Experience Meal / Peak Experience / Perfect Days / Road Trip

Swept away on Lummi Island at the Willows Inn

I never gave Lummi Island much thought before I saw that it was one of the 10 restaurants that the New York Times listed as “worth a plane ride for” in 2011. Sure, I’d seen Lummi Island on sign posts on drives between Vancouver and Seattle, and I knew that it was an inside joke with my (other) family because at one time they owned a piece of land there. But other than that, Lummi Island was just something I knew of, rather than a place I desired to go. But then the New York Times published that article I took note to “expect a menu with an obsessive focus on local ingredients” at the Willows Inn. This was enough to make me curious, and curiosity satiated often leads to great adventures!

My initial research on the Willows Inn uncovered that Washington native, Chef Blaine Wetzel’s pedigree included a few years at noma in Copenhagen.  This was enough to pique my curiosity, so  I continued to follow Chef Wetzel’s progress and over the past few years he’s been awarded Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2012, the James Beard award for Rising Chef (’14) and Best Chef Northwest (’15), all this and he isn’t even 30 years old! With each accolade, my desire to make a trip to Lummi Island to dine at the Willows Inn grew exponentially.

There are a few impediments to dining at the Willows Inn. The biggest being that with only 26 seats and 1 service a night, 3-4 nights a week, 9 months a year, it seems impossible to get a reservation. Well that is, unless you stay the night at the Inn. But when you couple a night at the Inn on top of the dinner, it makes for a pricey adventure to a small island that no one’s heard of.

Despite the impediments, I kept Willows Inn high on my list of “the next” restaurant I wanted to visit and I talked about my desire to go whenever I could. I am a very lucky girl because when my in-law’s sold their house and wanted to do something “special”, we knew just the thing! And a couple of months after booking, I found myself on a roadie south on the I-5 towards Lummi Island!

Couldn't wait to get on the ferry to Lummi Island to start my adventure.

I couldn’t wait to get on the ferry to Lummi Island to start my adventure.

FullSizeRender-1

After a short 5 minute ferry ride, we were there!

We wanted to have the full Lummi Island experience so we drove around the island to check it out. It took less than 30 minutes to drive the loop, but in that short time, I saw what a special place Lummi Island is. And as a bonus, although it’s so close to home it is removed enough to feel “away”.

Reefnet fishing

Reefnets off the coast. Lummi Island is one of the only places left that still uses reefnetting, a sustainable native fishing technique.

And of course there was a deer at the side of the road.

Of course there was a deer at the side of the road.

We stopped in at the Beach Store Cafe, a cute little spot across from the ferry.

"Lummi Island Beach store cafe sandwich"

Roasted vegetable sandwich with the most delicious fries.

"Lummi Island Beach store cafe pizza"

Pepperoni, sausage, peppers and olives. All of my favourites on a pizza!

Lummi Island beach store cafeI planned for us to hike the Baker Preserve Trail to the Lummi peak. I thought it would be a great way to work up an appetite for our epic meal. The information I’d read about the hike was that it started steeply at the beginning but leveled out quickly. I’m not sure my idea of level is the same as the writers of the info I’d read, but the group were troopers and we successfully made it to the top and back without incident and were rewarded with an amazing view in between.

Lummi Island Baker preserve hike

Lummi Island Baker Preserve trail

We arrived at the Willows Inn to check-in  into our cabin and I started to get excited about my dinner as I saw the cooks busy in the kitchen prepping for the meal. We settled in at our cabin and had just a little time to rest before we walked the 1/2 mile back towards the Willows Inn.

"Lummi Willows Loganita farm"

The Loganita farm next to our cabin is where much of the produce used in our meal is farmed.

Dinner at the Willows Inn is served at 6:30, but we arrived early for cocktails. It was such a stunning day, so we enjoyed our first drinks on the patio and I had the opportunity to browse through the beautiful leather bound “reference guide” which shares with the diner information on how the extremely local ingredients are sourced.

Willows Inn Lummi menuIMG_8875

FullSizeRender-3-4

We knew the dinner was going to be a marathon with multiple plates, served over many hours. What we weren’t sure about was how to tackle our beverage choice(s). It’s always difficult to know how to navigate a surprise menu, so while I rarely choose the wine pairing, at the Willows, the pairing option looked like a good option. The bonus was that they allowed us to share 2 tastings amongst the 4 of us.  With all of the choices done, all that was left was to relax into our meal.

"Willows Inn Lummi Cider"

Edgemount Semi-Sweet Homestead Cider was delightful. I love anything sparkling and appreciated how this sweet and crisp cider paired so well with the opening bites.

The appetizers started flowing out one after another in no particular order. I loved how the chefs from the kitchen were involved in service, which seemed to convey a “casualness” that put me to ease. After my meal at Eleven Madison Park where the service was (almost painfully) structured, I loved the seemingly seamless service that broke down the hierarchy of the who does what through the meal.

"Willows Inn Lummi kale truffle"

Kale chip with truffles and crumbled rye bread.

"Willows Inn Lummi oyster Wetzel"

Pickled Shigoku oyster – For a brief moment, I wondered why they would tarnish the perfect Shigoku by pickling it, but with my one slurp, I tasted the light hand of pickling and how it allowed the sweetness of the oyster to shine through. This was the moment where trust was built and I settled into what I knew would be a great meal.

"WIllows Inn Wetzel roe crepe"

Crispy crepe delicately filled with creme fraiche & char roe was the perfect one bite, that I could have had many bites of.

"Lummi Willows Inn shiitake mushroom"

Shiitake mushroom grilled “simply”.

I loved that my first bites were thoughtful without flash; spectacular without being a spectacle. I understood that there is great technique involved in making food seem this “simple”, but I appreciated the confidence that it takes for a chef to understand the greatness of nature and how his role is only to coax the best out of each ingredient.

It was in that moment of understanding that Chef Wetzel served us the next course and I gushed with excitement to the Chef, telling him how excited I was to be eating at Willows. I’m sure I sounded like a giddy groupie in that moment, but after so many meals where I’ve felt like an invisible diner, I was excited to have a voice.

"Willows Inn Lummi black cod doughnut"

The black cod doughnut made me wonder why there are not more savoury doughnuts in this world.

"Willows Inn Lummi Halibut skin"

Dried halibut skin filled with clam.

At this time, the blinds were dropped on the patio and the diners were led into the dining room and I had a few moments to reflect on the first many bites from the meal. Being from the Pacific Northwest, so many of the flavours that were presented seemed so familiar, but each opened my eyes wider to the amazing bounty of the place I call home. I was ecstatic because finally, I was having a meal that I usually have to travel thousands of miles for, just down the road from where I live.

"Willows Inn melon Lummi Wetzel"

Heirloom melon with verbena and quince

"Willows Inn zucchini branches Lummi"

Zucchini sitting in a broth made from zucchini stems. This dish showed so much confidence in its simplicity and pure delicious flavour, was one of the most memorable of the night.

"Willows Inn geoduck cucumber"

Slices of geoduck with cucumber seeds. I remember when geoduck was cheap and plentiful, and now it’s such a treat when it’s served. This dish reminded of being a kid at the Japanese market when my dad purchased an ugly geoduck from a big plastic bin. I was skeptical, but then delighted at the delicate briny taste and crunchy texture that came from such an ugly mollusk. It was one of those defining moments on my path of food loving. This dish felt so comforting as it was so true to my memory.

"Willows Inn beets gin Lummi"

Salt cured beets with gin flavoured yogurt

Chef Blaine Wetzel Willows Inn

As Chef Wetzel served one of our courses, I asked if he minded if I went and peeked into his kitchen to take photos and if not,  to let me know when a good time might be. He seemed almost taken aback by this request, so I kept talking, telling him how I loved to watch the movement of service and how it seemed like a beautiful dance to me. I explained that he could tell me where to stand in the kitchen so I’d be out of the way and that at any time he could just let me know if I was being a burden. He seemed almost amused and said “no problem, whenever you like”. And of course I took full advantage of this access from that point forward in the meal when I had the chance.

So while the room moved outside to start taking photos of the amazing sunset, I took advantage of looking in on the kitchen.

"Willows Inn Lummi sunset"

So while the room moved outside to start taking photos of the amazing sunset, I took advantage of looking in on the kitchen.

Willows Inn Lummi Blaine Wetzel kitchen

IMG_5771

"Willows Inn Lummi Island Wetzel"

"Willows Inn Lummi Crab pine nuts"

Dungeness crab in a puree of pine nuts was luxurious without being decadent; pure pleasure without holding you back for the next dish and another favourite in what was becoming an unforgettable meal.

"Willows Inn Wetzel albacore tuna"

Albacore tuna with a chilled broth of grilled bones. I loved how in this and the zucchini dish, they accentuated the main star of the plate by accompanying it with a broth made of the “unusable” parts.

One last glimpse of sunset, fading light always means the challenge of taking good photos...

One last glimpse of sunset… Fading light always means the challenge of taking good photos…

Blaine Wetzel Willows Inn Lummi

Willows Inn Lummi Nick Green

Willows Inn Lummi kitchen Wetzel

Roasted eggplant with figs

Roasted eggplant with figs

"Willows Inn bread with pan drippings"

Bread from heirloom wheat with pan drippings – I usually steer clear of bread, which I look at as a filler. But when bread is part of the “service”, I take notice and will sample a bit. When bread is served alongside deep rich chicken pan drippings, well the bread becomes the perfect vehicle for deliciousness. Rarely is the bread course memorable, but I can still remember the wonderful fatty umami flavour of the bread soaked in drippings sitting so pleasantly on my tongue.

"Willows Inn white king salmon Wetzel"

King salmon with lovage and cherry tomatoes – I had read so much about Wetzel’s slow smoked salmon that I was let down not to be served it. In its place was a beautiful barely steamed ivory King, treated so delicately, left for its flavors to shine through on their own.

"WIllows Inn venison Wetzel"

The only meat course of the evening came in the form of a venison tartare served with rye crackers and purslane. So late in the meal, I appreciated being served my meat raw. It left me feeling triumphant that I had made it through the savory courses!

"Willows Inn birch tea"

Tea of roasted birch

I will admit, the sweet courses were a blur to me. I know I enjoyed them, but sweets are never my thing. Around the time when the sweet courses started coming out, was when the service staff (seemed to) relax completely into the evening and conversations started to flow. I appreciated the genuine friendliness of the staff. Everyone seemed to have a great story and you felt they understood how magical a place the Willows Inn was, and were doing their best to share this with the diners.

"Willows inn Lummi blackberries"

Blackberries with wild chamomile

"Willows Inn plums"

Plum skins and goat’s milk

"Willows Inn flax seeds"

Flax seeds and honey pies

After dinner was done, I went into the kitchen to have thank Chef Wetzel for an amazing meal which felt like a love letter to a place I call home. We chatted a bit and before I knew it, the rest of the dining room seemed to be in the kitchen with me. I spoke to Chef Wetzel not only about the amazing abundance of ingredients on Lummi Island but also in the challenges, which the Chef seemed to turn into successes. And when we talked about the camaraderie of the staff living isolated during their on-season and how many of the chefs/cooks go and spend time in other kitchens in their off-season, I started to draw a comparison in my mind to what it might have been like for Ferran Adria and his staff in the early days of El Bulli, located in the remote seaside town of Roses in Spain. Wow, was I comparing my time at Willows to my imagination of El Bulli (because sadly the “closest I’ve been to Ferran was at Tickets in Barcelona)? Yes I was, because my meal and the whole experience of Lummi Island and the Willows Inn was that good.

"Blaine Wetzel Willows Inn Susy Bando"

We took a bunch of selfies but none were really all that great. We couldn’t get one that we decided we both looked good in so…

The Willows Inn serves breakfast, but there was talk if we could really get the value of a $25 breakfast after indulging so much the night before. There was also a fear that there was the potential to be let down after our amazing experience from dinner. I had confidence so I made the big push for breakfast. I’m so happy I did.  Breakfast included a fantastic mix of sweet and savory with delicious coffee and sparkling juices. It was an incredible send-off from what I am quick to describe as the most magical place on earth, the Willows Inn on Lummi Island.

"Willows Inn Lummi breakfast figs"

Figs drizzled with local honey

"Willows Inn Lummi breakfast duck egg"

Soft boiled duck egg

"Willows Inn Lummi breakfast yogurt"

Yogurt with berry compote

Willows Inn Lummi breakfast loaf"

Zucchini bread and oatmeal

"Willows Inn Lummi breakfast meat cheese"

Salami and cheese

"Willows Inn Lummi breakfast chard"

Swiss chard with pine nuts

"Willows Inn Lummi Island"

Thanks Jo & Henry for the most wonderful adventure!!!

Thanks Jo & Henry for the most wonderful adventure!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s