Food is cherished and savoured at The Herbfarm in Washington
Dining at the Herbfarm is so indulgent and decadent, you’d be quick to chalk it up to a once-in-a-lifetime experience... until, toward the end of the 4.5-hour extravaganza, you find yourself dreamily muttering, "I have to come back"
The Herbfarm is a unique, elaborate dining experience, operated by husband-wife proprietors Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, in charming Woodinville (about half an hour north-east of Seattle). Ron was the restaurant’s chef for the first five years and now oversees its extensive wine program, and Carrie manages a lot of the quotidian operations during the day and hosts the dinners each evening.
The Herbfarm is the only American AAA five-diamond restaurant west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. It’s been honoured with seemingly every food and wine accolade possible. National Geographic claims the Herbfarm is, “The #1 Destination Restaurant in the World.” Zagat rates it one of America’s top restaurants. And the Financial Times of London declared that, “you can’t help but applaud at the end.”
Fine Dining Themed for the Seasons
As the seasons change, so does the menu at the Herbfarm / IMAGE: Herbfarm
Every nine-course meal is based on what’s freshly available. The Herbfarm has 26 thematic dinners throughout the year, each lasting two weeks. They believe that foods harvested at their peak within one region share an affinity for flavours – ingredients will not only be at their freshest, but together will naturally enhance one another, elevating the final dish to epicurean splendour.
Not a single dish on the menu is finalized until hours before service, allowing the kitchen to work with maximum flexibility.
I went during the “Basil Banquet,” to celebrate the abundance of one of my favourite herbs. This Basil Banquet showcased basil in many ways; none resembling pesto. Basil has many other facets that are subtle, delicate and efflorescent. Every course (and one cocktail!) incorporated basil to varying degrees, and each morsel and sip tasted like summer itself.
Other themes that have me twitching with curiosity include the "Mycologist’s Dream," in mid-October when they explore all things mushrooms, and the"Über Tuber,” in mid-November. If anyone can elevate the humble potato to decadence on a plate, it’ll be the Herbfarm’s 25-year-old phenom chef, Chris Weber (the youngest chef overseeing a five-diamond restaurant anywhere in North America).
And their New Year’s dinner is apparently spectacular, involving opera singers and a complete transformation of the property into a winter wonderland.
This is why everyone needs to come back – 25 other seasonal dinners to try!
Touring the Herbfarm's Garden
The Herbfarm's garden herbs infuse every course / IMAGE: Herbfarm
Before we dined, we toured. To increase our appreciation and knowledge of the food we were about to feast upon, Carrie preceded our dinner with a tour of the garden, which lies adjacent to the restaurant.
At that time of year (the height of summer), everything was full and lush and fragrant. As we walked through the garden, Carrie tested our knowledge of greenery, occasionally tossing out sprigs of herbs and flowers into the crowd. “Crush this between your fingers and smell... Take a bite of this... Close your eyes and inhale.” We sampled, first cautiously and then with growing enthusiasm. We tried lemon basil, chocolate basil, French sorrel, lavender, chive flowers and – my favourite discovery – day lilies, which were light, crisp, and a little bit sweet.
As we sniffed, nibbled and laughed, Carrie connected it all to the food being prepared for us: We would taste the lemon basil with the pickled sea beans and garlic scapes; the Thai basil was infused in a warm buttered radish soup with geoduck; lavender was used as a rub for the grilled lamb; and towards the end of the meal, we would have a delectable palate cleanser of cucumber-lime-basil sorbet.
By the time the tour ended, we had found our connection with the food being grown and Carrie had prepared us to engage a little bit deeper with the food we were about to eat.
The Basil Banquet
The Herbfarm features both individual and common tables / IMAGE: Herbfarm
Dinner service began with a glass of sparkling wine perfumed by a single, aromatic basil leaf fluttering near the bottom. It was a perfect, elegant start to an evening that only got better by the minute.
Each course was so elaborate and so beautifully prepared it was an absolute joy just to see them as they appeared in front of muse. And of course, they all incorporated basil to some degree, sometimes at the forefront of the dish and sometimes nearly imperceptibly so.
For example, the Thai basil was a bright, fresh addition to the salsa verde that accompanied the Lopez Island baked smelt in crispy chicken bread crumbs; Opal basil was used to enhance a side of English peas, Thumbelina carrots and wood-roasted Chanterelles; and we tasted a hint of green from the Genovese basil-infused honey that was presented with the Okanagan Maple Leaf cheese.
Wine with Every Course
The Herbfarm's wine cellar houses 26,000 bottles / IMAGE: Herbfarm
I’m not an oenophile by any stretch, but I do love wine pairings and even my amateur palate can appreciate how a perfectly chosen wine can elevate the dining experience. All meals are paired with five or six wines, each carefully chosen from among 26,000 bottles by resident sommelier Tysan Pierce. She’s been the director of the International Pinot Noir Celebration as well as an instructor for the International Sommelier Guild, so she knows her vintages. And of those wines, over 1,000 varieties are from Washington state alone, ensuring local food gets enhanced by local wines.
One of the nicest aspects of the dinner was the fact that we were sharing it with other foodies sitting at our table. The Herbfarm offers a European common table seating option – especially fantastic for solo diners. It seemed like most people took that option on the night I was there, which makes sense if you think about food as a celebration– it’s something best shared and experienced with others as a social event.
And there was lots of celebrating at our table: one couple was celebrating their 10th anniversary, there was a woman with her family celebrating her 70th birthday, and then there were the newlyweds from Philadelphia who planned their entire honeymoon around coming to the Herbfarm for this one spectacular meal.
A meal at The Herbfarm is an occasion to celebrate / IMAGE: Herbfarm
As we left, sated and blissful, we could smell smoke wafting over from the outdoor wood-burning oven, already roasting something in preparation for tomorrow night’s feast. Food at its finest is part of a cycle that never rests.
Catherine Tse is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. From the Great Wall of China to Sydney’s Opera House to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, Catherine loves an adventure and loves to share them with her readers.