowledge about native Northwest fare.
“If we want to use gooseneck barnacles, we know where to find them,” he notes. “We do a camping trip early every spring where the kitchen staff goes to Leavenworth, and we pick and bring back lots of wild things that grow on the mountainsides, like miner’s lettuce and maple blossoms. Over two nights in the woods, we’re teaching our own staff what is edible. ‘How do we eat these, and do so responsibly?’” Weber asked, rhetorically.
Weber’s staff thinks far ahead to make sure peak-season foods are available in the chillier months, when gardens are slumbering, through means such as pickling or fermenting. Our visit reveals several preparations using preserved foods, including fermented stinging nettles that accompany roasted loin of albacore tuna, and smoked scallops in a dish featuring lamb (as local as Redmond, just down the road) and winter greens.
Our dinner, Two Hearts, began with a charred Pacific octopus and Lopez Island spot prawn appetizer. Even the bread course, house-made ciabatta and handcrafted butter with a cultured, slightly sour tang, made an impression, and pumpkin tortellini, napped with the rich umami flavor of reduced mushroom juice, offered a deeply satisfying savory note.
Encouraged to get up and wander about between courses, we visited The Herbfarm’s garden and its potbelly pigs, Basil and Borage—who eagerly chowed down on the kitchen scraps we were given to feed them. Inside, we explored the library loft, with its extraordinary cookbook collection that made me want to settle in and learn new techniques. Everywhere we looked, artwork and artifacts lined the walls and halls, including a framed chef’s jacket that belonged to Julia Child, complete with her signature. Co-founder Carrie laughed as she explained that she and Ron had a habit of bringing artifacts from their travels home with them, including even the fireplace, which they built the restaurant around.
Back at the table for dessert, we were greeted with yet another hyper-local surprise: Big leaf maple sap—yes, from the wide-spreading maple trees that grow in abundance around here, not the sugar maples of New England—was showcased in a dessert trio: crepe cake with sage, maple soda with sweet woodruff gelée and maple sorbet.
But at The Herbfarm, dessert is merely a prelude—to yet more fanciful sweets, including a sublime chocolate-and-hazelnut turnover, Zweigelt grape sorbet and a wild berry jam–filled doughnut hole. The meal was followed by a choice of teas that, natch, included selections made from native Northwest plants. And, this being The Herbfarm, the teas were made not only from leaves, but from roots and bark, as well.
During a lively discussion with fellow diners about our favorite foods from the evening, I picked up the menu brochure each guest had received. Its cover bore the words: “What was paradise? But a garden, an orchard of trees, and herbs, full of pleasure, and nothing there but delights (written by the 17th
-century author William Lawson).” An apt metaphor for this iconic Northwest dining experience.