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A Place to Root for: The Herbfarm

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 seating in more than two years. Once, when he announced a call for reservations, more than a 100,000 Hebfarm 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 restauranteur 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-ring 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 of1896 port from the cellar of British Prime Minister Willaim Ewart Gladstone -- had been lost in a January 1997, when an early evening electical 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 ferm 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 Zimmerma's vision), and then by endless red tape. This is why the reopened Herbfarm Restaurant will be serving dinner in a 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 herbfarm 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 lon, nine-course thematic 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 liken 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 in Jeremiah Tower's Stars in San Francisco, that bhe began testing the amazing potential of herb cuisine. Even at Stars, he coluldn'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 nastutiums -- in the way 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 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 Apicus. What he rediscovered was the lost art of cooking with herbs, When he read, for example, that angeica, with its hints of abnise, celery and juniper, was commonly added to rhubarb at the turn of the century, 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 dsalmon with the dried stems of basil and lemon verbena to create a pperfect balance of delicate flavors that embellish a dish yet somehow never overpower it. Sometimes he uses herbs as food, as inthe salad of fresh mint, tarragon, parsly, basil, watercress and nastertium flowers that accompanies his grilled halibu 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 in March 2000.

After leaving Zimmerman to his phones, I was more tahan 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 here I was, a few hours later, breaking new pesoanl 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 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 behaind a palate-friendly green similar to, but earthier than, spinach) and a dozen mussels swimming in anaromatic 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.