Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Visit To The Herb Farm

For those of you who might not have heard of it before, The Herb Farm is probably best characterized as Seattle's version of The French Laundry. It's one of the best restaurants in the area, perhaps the best, and specializes in high-end seasonal/regional cuisine. My better half and I went there this weekend for their "Makin' Bacon" dinner and I feel that a pilgrimage to such a culinary temple merits reflection. In gathering my thoughts, however, I've found it difficult to come up with a simple narrative on which to string my observations. An event at The Herb Farm is far more than just a meal; it crystallizes the essence of what it means to be a foodie in the Pacific Northwest at this particular moment in time. That's a lot of ground to cover, so bear with me if the following meanders a little bit.

Let's start off with some administrivia for anyone who might consider making a reservation. The dinner was a multi-course behemoth that lasted for about 4.5 hours. We went on Friday evening, so I was tired from work and not in an optimal mood for dining. I was also the designated driver which meant, que lastima, that I had to take it easy on the paired wines. We're I to attend to another such event I'd a) get a room at The Willows Lodge, the inn across the street and b) go on a Saturday when I'd be less wrung out. On the upside we chose to be seated at a communal table, which worked out very well. I don't know if it was diligence on the part of the restaurant staff or just sheer chance, but we ended up sitting with people who were close to us in age and general social milieu, which made for easy, if not particularly cerebral, conversation. One final note, which should also provide some context for the discussion which follows, is that The Herb Farm isn't cheap. All said and done I think we ended up paying ~$400 for the two of us after taxes and service charges.

Turning to the meal itself, there's immediately a question about the ground rules for evaluation. Under normal circumstances (e.g. a winemaker's dinner at some nice restaurant) I would simply write about the food, wine, and service: was the food good?, was it as good as I expected given the price of the meal?, etc. But these aren't ordinary circumstances; The Herb Farm has a flock of professionally-trained chefs working behind the scenes1. These are not amateur actors stumbling through their lines; you can be assured that every dish which leaves the kitchen is exactly how they intend it to be. So if I find cause to question a particular it's not because they executed it poorly, but rather because I have a disagreement with the house over what constitutes "good food".

Who am I to be questioning what they deign to put in front of me? I should just shut up and be grateful that I'm in the presence of genius, right? Well... no. I eat out an awful lot, low-brow to high-brow, and if the conversation at my table was representative then the same is true for the rest of the attendees. This is what I mean when I say that The Herb Farm captures the zeitgeist of the moment. The people who go there are foodies, people for whom eating is serious business, and doubtless the staff is well aware of this. At this level dinner is a performance and the staff are no more immune from criticism than any other group of performers; surely no one would balk at opera-goers critiquing a new performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen merely because the director is very talented? The same principle holds true here. The ground rules are clear then: the food must not only be good, but it must be interesting as well; superior execution is taken for granted.

Now that we have an understanding I'll proceed with the food porn and analysis thereof. The menu was impressive, even a little bit daunting: 9 pig-themed courses with paired wines. I certainly wondered whether, come course 8 or 9, I would really be able to appreciate what I was being served. Which brings me to my first observation: if you're going to do 9 courses you better make all of them memorable. As will become clear I believe they fell down in that regard to some degree; a few of the courses felt pretty perfunctory.

Clockwise from top left: croque madam, chawan mushi, pork consommé jelly

They got the meal off to a fine start with a first course consisting of three amuse-bouche. The croque madam was tasty and featured a quail egg and some kind of pork product (ham I believe). The consommé, presented with wasabi cream and smoked salmon roe, was also good; serving it cold as a jelly was a creative presentation. The most interesting of the trio was the chawan mushi, which Chef de Cuisine Lisa Nakamura described as a "creamless custard". This was flavored with Mangalitsa cracklings and topped with roe and crispy pig skin. All of the above were both good and interesting.

Prosciutto bone soup and crostini

The second course was uneven. The soup was utterly unremarkable; some chard and beans in a mild, pork-flavored broth, definitely nothing to get excited about. The crostini, on the other hand, was excellent, spread with pork lardo (essentially whipped pig lard) and topped with some salt, a few brandy-soaked currants, and shreds of cooked pork. Whipped lard sounds kind of disgusting at first blush, but most closely resembles salty, pork-y butter. Pork-flavored butter... how can you possibly argue with that?

Head-and-leek terrine

Things really started to pick up during the third course. I had gone into the meal expecting some kind of charcuterie; you could hardly have a pig dinner without it. But rather than do paté or a sausage, either of which would have been classic presentations, they decided to get adventuresome. Yes, that's a slab of homemade head cheese and yes, it was good. If you've never had head cheese before it's really just braised pork in aspic. While I was tucking into this course I wondered why one would make head cheese to begin with rather than paté; the Wikipedia entry suggests to me that the form probably originated as a convenient way to deal with the flesh on the skull of the pig.

The Herb Farm's rendition was garnished with a slice of kohlrabi and a couple of pickled chantrelles; pickled mushrooms don't sound all that appealing, but they were actually pretty good. The dish could have done without the horseradish-mustard velouté; the sauce wasn't that interesting and was pretty much the same as the wasabi cream that had been used during the first course. But all in all this is an example of the type of food that I think The Herb Farm should be serving; it's something that you simply won't see anywhere else.

Hampshire pork belly

Compare with the course that followed, Hampshire pork belly served on a a bed of saffron-infused mussels and clams. This dish was disappointing for a number of reasons. You can do wonderful things with pork belly; I recently had some at Lark that was fork tender with a wonderfully unctuous layer of fat that dissolved in your mouth. None of that here; it was a little on the tough side. And really, what were they thinking to serve it with clams and mussels? Clams and mussels? Good. Clams and mussels with saffron? Even better. Served as a garnish for pork... huh? It could have been worse; at least the seafood didn't clash with the pork. But there wasn't any synergy either; it was like eating two separate entrees.

Mangalitsa Pig Loin

Moving on... course number 5. This was the highlight of the dinner, a lovely piece of woolly pig loin with spaetzle and roast veg in a red cabbage sauce. Mangalitsa is substantively different from typical pork. The flavor is much more pronounced, much more pork-y, and the flesh is marbled with fat. Mmmm... fat marbling... there's really something to be said for heritage breeds. And, to gild the lily, they finished it off with a few black truffle shavings.

Ham and cheese crêpe

And then the menu just lost steam.

A cheese course followed the pork loin which, like the pork belly, didn't quite work. They stuffed a couple of different kinds of ripened cheese into a crêpe with bits of pork and biscotti crumbs, resulting in a taste that was... odd. One of the people at my table remarked that it was strongly reminiscent of baked beans, which I think was a fair assessment. This course wasn't particularly inspired and certainly didn't showcase any of the ingredients well. So why'd they do it? Did they feel compelled to do something avant garde with cheese because all fancy meals have cheese courses?

Creme fraîche and coriander sorbet

The same holds true for the "Barbeque Intermezzo", a creme fraîche and coriander sorbet with smoked tomato chutney and smoked bourbon-caramel pig tails. Some questions for The Herb Farm staff:

  • Why include an intermezzo to being with?
  • Why make it so heavy? Palette cleanser my ass.
  • Has anyone ever told you that sorbet is, by definition, non dairy?
Really, as I was eating this course the thought that went through my head was that the smoked tomato chutney would have served as a dandy garnish for a bona fide cheese course.

Clockwise from the top: bacon-oatmeal ice cream, quince tarte tatin, house quince paste on zucchini bread, wild chanterelle tapioca pudding

At least the desserts weren't a flop. The bacon-oatmeal ice cream was genuinely interesting in its own right and was garnished with a wafer-thin piece of crispy, delicious bacon. "Bacon" was all over the menu, but it wasn't until dessert that it actually appeared in a recognizable form. I don't think it would have been at all out of place to feature it in one of the entrees... bacon, a little phylo, some ripe cheese... much better than that crêpe concoction.

I'm not at all fond of tapioca but found their version to be very good, though I couldn't for the life of me detect even a hint of wild chanterelle. The various quince confections, housemade membrillo and tarte tatin, were fine but undistinguished. Nothing made me jump out of my chair and say "Oh my god I've died and gone to heaven!". I consider that a lapse on their part; a place like The Herb Farm could certainly produce a superlative dessert were they to turn their minds to it.

left to right: bacon-pumpkin seed toffee, chocolate-pork-cherry cordials, pig's ears, pear jellies, shiso truffles

The plate of sweets that were served as the final course was much the same, a couple of interesting items but nothing extraordinary. The bacon-pumpkin toffee was good as was, in my opinion, the shiso truffles, though some of my dining companions didn't much care for the latter. I'm a sucker for herbs and chocolate, what can I say?

So that's the blow-by-blow as seen through the "Is this good?" lens. However, this was a theme dinner, so it's a worthwhile exercise to stop and consider how well they lived up to their promises in that regard. Specifically:

Makin' Bacon

Go whole hog! Join us as we explore the pig as he once was: proud, marbled, and flavorful. You’ll forget "the other white meat," as you taste a range of pork, both fresh and cured, from hand-tended Heritage breeds including the legendary Mangalitsa, or "Woolly Pig," which we raise on our own farm. Makin’ Bacon is a delightful nose to tail experience.

Given that description I expect that the pig, in some form or another, will be the centerpiece of each course. I don't want each dish to be a whopping great slab of pork, but they should highlight some preparation or aspect of the noble beast. The Herb Farm failed to live up to my expectations in this regard. It seems to me that they approached the dinner as though it were an episode of "Iron Chef" and their job was to work some pig into each dish one way or another.

Seen from this perspective the first five courses were a success and the final four were just pointless. Each member of the former let me sample and really appreciate the heritage pig; even the pork belly, while a little tough, had good flavor. As for the latter the use of pork was perfunctory and sometimes couldn't even be detected.

There's a natural division that falls out of the application of these two criteria, "Is it good?" and "Is it pig?", to the dinner as a whole. The first five courses met both of these goals for the most part while the final four courses didn't fare as well. Why that was the case, who knows? Maybe its an artifact of the way that they divided up the planning and execution amongst the kitchen staff. But I gladly would have traded the final four courses for one or two with better execution.

At this point I've said enough, and perhaps even too much, about the food... let's talk about the paired wines for a little bit. One of the reasons that The Herb Farm has achieved the fame it has is due to its epic wine cellar. I felt that they did a fine job with the wine, especially since this wasn't a wine-centric dinner. Here are the pairings:

  • First Course: Capitello Oregon Brut with flavor shot.
  • Second Course: 2007 Pacific Rim Riesling, Wallua Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Washington.
  • Third Course: 2008 Barnard-Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese, Yakima Valley, Washington.
  • Fourth Course: 2006 Boedecker Cellars Pinot Noir, Stewart, Willamette Valley, Oregon.
  • Fifth Course: 2006 Gramercy Cellars Tempranillo, Walla Walla, Washington.
  • Ninth Course: 2008 RoxyAnn "Night Harvest" Viognier, Rogue Valley, Oregon.

The brut was mostly just a stunt; I had mine with the "bourbon bacon" shot, but had a hard time detecting even a hint of bacon about it. Again, I think this speaks to the "Iron Chef" syndrome I mentioned earlier; there's little sense adding pork to something if it really doesn't contribute to the final product. The Riesling was fine, but doesn't really stand out in my mind as being particularly meritorious. I like the rosé; I'm not much of a rosé drinker but this one was nice and tart, not overly sweet, and had a sufficient does of "red" character to appeal to me. The Pinot was good, and the Tempranillo even better, though I don't think the latter merited the $99/bottle they were charging. Note that they didn't bother with wines for courses six through eight; I think this bolsters my thesis that these courses were something of an afterthought.

The real gem of the evening was the Viognier. It had all of the salutary characteristics that I would expect from what was essentially an ice wine without being the least bit syrupy. It may be the best dessert wine I've ever had; during the dinner I tried to recall where I might have had better and came up empty handed. The story they gave us is that it hasn't been released to the general public yet; they sampled it pre-relase during a tasting visit to RoxyAnn and like it so much that they pestered the vintner until ey relented and shipped them a couple of cases.

Before we leave the world of wine I'd like to meditate for a moment on one of the wines they were promoting for purchase during the meal. They have a small number of bottles of 1795 Madeira, available for the low, low price of $150 for a third of an ounce. Though, if you wanted to be cost conscious, they'd sell you a 5 oz. carafe for only $1795. Before dinner I had the chance to ask Ron Zimmerman how much such a bottle would cost and what it would taste like. The answers to those questions were, respectively, $10,000 and so good that people have been known to cry over the experience.

You wonder how much the crying is due to the quality of the wine and how much of it is just because of the mystique. I have to admit that I was torn during dinner; I was almost ready to pony up $150 for my taste. Not because I expected it to be a transcendent experience, mind you, but mostly just because I wanted to be able to say that I've had a 200-year-old wine.

Which leads me to reflect, finally, on the overall significance of The Herb Farm. What does it mean that this place exists, that people will shell out $200 a head (or more) to eat dinner there, and that they find it worthwhile to advertise wines that go for $450/oz.? The bulk of the conversation at our table revolved around food in one way or another: eating in Seattle, destination restaurants we've visited, the meal itself. I think its safe to assume our group was typical, representative of a class for whom the pursuit of eating experiences has become a central source of... not entertainment exactly, but something a little deeper than that. Perhaps "meaning", but that seems both overly dramatic and a little bit worn. Let's just say that it's important to them.

Where do you go to get your next fix after you've eaten at The Herb Farm? The Fat Duck? El Bulli? On some level the entire project seems a little bit dissolute. The constant search for novelty, for ever-more-refined fare, is symptomatic of something. Too much money, perhaps, coupled with too much free time and nothing more important to do with it. Maybe I'm being too hard, but in the end I came away feeling vaguely disappointed. Unless I make it to Europe it may be the best restaurant I'll ever eat it, but it wasn't the transcendent experience I'd hoped for.

1 Really, the amount of talent they had executing the dinner was remarkable. The proprietor, Ron Zimmerman, introduced them all briefly after the first course. The most junior staff member was an intern from the CIA; most of the kitchen staff had graduated from one or another of the well-known cooking schools. IIRC Ron said that Lisa Nakamura, the Chef de Cuisine, had spent a decade at either Chez Panisse or The French Laundry. These guys absolutely know what they're doing.


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