THE WORD “LOCAVORE” may have hit Webster ’s just last year—“One who eats foods grown locally whenever possible”—but the concept has been simmering in the Northwest since at least 1986, when a Fall City herb farmer’s son and his wife began serving freshly harvested multicourse lunches out of the property’s refashioned garage—and The Herbfarm was born.
No, wait. Make that since 1977, when a young dishwasher at Rosellini’s Other Place, Bruce Naftaly, launched Northwest cuisine by buying organic produce direct from the farmers who planted it.
Or just leave off the date—folks have been feeding sumptuously off the famously fertile microclimates of the Pacific Northwest since eons before the dawn of the Best Restaurants issue. Ours is a land built for locavores. But in the last few years, as climate change, energy dependence, and an obesity epidemic have raised awareness about sustainable sourcing and increased the number of farmers markets, more and more restaurateurs have adopted local and seasonal not just as swell ideas, but as defining principles.
Like Seth Caswell, who chuckles whenever he hears farm-to-table dining pegged as a trend. “This is something I’ve been doing 15 years, something I seriously think about all the time,” says the owner of Queen Anne Hill’s new Emmer and Rye. At Emmer, Caswell spends about 90 percent of his dollars on local food; close to 100 percent when it’s produce and fish. “Composing a menu is never: ‘What do I feel like making?’ ” Caswell says. “It’s: ‘What’s available from the farmers right now?’ ” So tight are his associations with producers they seek his input at seed-buying time. “Last year I asked Arlington’s Garden Treasures to grow a really flavorful celery for us for this fall.”
And after harvest winds down? “I give myself a little two-minute drill in my walk-in, where I create dishes based entirely on what we have,” he says with the kind of unrestrained glee that tells you this is clearly the biggest fun of his job. He’s always got cured meats on hand, and duck confit, which he can shred into a salad or serve whole as an entree; all those jars of pickled and preserved produce remain from the abundance he bought at its peak.
Nowhere is eating off the land a more rigorous business than it is at that granddaddy of locavorism, the Herbfarm. Last year the elegant Woodinville destination launched its annual 100-Mile Dinner, in which every last atom of food in nine courses originated from within a 100-mile radius. Housemade vinegars crafted of local wines. Dandelion, chicory, and madrona-bark brews for coffee. Even salt hand-rendered from Puget Sound.
Such extreme locavorism, admittedly, is rare—but many regard farm-to-table dining an essential part of their job. Volunteer Park Café, The Corson Building, Le Gourmand —Bruce Naftaly’s French phenomenon—and Café Juanita are serious locavores. Menus at Sitka and Spruce and Tilth typically list the farmer or fisherman who provided the food. Many grow their own, like Nettletown ’s Christina Choi, whose first career as a forager compelled her to introduce wild fennel in her own backyard for ease of harvesting the fennel pollen she makes into her fresh and feisty lemon-fennel soda. Kirkland’s Trellis has a farm just a few miles up the road; Poppy a 600-square-foot garden in back of its storefront—smack in the heart of commercial Broadway.
“It was a dark, scary parking lot, and now it provides all the herbs we use in the restaurant,” marvels Jerry Traunfeld, owner and chef at Poppy. “Four kinds of basil, lemon verbena, Japanese pepper, lovage, sorrel, tarragon, you name it. Tomatoes, too!” No extremist, Traunfeld believes it’s more important to give the diner a great dining experience than to be dogmatically local—and that he does, night after night, in the form of 10 nuanced compositions arriving artfully arranged on a round tray. Corn soup, the very essence of local corn, breathing his garden’s lemon variant of basil. A moist slab of slow-roasted Copper River coho salmon served with meaty, hand-foraged lobster mushrooms and a sauce with more from that garden, this time sorrel.
Is it my imagination, or does this food taste brighter, truer …at once more deeply flavored and more like nourishment? “Local seasonal food is fresher, more nutritious,” muses Caswell. “But it also satisfies our bodies’ deepest cravings. I believe after you’ve lived in a place longer than three or four years your body craves what’s seasonal there. It’s a mystical thing, really. It’s a connection to the earth.”
NEXT: THE MORNING MEAL