Saturday, March 25, 2006

Fallin' asleep at the wheel

My fabulous (anonymous) husband posted his first comment to my blog and reminded me I hadn't written about our trip to The Herbfarm. I do realize that this review will sound very self-indulgent as many people in this world (and even in our fine city) don't have enough to eat, let alone spend $$ on a 9 course meal, but I see this as a public service to those who are considering eating here- think about it first...

The Herbfarm is one of the "premier" restaurants in Seattle, both in terms of price and supposedly, the food. They serve only dinner, it's 9 courses, is estimated to last around 4 hours, and everyone starts at the same time. The dining room only holds about 100 people, and it's fairly difficult to get a reservation without a few weeks' advance notice. Our friends Jaz and Chris have been there a few times, and recommended it to us. Being the food snob I am, I've wanted to try it ever since we moved back to Seattle, but it took a while to convince TJ that he wanted to go to a restaurant where he wouldn't get to choose what he was going to eat. The restaurant doesn't publish its menus in advance, but they do let you know what the "theme" of the dinner is. For example: "Chambers of the Sea" or "The Great Basil Banquet".

TJ's 35th birthday was earlier this month, so I offered to take him to the Herbfarm since the theme was "Wagyu Beef: Super Cattle in Seattle". Clearly this was going to be the best opportunity to make TJ happy with a set menu. He agreed and I made our reservation for a Friday night. Note: you need to put down a $50 deposit per person, and after the Monday preceding your meal, it is nonrefundable. (Talk about annoying!) We were told to be there by 6:30 for the Garden Tour, and that dinner started at 7.

Due to my perpetual lateness problem, we got all gussied up and arrived at the restaurant around 6:45. Which turned out to be no problem, since the "Garden Tour" was still continuing, as a lecture in the entryway of the restaurant.

My first impression that this might not be what we expected was the decor of the restaurant. It's very fussy, with very traditional antiques, toile, flowery patterns and old-fashioned prints everywhere. I think the style can be done well, but in this case it just seemed to clutter up a small space.

Ok, back to the lecture. One of the staff was giving us a rundown of some herbs we'd be eating and passed little sprigs around for us to smell. It was very much like "show and tell" in elementary school. She also told us about the "history" of the place, which cracked us up (we managed to keep straight faces through this part). The history entails Mr. Bill Somebody retiring from Boeing and deciding he wanted to run a B&B, and then settling on a restaurant. The older version burned down in 1990-something, and the new one was built in Woodinville. They bought a lot of their antiques, including their large fireplace, on EBay. (I kid you not.) All the while (about 20 min at this point) we've been standing in a crowded entryway with the other 98 diners, in our nice (but uncomfortable) shoes. Not to mention the fact I was *absolutely* starving. At least give us some bread or something while we have to listen to the shtick!

The other part that I found extremely tacky was the fact that *everything* at this restaurant seemed to be for sale - there were books, little country knicknacks, wallets, bath products, wine glasses, and little signs all over the place with prices on them. If I'm paying $200 for a meal (per person, mind you!!) I don't want to be assaulted by sales opportunities.

So we're finally seated after waiting in line for a while (the lecture ends, and then 100 people rush to the dining room door to be seated). The table is fairly small and absolutely cluttered with stuff. Obviously for a fancy meal we need a lot of cutlery, and the 5 different types of wine glasses have been set out, but there was a big old lantern, and a metal bird hanging out on that table too. I felt like TJ was miles away and I was afraid to move in case I knocked over anything. The cool thing was that I had told them it was TJ's birthday, so at his place they had made him a little framed Happy Birthday sign. That was a nice touch. The tables are very close together, so it felt like we could easily join in the conversations on either side of us. Which was not exactly the quiet, romantic evening I was expecting. (More on that later.)

We were offered a glass of champagne, with a little bit of an herb in the glass. Very cool, and a great way to start this epic meal. The champagne was lovely, 1997 Argyle Brut from Oregon. Then again, I've never met a sparkling wine I didn't like - there's something so decadent and graceful about drinking it from that elegant flute, and the bubbles are too fun. Kind of makes me want to put on a fake British accent like Madonna, and call everyone "dahling".

After another 10 minutes some bread finally came around. At this point I could have eaten about 4 rolls, but I got one. It was 7:30 before the first course actually showed up - a trio of tiny little appetizers: paddlefish caviar on shallot flan, a tiny little shot of sunchoke soup with sunchoke chips, and some duck foie gras. All very precious, and tiny, and lovely. We ate it in about 4 bites. Word to the wise: don't go there hungry.

After that there was another lecture from Chef Jerry Traunfeld. They interrupted our conversations to call our attention to the front (this would never happen at Canlis!) and we listened to him talk about the food, and one of the other staff talk about the wine. That was somewhat interesting, since I love food, but again, I was huuungry and so this just seemed like more of a delay. But it was nice to see the Chef and he's clearly passionate about using locally grown food, and interesting combinations.

I won't go through each course, though I will list them:
Basilwood-Smoked Ivory King Salmon
Celery Root, Black Truffle, and Egg Yolk Ravioli (yum!)
Wagyu Beef Carpaccio
Apple and Shiso Ice
Rib Eye of Wagyu Beef
Northwest Cheeses with Tart Cherry Tricorn
Dessert (Rhubarb Cobbler w/ Lavender Ginger Ice Cream, Lemon Geranium Yogurt Ice Cream Cone, Chocolate Jasmine Pot de Creme)
Hot Tea (Phoenix Dragon Leaf thing - very cool to watch them uncurl)
Chocolate Truffles

Somewhere between the first few course, we slipped out to go visit the restaurant's "recycling system", two pot-bellied pigs. They give you a little pail to feed them scraps (dump them out into the pig bucket, don't feed them by hand because they bite!) and you can wander off into the garden to meet the pigs. Well, we got lost, and wandered behind the restaurant, and stopped at one of the kitchen windows to ask for directions, when one of the kitchen staff just looked at us and shut the window like we were some sort of criminals. Nice, for a fancy restaurant.

Eventually we found the pig pen. The pigs live with some ducks. Did you know pigs are covered with fur? I didn't know! Also, like dogs, pigs have a social hierarchy. Apparently the alpha pig gets to investigate the food bucket first and the beta pig and ducks have to wait. That was a fun field trip, and more than a little unexpected.

After the pigs, we went back in to continue our meal. Word to the wise: try to get a Saturday reservation. By 9pm I was exhausted, and we weren't even halfway through. The whole thing didn't finish until 12:30 (I kid you not.) and by then I was way too tired to enjoy it. The 5 glasses of wine didn't exactly help either. We did get to sample a 1916 Madeira, which they hyped up as a special treat and we drank it from tiny little fancy glasses. It tasted like cough syrup. Which taught me a lesson - "old fancy wine is not necessarily good wine".

The dining room was fairly loud - it had high ceilings and all the diners were in a big open space. The table of doctors adjacent to us (2 couples, I think all four were doctors) were definitely *not* a credit to their profession, and reminded me again how glad I am that I didn't go into medicine. They were loud and arrogant. Direct quote from one of them - "How dare they call an ID (infectious disease) doctor at 2:30am! How rude!" Um, well, maybe your freakin' patient is dying, or needs help?! You certainly get paid enough money to be called that late. TJ and I just sat there rolling our eyes every now and then.

This may have been a more fun meal if we went with another couple. TJ is a quiet guy and we generally don't chatter nonstop at each other. During a 5 hour meal, there just isn't *that* much conversation. No meal needs to be that long. I had reached my limit at around 2.5 hours. Which is the usual length of our meals at Canlis.

Don't get me wrong - the food at the Herbfarm was very good and innovative and the wine choices were excellent. Portions were adequate - we didn't walk out of there feeling stuffed, and the wine pourings were very generous - we both had a bit of a hangover the next day. Check out the "wine museum" - they have a very impressive collection of wines there and it's neat just to walk around and see all the different choices.

The downsides: service was way too slow, the atmosphere was somewhat tacky, and I don't know about you, but I don't go to dinner to be lectured or for a sales pitch. At one point one of the staff told us the chef's cookbook was available for purchase with our meal. For the price of that meal, they should just give us the darn thing. Don't try to sell me more stuff when I'm already signing away my firstborn!

Leading me to my final observation - If you want a swanky, romantic, good special occasion meal in Seattle, go to Canlis. If you're a dedicated foodie, want a special meal to share with some friends, and want to feel like you're at a dinner party with 100 strangers, go to the Herbfarm.

Any thoughts from those of you who have been there?


  1. It's all about managing expectations. Anandi and I both expected a quiet, romantic, evening. And that's not what The Herb Farm is.

    For me, once you get to the level of Canlis, The Herb Farm, The Met, etc, what really defines a great restaurant isn't the food it's the service and the experience. A night at Canlis is ... well it's hard to explain ... it's how I think a dinner at home would be if I had my own valet, butler, wine steward, chef, and a house with a view. You feel like the most important (the only) people there, the answer to every question is "Yes, we can arrange that", you're greeted by name.

    The first time at Canlis we were greeted at the door by Chris Canlis. He exchanged small talk with us for a few minutes, and then the hostess led us to our table. It wasn't until later we realized he'd effortlessly gotten our names, made sure someone was preparing our table, and sent someone out to the valet to tell them the blue Subaru belonged to us. It was seemless.

    The Herb Farm is much more food-centric. I'm sure many people love it, it's just not us.

  2. Thanks for the review. I never got around to the Herb Farm but heard all the hype when I was living there both times. I thought about going there a back in October, but I didn't like the menu they had at the time, nor the price for what you got; plus I'm too casual a diner to enjoy expensive wines. I think I'll pass altogether after reading about your experience. Sounds like Cracker Barrel for snobs :P $200 per person is better spent in a different way, methinks. We went to a 3 star Michelin restaurant in Brussels called Comme Chez Soi that was around that price and I think we had a much better time. Figured we never ate at that type of restaurant before, so why not give it a try? :)

    I can see it now: House of Triumph as the name for TJ's blog. :P

  3. Leslie - your comparison to Cracker Barrel is hilarious! That's another restaurant a lot of people like that I just don't understand...

  4. If you want a super yummy, little bit snobby tasting menu, I vote for the place you took me for my birthday a couple of years ago. I LOVED it! But I don't remember the name. KB

  5. KB - ooh, yeah. That was the vegetarian tasting menu at Cascadia. That place is still around and has the same sort of philosophy as the Herbfarm (local produce, etc.) but is much less expensive and a nicer dining experience. When you come to visit, I'll take you there again!


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