It does not take falling into a rabbit hole, downing a bottle of “drink me” or squeezing through a tiny door to go into another world. If you want adventure and to see the smile of the Cheshire simply cross the portal of the Herbfarm.
No time have I a found a living expression of my working theory that food can be a tool to communicate so close as this. Like high art of poetry, dance or painting, complex ideas can be rendered through a dining experience. The sublime is revealed in the ordinary. Perspectives change and synthesis emerges. That is precisely the mood and experience from last Thursday when 60 of my now closest friends and I enjoyed under the chandelier. No doubt that this is THE destination restaurant. The founders, Ron and Carrie, have their own story to tell. I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say it summarizes the farm-to-table movement with a foundation in growing herbs on a farm. We join the adventure mid stream where for more than 25 years, gourmands, romantics and the curious have opened up their wallets and minds for a four hour tasting menu. And like the original story of Alice, there are many characters to meet along the path.
It would be easy to find parallels to different fantasy figures in literature, yet one comparison stands fixed in the brain. Metaphorically, any diner at the Herbfarm pretty much lands at the table of Lewis Carroll’s world famous tea party. And with a persistent white apron, our dear hostess Carrie emerges as Alice and Ron, the Hatter. Surely both have to be as mad to “build it in the hopes that they will come.” And yet they do, every weekend, every year.
The meal comes complete with capital “T,” taste. Every two weeks, chef Chris Weber has pure joy in creating an entirely new menu based on themes set out by Ron, as culinary director. On this night we were sewn together with the flavor of Oregon truffles. It would be easy to pen an entire post on each magnificent dish. They carried their own story cast from shadows of local ingredients. I’ll save that song for a different time.
What compels me to write today is the admiration of the theater of the mind. The Herbfarm is a restaurant by name however that description falls short. Yes, it falls under the general category and you’d no doubt get a nod from polite company. However, as a self-appointed explorer of the true possibilities of cuisine, what gets presented at tables in this locale just north of Seattle far exceeds any simple definition.
Taste many believe is a function of the palate with thousands of receptors detecting the five base flavors: sweet; salty; bitter; sour; and umami (savory). The more round understanding of taste is delivered through olfaction where stimuli immediate hit the amygdala without travelling to the thalamus, unique to the sense of smell. But let’s not go into the neuroscience this time.
My premise is that eyes, ears, touch, mood and history affect capital “T” Taste. When the chef prepares poetry on the plate, he considers that the diner brings their entire history to the table. It’s this closed loop process (sender to receiver) which makes a complete circuit. Our culinary authors took full command of the situation on this night. They controlled the atmosphere, the music, the lighting, the everything. In a sense, they pulled every lever of stagecraft to design the experience for explicitly us.
What did they want us to understand? Well many things. First and foremost, we were to slip into their costumes, sip from that bottle called “drink me” and see the world in the way they do. We were to fall in love with fresh cut herbs and local treasures of the sea and land. We were to savor in the fruits of the season. We were to journey with them in our minds to the nirvana they found themselves. And in doing so become transformed. We were to sip tea at six o’clock with Alice, the rabbit and the hatter. We were to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Mission accomplished.
For purpose of tickling your curiosity, let’s recount the most memorizing dish of the evening . Make no mistake. Judging the most of anything in this place would be subjective as skating judges at the Olympics. Who really can render the difference between the 9.9 and the 10.0 score? For me, desert represented the ultimate expression of the evening and this magical place. The white-coated wizards layered apple and pears into a pie-like wedge lacing sugar and spice throughout. Lemon-thyme ice cream and fresh herbs brought sunshine and a gentle breeze to the face. And then the truffled toffee sauce sunk our feet deep into the moist of the soil. We stood like happy trees under a Tuscan sun. Thin, crispy slivers of what must be the marriage of a cookie and candy crisscrossed our tongues having crisscrossed the plate moments before. A nibble of this note of butter and sweetness reminds us that we were at the desert phase. The finishing place. Home plate. We returned from the episodic journey. We landed our feet on native soil having traveled to lands beyond our recognition. We arrived transformed.