Antler dust, a calf stomach & saleratas: Appreciating the unique Herbfarm dining experience
It’s not uncommon to have an outstanding multi-course meal at a restaurant. It’s not remarkable to have that meal paired with excellent wine. But it is unusual to find owners so committed to their locavore philosophy that they experiment with antler dust! It is this dedication and passion that makes the Herbfarm Restaurant a truly unique and exceptional dining experience.
Found in Woodinville, Washington (approximately 25 minutes drive north of Seattle), the location may seem a bit remote for a restaurant with such a heralded reputation including its Triple-A 5 Diamond designation the last 14 consecutive years. However, as you learn more about the Herbfarm’s focus on food and wine from the Pacific Northwest along with its mission to source as locally as possible, it makes perfect sense.
In 1986, Ron Zimmerman and his wife Carrie Van Dyck started the Herbfarm restaurant in the garage on Ron’s parents’ 5-acre farm. Although the restaurant has since moved off the farm, it’s still just a mile away where it raises Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs, raises chickens for their eggs and supplies the restaurant with over 100 field crops including Roy’s Calais Flint Corn, the same corn that the Indians shared with the Pilgrims. The farm also features experimental plots for potatoes and tomatoes which are open pollinated and cross-bred for new traits. Additionally, the farm grows rare tuber crops that originated in the Andes as well as the Pellegrini Bean.
While year round, 100% of all the Herbfarm’s ingredients originate in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, at certain times of year the ingredients are almost exclusively local. For example, last August for their 100-mile dinner, everything from the plant kingdom came entirely from their farm.
Clearly this is not your typical farm and it forms the basis of an equally unconventional and innovative 9-course menu, expertly paired with six Pacific Northwest wines, which is described by one of 20 different themes presented throughout the year to coincide with the specific season’s harvest. The ingredients for the evening’s meal are so fresh that it’s not uncommon to see someone from the kitchen harvesting the on-site gardens mere hours before the dinner seating. And because the Herbfarm works within a theme, the same menus are never repeated. Despite having dined there two years in a row during the “Moon & Stars”, our menu and experience were both exquisite and both completely different, including the wine pairings.
The Herbfarm’s wine cellar is to oenophiles what their food menu is to epicureans. It features 26,000 bottles with over 4,000 selections making it the largest wine cellar in the Pacific Northwest highlighted by the most extensive collection of Washington and Oregon wines in the world.
Options to add to your meal with rare glasses of wine include the 2001 Chateau d’yquem, the 1946 Toro Albala Don PX Gran Reserva or even the 1811 Tokay Essensia.
Although Ron was the chef for the first 5 years of the Herbfarm’s existence, he has turned over the reigns to Chris Weber, the youngest chef overseeing any of America’s 47 5-Diamond restaurants. But don’t let his youth fool you. Upon meeting Chris, his passion and enthusiasm are equally as palpable as Ron and Carrie’s, expressing wisdom far beyond his years and making him the perfect choice to execute the Herbfarm’s core values in the kitchen.
Given the attention to detail with respect to the sourcing and producing of local ingredients, we are most interested in returning for the 100-mile dinner held each year in late August where ‘every last molecule’ of food and wine as Ron & Carrie put it, must be sourced no more than 100 miles from the dining room—right down to the salt on the table.
When asked what their most challenging ingredient to source was, we got some very interesting answers. “It took several years to make Baking Powder. A trip to NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen resulted in me asking how people did baked goods like cookies before the 1850s when commercial baking powder was invented. Rene Redzepi thought for a moment and said, ‘I’ve heard that in the old days people used reindeer antlers.’ So, back in Seattle, we don’t have reindeer. But we do have mule deer. So I got some antlers, ground them up, and tested the antler dust against regular baking powder on a batch of cookies. I had no expectation…but amazingly, the antler cookies not only tasted better but they kept their freshness far longer. Unfortunately, it takes forever to grind down antlers, and although many people said they were up to the task, they all failed.”
So Ron turned to plan B which was making “Saleratas”, the precursor to baking powder which he read about in a book from the 1700’s. He leached water through white hardwood ash to make lye water, reduced the water, bubbled CO2 from fermentation through the reduced water and then baked it all down to a white stone. This stone broken up and ground to a single action backing powder is what is now used for the 100-Mile Dinner.
His other hurdle has been cheese. While there are plenty of local cheeses none of them are made with real, local rennet. So, in typical Herbfarm fashion, Ron secured the 4th stomach of an unweaned calf and made rennet the old fashioned way so that they can now serve a pure 100-mile cheese. “Those are just some of the minute behind-the-scenes things that are too complex to tell to most people who are dining of this meal. I believe it is unique to any restaurant in the world.” And we believe he’s right.
To say that Ron and Carrie are “passionate” about creating amazing dining experiences would to be guilty of gross understatement. “Obsessive” or “fanatical” probably comes closer to the point. But how does this fanaticism with sourcing the best and freshest ingredients affect your dining experience? First, it creates food with wonderfully intense flavours. Every mouthful makes you sit up and take notice of what you are eating. No dish is ever bland; they are always alive with flavour. Second, you will experience textures in the food that are truly amazing. This year at the Moon and the Stars dinner we attended, the third course was titled “Root of the Sea”. The texture of this dish was simply astounding; it almost melted in your mouth. Combining the flavours with that texture takes a dish to another level of pure, hedonistic enjoyment. And finally their obsession will introduce you to flavours you have probably never experienced before. Take the Root of the Sea dish. When was the last time you had “Roasted Delicata, Sunchokes, and Oca with a Sea Urchin sauce flavoured with Fig Leaf, Fermented Garlic, Tuberous Nasturtium, Coriander and Lemon Verbena? Like all of their dishes, these flavours come together with perfect harmony and treat your palate to the most incredible sensations.
We personally have not paid too much attention to wine and food pairings in our past, rather enjoying good food and good wine. But the Herbfarm’s Sommelier Lisa Rongren did a great job in choosing wines that would bring out the most in the dishes being served. All of the wines were from either Washington or Oregon. The Trevari Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine relied on crisp texture enhanced by tight bubbles to be a perfect foil for the rich flavours and textures of the Foie Gras with Black Truffle. The Cote Bonneville, a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend from the Yakima Valley’s famous DuBrul Vineyard went away from contrast and matched the Leg of Lamb’s powerful flavours step for step. It was a great education to see how both similarity and contrast can both be used to accentuate the flavours in a dish.
Finally, the Herbfarm dining experience gives their dinners a wonderful ambience in which to enjoy the meal. The stand alone building sits adjacent to the Willow’s Lodge and has the look and feel of an old farmhouse. It is comfortable and cozy. The inside is stuffed with knick knacks the owners have picked up along the way. It gives the interior a homey feel, one that is eclectic but not eccentric. The ambience is made all the more comfortable by the beautiful guitar work of Petricio Contreras, a graduate of Madrid’s Royal Conservatory whose soft and sophisticated stylings bring yet another level of the joy of the evening.
The Herbfarm has one seating per evening on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Expect dinner to run 4 to 5 hours. Each dinner is 9 courses paired with 6 wines. Pours are generous! Depending on the theme, prices will range from $180 to $225 per person, plus taxes and service. A bit of a splurge but worth every penny of it! It is truly one of the most amazing dining experiences you will ever have.