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Woodinville, Wash. -- As the prime season for just-picked produce peaks, restaurants built around the fresh-from-the-farm concept naturally take center stage.

But few places with the passion and authority of The Herbfarm, a 16-year-old pillar of Northwest cuisine that has become legendry for is nine-course, five-wine themed ($149-$179 per person before tax and tip) and tough-to-snare reservations.

Now celebrating its second season here in new roomier quarters on the grounds of the Willows Lodge spa and hotel 30 minutes northeast of Seattle, The Herbfarm appeals to the growing number of diners who are concerned about, and fascinated by, the sources of the ingredients on their plate.

The idea is "to keep you in touch with what is happening in the land where you live, "says Carrie Van Dyck, who in 1986 founded the original restaurant with husband Ron Zimmerman in the garage on his family's farm in nearby Fall City.

Some restaurants promote the farm-to-kitchen connection by simply listing the names of their suppliers on the menu. Others such as Restaurant Six89 in Carbondale, Colo., The Ark Restaurant on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula and The Sooke Harbor House near Victoria, British Columbia, sport on-premise gardens where diners can stroll and learn from staffers about the herbs and vegetables growing there.

But The Herbfarm elevates the concept to grand theater. The first tip-off comes from the reservation instructions that remind diners to allow 4 1/2 to 5 hours for dinner. The second comes customers are taken on a half-hour tour of the 6,000-square-foot garden to preview some of the produce they'll be eating and to meet the restaurant's garbage disposal, a hog named Hamlet.

The payoff comes about 30 minutes into the feast. That's when executive chef Jerry Traunfeld, Van Dyck and Zimmerman assemble in the front of the French country-style dining room and present exquisitely detailed and entertaining talks about the origins of every dish, ingredient and beverage emerging from the open kitchen behind them.

The mini-lessons can embrace botany, geography, anthropology, classical literature, and good ol' Latin, and they go down as easily as the all-Northwest wines that are paired with the courses. During a recent session, Traunfeld held aloft several spindly wild ginger plants and noted cheerily. "Their flowers were pollinated by slugs." Moving on to stinging nettles, which were paired with lovage in a risotto, he assured the room that "despite the name, they're just peppery, and they're good for you".

"Part of our mission statement is education" Van Dyck says. "Because the restaurant grew out of an herb farm, from the very beginning we wanted to get people to see all the different things that can be done with herbs. But almost as important was the idea that we were using local, seasonal products that were all around you."

Zimmerman, who sold backpacking gear before moving to the family farm, had taught himself how to cook and eventually began serving lunches and dinners in a elegant refurbished garage that seated 38 diners. The focus, of course, was on the herbs, fresh from the farm.

"People would bring us all these orphaned plants, and so eventually we had hundreds of varieties," he says.

Traunfeld, a chef at a Seattle hotel, was hired in 1990 and soon displayed a wizard's knowledge of the native bounty in the forests, farms and waters. All his ingredients come from either the on-premise garden, the nearby farm or from suppliers in a region bounded by Northern California, Alaska, Montana and the Pacific. His skill with both classic dishes and spur-of-the-moment creations led him to be named the Northwest's best chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2000.

For ten consecutive years, the restaurant never had an empty seat, according to the owners, and reservations were open just twice a year. But in January 1997, an electrical fire destroyed the restaurant and the team moved the operation to an area winery for two years. In April 2001, they moved into the present barnlike building, which seats 60-65 diners and includes two luxury overnight suites.

The dining room is as distinctive as the menus, with a decor featuring hundreds of artifacts from Van Dyck's and Zimmerman's travels, including cement pigs, mounted fish, ceramic chickens, Greek statues, wrought-iron candle lamps for each table and a 3,0000-pound terra-cotta fireplace. "We call it Northwest/French/country/creative," Van Dyck says.

For a typical dinner, each place setting has 12 pieces of silverware, five wine glasses, a sterling silver-plated water goblet and a chalice containing three herbs that can be used to flavor the sparkling wine. In all, the staff handles about 5,000 dishes, glasses and pieces of silverware for the 60-plus guests.

To cap off most meals, diners receive a taste of a rare dessert wine, which on a recent occasion was 1885 Madeira. Though seemingly out of place on the all-regional menu, no one complained.

"It comes from the northwest coast of Africa, if that counts." Zimmerman says.