In Bradenton, Florida, there is a popular restaurant with a "roadkill" menu; entrees vary with season and availability. A mediocre Chinese restaurant in Paris charges $110 for soup with broccoli and tofu, and is nearly impossible to get into, being the favorite hangout of haute couture models and designers. In Nanning, China, The Red Guard is a "Cultural Revolution" theme restaurant with servers in army uniforms. The Hobbit House in Manila features 100 beers, and all the staff are little people. Eccentricity can be as important as culinary excellence to success.
Of course, excellence and eccentricity are sometimes found in the same place. In China's Zhejiang Province, Dragon Well Manor has reclaimed ancient traditions, with only local and wild foods. Readers may recall my column about Al's Diner, Humboldt County's "outlaw" restaurant, or descriptions of the avant-garde cuisine of Momofuku Ko in New York. We've been to some memorable eccentric places, like the mythic Roxanne's in Marin County, where the raw foods movement was born: not only vegan, but nothing cooked over 118 degrees.
But nothing prepared us for The Herbfarm, in the Sammamish Valley, east of Seattle -- Washington wine country. This is not merely a restaurant; it is a "destination," and it hones its appeal to tourists with an elaborate Web site and a slick 16-page brochure plus newsletter sent yearly to every former guest. There is also an inn, a spa and a wine shop that sells retail from its vast cellar of local wines.
The Herbfarm is an experience: a single seating of five hours, a nine-course menu (with six matched wines) based on frequently-changing themes that take advantage of local and seasonal ingredients. Generally, the menu changes every two weeks. It was "locavore" before anyone thought of a word to describe it.
Dinner at the Herbfarm is not merely dinner: It is a theatrical production. Yet superb as the food is, there is a cloying aura of "shtick." Patrons are not merely seated, for example: They must wait in the foyer, crowded and overflowing. After a bit, a friendly but pedantic host lectures on the history of the establishment, a kind of gentrified "sales talk" that ends with an invitation to buy the wines served with dinner. Mostly, though, it's about how very special this restaurant is. For sophisticated diners, such hoopla is officious and not a little offensive. For the casual tourists that make up the bulk of their clientele, however, it is probably necessary: They are educating their clientele even as they feed them.
At length doors are opened, and parties called, to be seated by the meticulous, very young, mostly female wait staff. The large dining room is a meld of a high-ceilinged Alpine skiing lodge with an Edwardian salon (a busy combination of tapestries, antique carved or cast fish and game, bronzes, cabinets displaying collectible curios, odd lamps, paintings and prints, lavish floral arrangements). In other words, endless kitsch. There are common tables seating up to 10, where guests are encouraged to conviviate. Table settings are formal, with full glass and flatware. A personal, printed name-card is at each place, and a souvenir menu for the evening. A guitarist plays light classical music.
Frankly, we thought the ambiance unworthy of the food. And the promotional enthusiasm was daunting: Following a fascinating trio of shellfish "amuse-bouches," the entire room was forced to stop food and conversation. Now the full staff of 20 cooks and as many servers lined up formally, as for inspection, while the Executive Chef (Keith Luce, a James Beard "Best Chef" laureate) launched into a 15-minute speech. It was hard to get past the curious custom of introducing every cook by name (to applause from the staff!). Only then did he discuss the courses about to be served, normally the job of the servers, but evidently too important to be delegated.
This practice straddles a thin line -- surely the managers realize that some patrons need less "priming" than others. Still, that's what they do: They take on all guests as though they were absolute beginners and walk them through a formal meal with nine courses and six different wines.
Is it a useful experience? For the neophytes that make up most of their clientele, definitely. It means they will go back home and discuss "the most wonderful meal we've ever had," shaking their heads ruefully at the cost of $200 per person, plus 20 percent tip, and 6.5 percent tax -- over $500 for a couple. In fact, the high price is part of the mystique!
For the same amount, of course, you could go to Michael Mina, The Fifth Floor, The French Laundry, Cyrus, or any number of extraordinary restaurants, Guide Michelin two- and three-star establishments, without the self-promotional, self-consciously kitschy tone. But for the neophyte it takes courage, persistence and sophistication to go to those places. Whereas The Herbfarm figures you haven't got a clue about courses and forks and wines, and does everything for you.
So how was the food? Fabulous.
Three small appetizers began the meal. (One was quail egg Benedict with caviar and chives).
Second, a paper-thin sheet of house-made pasta over crab and leek, moistened with truffle/chervil butter.
Then a hot consommé of root vegetables with duck confit.
Seared duck foie gras (liver) over a sweet potato latke.
Douglas Fir (!) sorbet -- evergreen needle-immersed syrup frozen with lemon juice and Champagne.
Roast Wagyu beef filet bedazzled with wild mushrooms.
Following the entree came a winter-greens salad with poached cherries and goat cheese.
Then a sticky chocolate dessert.
Custom house-made herbal infusions, teas and coffees, with various small sweetmeats, completed the experience. (Since courses were presented more or less simultaneously and many people eat slowly, the meal was leisurely, and we took a couple of breaks to walk in the garden and get acquainted with Basil and Borage, the pet pigs.)
Service was perfectly executed. At its best, it was charming -- like being served by nymphs.
Of course, it was the identical meal they had presented over a fortnight, thus the Sunday dinner we enjoyed had been practiced for days. This is not the case at top-flight restaurants, where menu items can change daily according to availability, freshness and other factors, and where a single nine-course "tasting menu" is paralleled by a la carte items and entrées. The Herbfarm chef knows what he will have available, plans accordingly, and the new menu is printed and posted online 2-3 weeks in advance. That's a huge savings in food costs.
In part, that philosophy is why this very successful restaurant isn't likely to be ranked by Michelin. Another reason is the peculiar ambiance -- heavy brocade tablecloths amid a sea of bourgeois objects d'art, and several strangers seated at the same table (doubtless a cost control, but simply not done in elegant U.S. establishments). Finally, the formulaic and protracted hype is a turn-off for experienced diners. For those who can ignore such distractions, however, The Herbfarm is a fascinating, and utterly, uniquely, American experience.