A few times in your life, you have a meal so memorable that you know you’ll be tasting it again, decades later.
We know that when we are in our 80s, we will be discussing food on the front porch, our feet up on the railing as we talk about black truffle risotto in Gubbio, fresh oysters from Hogg Island, and peach crisp from our kitchen in August. And often, I imagine, we will circle back to the evening we ate at the Herbfarm.
In honor of our anniversary (and making it through this tumultuous year still laughing), we splurged on a nine-course tasting menu at the Herbfarm, one of the most respected restaurants in Washington state, and beyond.
This was the best meal of our lives.
The Herbfarm has been working its magic since 1986, first at a large rural farm in Fall City, and then at its current location in Woodinville after a terrible fire took down the original buildings in 1997. Long before the phrase “eating local” became common vernacular, these guys were serving tremendous food in season, most of it harvested from the farm just outside the kitchen door.
Danny and I have always dreamed of going, individually before we met each other, and then together after we fell in love. It wasn’t possible before this. There was no time for restaurant dining when Danny was the chef at a restaurant six days a week. And after Little Bean arrived, there wasn’t much time for 5 hours of dedicated dining. In fact, before Sunday, we had not been out for the evening in well over a year.
This was one heck of a way to start that tradition.
We started first in the gardens. We were handed rose geranium punch in delicate glasses and asked to walk with Carrie Zimmerman, one of the owners of the Herbfarm, as she showed us some of the bounty of the place.
These are zucchini blossoms (see the tiny zucchinis on the end?). Danny and I fell in love with squash blossoms in Rome, when he ordered a dish of braised veal cheeks and risotto-stuffed squash blossoms. It was the only time that he has ever taken a bite, then curled his arm around the plate so I couldn’t reach in. I laughed. (Later, he let me have some.) Anything that good deserves to be his.
Did you know that squash blossoms come in male and female form? Which one is which here?
It pleased me no end to see this. The leaves of the amaranth plant, with that magenta splash down the center of the leaf. (It’s usually called Chinese spinach in the farmers’ markets.)
Seeing this made me feel better. Certainly they could feed me gluten-free.
After the tour, we walked into the lobby, ready to be seated. Just as we entered, Danny whispered to me, “Be sure to mention to your server that you’re gluten-free. I just don’t want you getting sick.”
And then we saw this.
Wow. I mean, wow.
I kind of wanted to cry, seeing this. So many of us who are gluten-free feel like outsiders, left with the table scraps and the salads without croutons and plain meat served without any sauces. Not here. Not at The Herbfarm.
I turned to Danny and giggled. “Yeah, I think they know I’m gluten-free. I’m not going to worry about it.”
(And for anyone reading who is gluten-free? The Herbfarm has been feeding gluten-free customers for years. This is what I have found: any restaurant that makes food from scratch and pays attention to seasons and the best ingredients? They can feed us well. Especially the Herbfarm. You may not have a sign like this greeting you. But you will have one of the best meals of your life, entirely safe.)
The Herbfarm is more than a restaurant. It’s a little like food theatre. Every place setting has wine glasses set up for a flight, lacey placemats, the name of your party in a little frame, and these lustrous green plates, waiting. Danny tells me they are show plates. All I know is that the sight of this reminds me of the time between courses, when we were waiting for the next white plate.
And here was the first.
Sorry about the focus on that gaspacho (made with fennel and chardonnay seed oil). That dish was taller than the rest. And the lighting was ambient and lovely, but not best for food photography. I think you’ll forgive me. Just imagine the tastes.
The soup on the left, with the spoon, was an incredible mussel stew, made from mussels grown in Quilcene, by a fisherman so dedicated to freshness that he delivers his seafood in an aquaraium, still bubbling away, because the power cord is connected to the cigarette lighter in his pick-up truck. This stew had the slight sweetness of mussels and basil, with a housemade aioli. I didn’t have the crouton. I didn’t miss it.
On the right a small shot of fresh corn soup. It was simply sweet corn, marjoram, butter, and salt. Oh my this stopped us in our talking. We took smaller and smaller spoonfuls with each new taste, to make it last as long as we could.
After these, we could not wait for the rest of dinner.
Before we could continue eating, however, we had the chance to meet the staff. Starting with this man. It’s Herbguy!
Forgive me if you are not on Twitter. But if you are, and you care about food, you’re probably following Ron Zimmerman, known on that chatty community center as @herbguy. It was reading his updates on the staff’s efforts to create this 100-mile dinner that inspired Danny and me to come to dinner. That, and Ron’s kindness. He’s a lovely man. He and his wife Carrie (the one with the squash blossoms above) have put their life’s work into this restaurant, first serving as chef and dishwashers and now overseeing all the operations.
Here he is, telling us about the history of the place and his remarkable staff.
This is Lisa Nakamura, the chef de cuisine at the Herbfarm. Here she is describing how the kitchen staff scrambled, creatively, to find the ingredients to feed us.
You see, the Herbfarm changes the theme of its menu about every 10 days to 2 weeks. We almost went a few weeks ago to partake of the local game menu. Of course we would love to go to the makin’ bacon menu in November. But when we heard that the 100-mile dinner would only include ingredients sourced from within 100 miles (as the crow flies) from the Herbfarm, we had to part of that.
Lisa and the other chefs scoured farmers’ markets and followed tips to small farms in far-flung places. They actually made their own salt, by evaporating seawater from off the coast of one of the San Juan Islands. We don’t grow peppercorns in the Northwest, or olives, or coffee beans. So the chefs had to start from scratch on everything, and be more creative than they normally are.
It’s a little like going gluten-free.
We grew excited, listening to the chef talk about the food, and the ebullient sommelier, Michael Kaminski, discuss the wine choices they had made for the dinner. (Luckily, there are plenty of good wineries in the Northwest.) Danny, especially, sat rapt, his eyes focused but his brain already dreaming of the food he might make after hearing this.
We were ready for more.
This is a savory buttermilk and yogurt panna cotta, smooth and light, fresh as the buttermilk they had created by churning their own butter with local cream. That’s a squash blossom wrapped around it. And a tiny cucumber with the blossom still attached.
This panna cotta appealed to my eye so much that I didn’t touch it for a few moments. But once I took the first taste, I could have spooned it up in small bites for another 30 minutes and still not be done.
The friendly, efficient servers brought each patron small slices of brown bread, made with local hard wheat. I didn’t really need anything. The memory of that panna cotta was still in my mouth.
Then David (wonderful, funny David, who actually reads this blog!) untucked something from behind a white napkin.
Corn spoonbread, made with sweet corn and its milk. Topped with house-made butter.
Yeah, it was exactly as summer-warm sweet as you would imagine. It made me a little teary, to tell you the truth.
Oh goodness. This was my kind of course. Breakfast in the midst of this high-end dinner.
Sausage (house-made), bacon, potatoes that had been picked from the garden that morning, grilled clams from Quilcene, and a perfectly poached egg.
Honestly, at this point I would have thought we were done. This was exquisite. If only I had something to sop up those lovely juices.
And like a dream, it appeared.
These are cornmeal crackers. The staff had ground dried sweet corn into a meal. (Cornmeal, they found out, is traditionally made from grist corn, which holds the meal together better.) These were a little crumbly. Did I care? Not one whit.
After all, these were also made with summer truffles and house-made Parmesan cheese. Yes, please.
(The truffles had been hunted by a local chihuahua, who was a dog rescued from the pound. Her new owner noticed the dog digging in the garden and went to look. Truffles. She showed up at the Herbfarm one day and offered to sell them, since she couldn’t eat them all.)
Silly me, thinking that was enough. I ate my words when this course arrived.
This is salmon that had been caught by reef nets off Lummi Island. (Reef netting is an ancient practice for fishing, one of the most humane and respectful fishing practices in existence. If you’d like to read more about it, go here.) The chefs slow roasted it until the flesh felt like butter, soft and yet whole. Sweeter than most salmon, this small piece will live in my memory. Underneath it a smoky thyme and cream sauce, accompanied with baby beans. And on top? Something we’ll be trying in our kitchen soon — a crisp prosciutto chip.
And then these arrived, too. Tiny cakes made of fava bean and potato puree. They were heavenly, bursting with fresh herb taste.
I might have thought tiny cakes were too small before. But with this much flavor — and a smear of great butter — these were all I needed.
(I still cannot believe that the staff made three separate gluten-free savory treats for me.)
Talk about tiny tastes being plenty.
This is Lummi Island beef, bathed in lardo while cooking, with a huckleberry-rosemary gastrique. Oh, and horseradish butter. Danny took a bite of this first, while I was taking this photograph. It was the only bite where he grew truly irritated with me. “Put down the camera and have a taste right now. I want you to have this..”
So I did.
After nearly fainting, I sliced into the veal pave on which it had rested. This local veal is pasture raised, humanely. The meat tasted even brighter for it. And to the side, small vegetables, picked that day and slow roasted.
In our house, when food is this good, we turn to each other, slap the other one’s arm, and say, “Shut up!” I didn’t feel comfortable doing that at the Herbfarm, but I wanted to do it.
And the wine. Oh, the wine was perfect. I don’t know the words to talk about wine in the right way. I mean, I know them, but they don’t feel like mine.
All I will say is that everything was spectacular, supportive of the food without outshining it, rising above my expectations, and kind. Can wine be kind? These wines felt like they could.
Also, the non-alcoholic option was possibly even more extraordinary. Each course came with a wineglass of an herbal concoction — a natural Sprite, blueberries juice, an attempt at cola with burdock root — so interesting and delicious that I actually asked for those for a few courses, instead of the wines. Danny and I were both delighted.
Now this, I have to say, is my kind of palate cleanser.
Sour cherry and tarragon sorbet, with a pickled cherry on top. And to the side? A bacon chip made with Mangalitsa pork.
Okay, I have to say it. Shut up!
One of the lovely parts of the Herbfarm we loved best was the communal table. Danny and I could have sat at our own table, off in the corner by ourselves, on our first real date night out. But we chose to sit with others, to hear their stories, to learn about their culinary adventures, to be part of a larger experience.
This is Keltie, the wonderul woman who sat across from us with her husband, Richard. Her little sighs of delight, questions about the ingredients, and fond memories of learning how to cook out of Mastering The Art of French Cooking made our evening even more wonderful than it would have been if we had sat alone.
Do I have to tell you that dessert was deserving of every accolade possible?
On the top is a hazlenut souffle (no flour involved!) with a smoked hazelnut creme anglaise. We poked holes tentatively into the top, then poured the creme into the hole, watching it swirl for a moment before we dove in. That was the lightest soufflé I have ever eaten. Entirely gluten-free.
The small green sliver is a chocolate mint semi-freddo. Not chocolate and mint, but made with chocolate mint, so only a small touch of the familiar flavors. And instead of sugar, they used stevia, which is made in the Northwest too.
And on the left, perhaps my favorite bite of the night. A ripe nectarine poached in anise-hyssop, with a dollop of creme fraiche.
I could eat that all summer long and not be done.
The evening could not end without beverages, of course. But no one grows coffee beans in Washington state, or black teas. What to do? There were tisanes of herbs, a coffee-like brew of dandelion root or chicory. Green teas grown on the Skagit River flats, the only working tea plantation in North America. They all sounded appealing to me.
But I had to have the madrona bark tea, foraged by a man named Neal Foley (who goes by @Podchef on Twitter) on Shaw Island. I could not resist the chance to taste this. When was it ever going to happen again? It was earthy, something like mushrooms, slightly sweet, and wonderfully pleasant. The best end to an extraordinary meal.
Danny and I sat back in our seats, entranced with the sensory pleasure we had experienced during those past 4 1/2 hours. We didn’t want to leave.
One of the parts of the Herbfarm experience I especially like is that you give your credit card number when you make a reservation, for a deposit. When you show up, and they know you have eaten there, they quietly charge the rest, plus service, to your card. This means you can leave without ever seeing a bill.
So Danny and I were surprised when our waiter brought over a small book for us. “You two have paperwork,” he said, smiling. “Look inside.”
Inside was a card, made from a photograph that Ron had taken of us during the evening. We thought that was lovely. We opened it up and read. It took us a few moments to take it in.
The names of eight of our good friends were written inside, with a little note: “We picked up the bill! Happy Anniversary.”
We both cried. I’m teary again just writing this. Thank you to our friends (who have been privately thanked before this). For food and ambience, and the occasion, this was already the best meal of our lives. Our friends’ kindness took it to another level.
That’s the Herbfarm. It’s like that.
And so, I want to end by showing you this photograph of all of the chefs, lined up to be introduced by Ron. I’ve never been to a restaurant where I learn the names of every cook, where they come from, how their background brought them here.
Thank you, every one of you.
I also want you to see this to know: if you encounter a chef who says he cannot cook for you, gluten-free? Get up and leave. The true professionals don’t regard this as an imposition. The best chefs know that this is their chance to be even more creative and give you joy in the belly.
We will never forget this meal.