The co-owner and mastermind behind the Herbfarm restaurant, the most elusive reservation in the Pacific Northwest, knew enough to alert the telephone company before he began taking calls in April for his first summer seating in more than two years. Once, when he announced a call for reservations, more than 100,000 Herbfarm devotees jammed North Seattle's lines in a matter of minutes, overloading circuits and triggering the telecommunications equivalent of a brownout.
When I arrived at restaurateur Ron Zimmerman's office at noon on the second day of the latest call-in to see what all the fuss was about, I found him and his staff still struggling to keep up with eight ever-ringing phones. There was already a waiting list for the next six months--quite an achievement, considering that at this point the restaurant still had no tables. Or chairs, or china, or crystal or silverware. Not so much as a scrimshawed napkin ring. Everything--including an exceptionally rare bottle of 1896 port from the cellar of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone--had been lost in January 1997, when an early evening electrical fire destroyed Zimmerman's four-star restaurant. At the time it occupied an elegantly appointed garage, if you can imagine such a thing, on the tranquil grounds of a dairy and berry farm turned herb garden in Fall City, Washington, a sleepy town with a river running through it, 22 miles east of Seattle on the western edge of the Cascade Mountains.
For more than two years, efforts to rebuild on the site have been stymied, first by locals who opposed the idea of a six-suite country "Inn at The Herbfarm" that would be attached to the restaurant (a key component of Zimmerman's vision), and then by endless red tape. This is why the reopened Herbfarm Restaurant will be serving dinner in the barrel-aging room of Hedges Cellars, a winery off Interstate 90 in nearby Issaquah that has neither a garden nor an inn and is flanked by gas stations and strip malls.
In the spring of 1986, Zimmerman, a self-taught chef who had been hawking back-packing gear for a living, turned the garage on his parents' 13-acre herb farm into a restaurant and began offering customers a taste of his experiments in herb-enhanced cuisine, which featured ingredients gathered from, or not far from, the farm. By the summer of 1990, when he hired Jerry Traunfeld, the executive chef of Seattle's Alexis Hotel, to run his kitchen, The Herbfarm Restaurant had a national reputation for its five-hour-long, nine-course thematic weekend dinners, which were fortified by a cellar stocked with 6,000 bottles of regional wines. Until the fire, no table went unbooked, so it's cheering to know that Zimmerman and Traunfeld are at it again, endeavoring, as they like to say, to tell the story of the Northwest through a meal.
Although Traunfeld grew up cooking and gardening in Maryland, it wasn't until the Eighties, after he had graduated from the California Culinary Academy and was working at Jeremiah Tower's Stars in San Francisco, that he began testing the amazing potential of herb cuisine. Even at Stars, he couldn't just walk out back and pick from 600 different varieties of exotic plants--everything from cinnamon basil and chocolate peppermint to meadowsweet and peppery tuberous nasturtiums--in the way that he can at The Herbfarm. Traunfeld is now able to work with entire plants, so he can add more flavors to his palette; in the case of fennel, for instance, he uses the leaves, stems, seeds and flowers.
Traunfeld found inspiration for some of his experiments in his prodigious collection of old and antiquarian cookbooks, most notably Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats as well as Of Culinary Matters by the Roman Apicius. What he re-discovered was the lost art of cooking with herbs. When he read, for example, that angelica, with its hints of anise, celery and juniper, was commonly added to rhubarb at the turn of the century to reduce its tartness, he decided to create a rhubarb angelica pie.
Traunfeld does more than just add herbs to food. He imbues dishes with the essences of herbs, infusing, say, the creamy dressing of fusilli carbonara, sans bacon, with a medley of tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley, or smoking salmon with the dried stems of basil and lemon verbena to create a perfect balance of delicate flavors that embellish a dish yet somehow never overpower it. Sometimes he uses herbs as food, as in the salad of fresh mint, tarragon, parsley, basil, watercress and nasturtium flowers that accompanies his grilled halibut recipe. Traunfeld is eager to reveal his magic to home cooks, having just finished The Herbfarm Cookbook (Scribner) which is scheduled to be in bookstores by March 2000.
After leaving Zimmerman to his phones, I was more than a little curious when I found Traunfeld cheerfully emerging from one of The Herbfarm's 23 gardens, shooing llamas and pygmy goats and clutching two brown paper grocery bags, one full of harmless things like freshly picked bay leaves, lovage and lemon balm, the other packed with stinging nettles.
"Stinging nettles and poison ivy salad," he said. "An Addams Family meal." He was joking. I hoped.
Since the restaurant wouldn't be open for weeks, I had invited myself to Traunfeld's house for dinner, and suddenly I was wondering if I should have asked a few questions about the menu, or maybe mentioned my credo: Never, under any circumstances, eat anything that lives inside a shell, walks sideways or has an exoskeleton, more than four legs, or eyestalks.
But there I was, a few hours later, breaking new personal culinary ground, closely watched by the chef, his two dogs and four of his closest friends. Well into my sixth scallop, I was chewing slowly to prolong the experience of Traunfeld's signature tangy carrot-marjoram sauce. I had polished off an appetizer of sea urchin roe, a bowl of stinging nettle and lovage soup (the needle-like part of nettles, I learned, disintegrates when blanched, leaving behind a palate-friendly green similar to, but earthier than, spinach) and a dozen mussels swimming in an aromatic sabayon of rosemary-steamed garlic and egg yolks. I was so sated that I almost didn't have room for the maple, pear and bay leaf clafoutis. Almost.
Story by Ted Katauskas, a writer based in Portland, Oregon, with an appetite for anything prepared by The Herbfarm chef, Jerry Traunfeld.
Recipes adapted from The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld, to be published by Scribner in March 2000.