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Nancy in Wonderland

Our restaurant critic leads the way to an Herbfarm fantasy

Dinner at the Herbfarm is not merely dinner: It is an unparalleled dining event. This five hour, nine-course theatrical production stars an incomparable chef/genius aided by a crew of 20, features five splendid northwst wines, a classical guitarist and an audience of culinary enthusiasts willing to spend a small fortune for a meal they won't soon forget.

What price perfection? A jaw-dropping $435 for two, including tax, service and the opportunity to to leave spellbound and sated after sipping such vintage treasures as a 100-year-old Barbeito Malvazia Madeira.

You may not be able to imagine spending half so much on a meal, even if it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience such as this. All the more reason to read on, and let me lead you through the looking glass on an armchair journey to the Herbfarm.

The story of this flawless food fantasy -- a genuflection to the Northwest's early summer bounty dubbed "A Summer Sketchbook" -- began at 6:45 p.m. on a Saturday when my husband and I entered an antiques filled parlor. There co-owner Carrie Van Dyck greeted us, offered us herbal ice tea floating with edible flowers and led us, with fellow diners, on a narrated garden tour.

Newly landscaped, this pretty profusion of raised beds is a far cry from the lush acreage that inspired The Herbfarm's original Fall City restaurant. Destroyed by fire in 1997, the restaurant found temporary quarters at an Issaquah winery before reopening this spring in the heart of Woodinville.

With doubled capacity, a private dining room, a chef's library and a very visible 10,0000-bottle wine cellar, the Herbfarm is -- finally -- ensconced in a rustic european-styled structure where it shares a view of Mount Rainier and a resemblance to a fairy-tale cottage.

Today, chef Jerry Traunfeld finds inspiration for his seasonal theme dinners at a 1 1/2 acre farm plot a mile away, leaving the show garden to curious diners and the Herbfarm's "recycling unit" -- a Vietnamese potbellied pig whose stylish sty is adjacent to the Willows Lodge. The garden, and the restaurant, may be viewed from two luxury Herbfarm suites available for overnight guests wise (and wealthy) enough to spend the night.

Back indoors, patrons are led to tables dressed with chintz and charm and set with lavender bouquets, three -tiered candlelabrum, flowers tucked into linen napkins, heavy Christophle flatware and a flight of wine glasses generously filled throughout the evening.

As Carrie Van Dyck's husband, co-owner Ron Zimmerman, and "Wine Goddess" Christine Mayo poured a 1996 St. Innocent blanc de noirs -- a bone-dry sparkler scented tableside with herbs snipped from a fragrant basketful -- eyes turned to the centerpiece of the dining room: the expansive kitchen.

In this red-velvet draped stage set, Traunfeld and his white-coats are a culinary corps du ballet. Their well-rehearsed first act included a single morel mushroom plumped with goat cheeses, chubby Mediterranean mussels skewered on rosemary and smoked over basilwood, and pearl-gray orbs of Montana paddlefish caviar gleaming on a wild ginger jelly. The clear, clean, mild tasting jelly was flavored with the locally foraged rhizome -- as we'd later learn when Traunfeld and Zimmerman acquaintd us with the evening's offerings.

The crisp citrus notes of Chateau Ste. Michelle's 1999 Horse Heaven sauvignon blanc played off sorrel flan adrift in a froth of lemon-thyme sabayon and topped with Dungeness crab. Somehow Traunfeld magically coaxed the lemony flavor from the sorrel, leaving its noted sourness behind.

The brilliant pink of Chinook Winery's 2000 cabernet franc rosé was echoed in Yakatat sockeye salmon, slow cooked at 140 degrees. Resting on a mix of delicate herbs, briny sea beans, pea-shoot tendrils and striated watermelon-radish, the salmon's gravlax-like texture was refreshed by the dry, fruity rosé.

Course after course, the pairings of food and wine proved uncanny and precise. The sweet complement of seared sea scallops coupled with 2000 Eroica Riesling -- an oenological marriage between neighboring Chateau Ste-Michelle and Germany's Dr.Loosen -- had me crying for mercy with four courses yet to come. And that was before I had a chance to try the accompanying carro ravioli, shaped into tiny bellybuttons, seasoned with bay leaf and garnished with fried variegated sage leaves.

Meadowsweet sorbet, looking like snow and tasting like honey, redied our palates for squab with Bing cherry sauce, improved -- if that was possible -- by its pinot noir companion, a rich, ripe 1998 Domaine Seren Evenstad Reserve. Steeped in lavender marinade and grilled to post-pink tenderness, the bird's boneless brest arrived with a "buckwheat, leek and confit crêpe" -- the gourmand's answer to a knish. (Granted Traunfeld's clever creation involved foie gras rather than the chicken fat surely favored by his Jewish grandmother.)

Composed of herbs and flowers, the Herbfam salad proved as much a dance as a pre-dessert finale whena all hands converged in the kitchen. Created leaf by leaf, petal by petal, kissed with vinaigrette and graced with a creamy slice of Sally Jackson's Guernsey cow cheese, this study in simplicity was simply outstanding. as were the "Final Flavors from Early Summer": a gooseberry-lemon verbean fool, strawberry-rose geranium sundae, and raspberry Napolean layered caramelized wuth caramelized puff pastry and anise hyssop cream.

After dessert came French-press coffee imported teas and herbal accompanied by cinnamon-basil truffles, warm lavender nut cakes and a minature chocolate espresso "tower".

These were precursors to the nutty, tawny, liquid gold that was born in a cask in 1901 to be enjoyed in 2001.

This was the same year a rabid baseball fan paid $700 for a single ticket to the All-Star Game. The same yaer WWII buffs paid $500 each for a short flight over Puget Sound in a B-17 bomber.

There are those who'd consider a $700 seat at a baseball game or a $500 fly-over in a B-17 not only outrageous, but obscene. Just as there are diners who who might say the same thing about the lengthy highly-orchestarated, eat-what-we-serve-you meal at the Herbfarm. I can't speak for baseball fans or for aviation buffs, but as a lover of great food and wine, my money's on the Herbfarm.