Despite being named “one of ten restaurants worth a plane ride” by the New York Times we took a boat – a $35 round-trip-take-your-car-with-you-ferry to be precise – to visit Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island. Known to many locals and travelers as a destination bed and breakfast since 1910 but only recently vaulting to the stratosphere of America’s best in local-regional cuisine thanks to executive chef and noma alumni Blaine Wetzel I have to say that even if the restaurant were not so highly acclaimed it would still be a “destination” due to its location but having now dined there I can say without a doubt that it is a destination well worth the acclaim – a bold statement considering the night that followed but a truthful one none the less**.
With reservations largely saved for those staying at the Inn and otherwise only taken 14 days in advance The Willow’s Inn would be the last reservation secured before leaving for Seattle/Vancouver and even then the final call rested on the Chef’s whim – a decision securing us the last seats in the restaurant for that particular night with instructions provided to arrive at 6:00 for drinks in the lounge prior to dinner starting at 7:00 – instructions we were able to follow to the letter in the pitch black thanks to modern technology (GPS) landing us at the docks mere moments before the Ferry would transport us the final ten minutes of our trip. With expectations high, the air crisp, and the only sounds provided by the lapping waves and a few seagulls hitching a ride it has been quite some time since I’ve seen a place so dark.
Getting off the boat and making the short drive past the open fields and Nettles Farm (where the majority of Wetzel’s ingredients are derived) it would be only a few moments before we pulled up to Willow’s Inn and with my aunt still in a walking boot we dropped her off at the door (where she was assisted up the stairs by the dining room managed) and proceeded to park the car at water’s edge before ourselves joining her in the foyer – or perhaps more appropriately, living room. With a few plaques displaying the restaurants accolades and a small brochure discussing their sustainability and Slow Food ethics near the door we were greeted shortly after entry by a young woman named Raquel who took our coats and invited us to order a drink from the bar if we would like or to take a seat on one of the plush couches while the dining room was prepared, each of us electing for the later while also browsing the room and many unique patrons – all but ourselves and one other couple spending the night on the island.
With the hour now 6:45 and myself sitting by the fire thumbing through the noma cookbook it was at this time that we were invited to the dining room and with the small room featuring only a few paintings, serene colors, and a 180 degree view of the surrounding nature I was pleased to see that our four-top (one of only two in the dining room) was situated directly in front of the luminous kitchen where Chef Wetzel was plainly visible along with his team preparing for service. With music and lights both low and our napkins dotted by a stone from the local shores it would be mere moments before we were greeted by one of our many servers and with a glass of crisp Prosecco poured as a welcome it would be no time at all before the meal began.
With an announced structure of $105 for five courses based on the best of what is available I will begin by saying that much like the previous night at The Herbfarm this description is a bit inaccurate but in the complete opposite direction, IE the “five courses” were simply the ones on the menu and most certainly did not account for the chef’s whims and desires including an additional ten bites serving as canapés, mignardises, amuses, and interludes. It also did not account for the fact that these bites were individualized to the likes and dislikes of various members of the table and or to the house blended juices – on this particular evening Carrot, Apple, Red Currant, and Elderflower…or even pomegranate which was not on the menu but which my mother’s misspoken request led to the sommelier actively trying to procure until she realized her mistake. To say the least , this is a restaurant willing to go the extra mile and although there were some service gaffs (dirty plates left in place far too long, a substantial lack of crumbing, a course served while my sister was in the restroom, and just a bit less polish than I’d have liked) the team could not have been any more friendly or pleasant.
With the sommelier beginning to make his rounds at the perimeter of the room the first person to greet us after our captain was one of the many sous chef’s carrying the only item served every night at The Willow’s Inn – a signature dish delivered in a smoking Cedar box described as locally netted 10 hour Cedar Smoked Salmon. Knowing that my mother and aunt do not prefer “fishy fish” or bivalves I’d communicated this in advance to the kitchen and noting this fact they promised them both that this dish was not only “not fishy” but that they would “love it” and although I can’t say either of them loved it they both certainly liked it a lot while my sister and I both swooned at the perfect melt-in-the-mouth texture and smoky aromatics of the best piece of salmon either of us have had in some time.
Moving quickly from first bite to second our next taste of the seasonal bounty at Lummi Island was served as two choices – for my sister and I the Crispy Crepe Roll filled with Maple Cream and Cured Salmon and for my mother and aunt Pickled Kohlrabi with homemade Sauerkraut and Daikon chips. Beginning first with the crepe rolls, a nice riff on Keller’s Coronets or Puck’s Cones these tasty bites were a perfect blend of sugar and brine with both crunch and cream in perfect balance. Moving next to the vegetarian choice, in my opinion much more briny than the first, again a bit of crunch juxtaposed by smooth with the pickled kohlrabi particularly intriguing in its fibrous texture and earthy finish.
With juices delivered, each tasty but the apple absolutely stunning in its milk-like thickness and sour fructose linger, and a glass of 2007 Cougar Crest Cabernet Franc poured for myself it was at this point that Chef Wetzel would make the first of many visits to our table as a server, busser, bread attendant, and gracious host to present “A Basket of Vegetables with Carrots, Radish, Chicory Soil, Cabbages, Yogurt with Fresh Herbs.” Clearly influenced by his time in Copenhagen and a dish exemplifying the diversity of the growing climate at Nettles Farm we were told that each of these vegetables was picked or foraged that morning and dipping each into the rich and aromatic yogurt was ‘terroir’ defined – precisely the sort of presentation I expected and a sign of what was to come next as we were presented a quartet of Krispy Kale leaves with Black Granola and a touch of sugar a light, crisp, and vegetal but complex – another tasty bite.
Moving on to heavier flavors at this point the next pair of amuses would be pickled Shigoku Oysters with crab juice and Torn Sorrel for my sister and I and Herb Toasts with brown butter emulsion and vinegar powder for my mother and aunt. Ever hesitant regarding raw oysters but willing to give it a try for the occasion my sister slurped her oyster first but swallowing quickly I could tell she didn’t like it and all things being equal this would prove to be my least favorite bite of the evening as well – too much brine, not enough balance. Faring better, the ladies herb toasts would prove to be a nice crunchy bite with subtle sweetness grounding the astringency and notes of chives and parsley held aloft by the butter – think a well composed salad in the form of a cracker.
With the parade of amuses seemingly without end the next pair would once again be delivered by Chef Wetzel stating “I hope you like it” before introducing Local Spot Prawn Crudo with Red Currant Granita, Milk Sauce, and Dill Oil for Erika and I while those opposed to raw fishes instead received Garden Cucumber with Dill and Cucumber Granita. This time taking into account all parts of the presentation from taste and texture to temperature and aromatics this would prove to be by far the most inspired of the small bites with the shrimp shockingly sweet and the granite bracingly sour but the pair seemingly melded into one smooth wave by the milk sauce. Taking a taste of the vegetable option was equally impressed by the clean flavor profile but all things being equal I’m very glad I have no aversion to fish.
At this point already 75 minutes into the meal the last of our canapés would arrive, again as a duo composed a la minut by Chef Wetzel consisting of Lightly Poached Pacific Oysters with Sauce of Tequila and Sage for Erika and I with Roasted Red Peppers in Tequila for mother and aunt. With Erika having already sworn off oysters for the evening I helped myself to a double serving with each registering a bitter boozy note followed by a briny pop; again nothing I would have ordered a la carte, but a nice flavor and seemingly innocuous at the time**. For the peppers I personally declined a taste as I felt it would be all I’d taste later that evening but from what I was told they were quite good.
With the menu itself finally slated to begin (and my mother not-so-jokingly saying she was already getting full) it was only here that the bread service would begin and all I can say is that for someone who loves their carbs this was one dangerous loaf of crunchy Whole Wheat served in a wooden box with hot rocks to keep it warm and silky butter from local cows plus sea salt from directly off the island’s shore – I could have eaten (and probably did eat) a whole loaf.
With the kitchen’s gleaming white and my privileged seat allowing me a great view it was evident that more composed dishes would constitute the menu proper as the chefs worked in careful silence and as the hour reached 8:30 our first course would arrive as “Whole Roasted Celery Root with Hazelnuts, Horseradish Mousse and Chestnuts,” a composition clearly embracing the ethos of New Nordic cuisine with an ingredient focus direct from Lummi. Beginning first with fibrous steak of celery root the first flavors of this plate were clear, bold, and slightly bitter but on further exploration the profile bloomed into a bit of heat, a touch of smoke, and underlying notes of acid all smoothed out by the puree of chestnuts and something distinctively fruity that I never did identify.
With wine finished and a second glass declined to instead focus on the house filtered ice water and the natural flavors of the cuisine chef Wetzel would briefly stop by to inquire as to whether my mother and aunt would be willing to try a scallop dish and on their agreement we all received “Weathervane Scallops with Cabbages and Mussel Sauce.” Without a doubt the best course of the evening from my standpoint this small plate would present a single sweet and snappy Fanny Bay scallop hidden beneath wilted sea and land cabbages and a smooth hand whipped sauce that tasted the very essence of the sea fortified with just a touch of butter. Simple, savory, and splendid.
Again happy to show off their unique ties to the local land and waters another interlude course would follow the scallops in the form of pickled chanterelle mushrooms for the ladies and a rare variety of fried and pickled smelt spawn that are apparently only available “4 or 5 days each winter” for my sister and I. Served in a tin and whole with head on I could sense the apprehension on my sister’s face when presented with this course but reminding her of her favorable experience with sardines at Le Cinq it was she who tasted first and with a “not bad” I ate mine in two bites – the crisp skin giving way to juicy flesh with ample notes of vinegar, thyme, dill, and what I believe was black pepper throughout – not bad indeed.
Returning to our regularly scheduled program the third menu course would arrive in the hands of Chef Wetzel again with a lengthy description describing the foraging process behind the dish and a suggestion to return in the summer to see “the other half” of Braised Radicchio with winter stems and pine nuts, onion bullion tapioca and sweet dry bread – a dish large in both portion and flavor but also in concept and nuance. Beginning first with the Radicchio I think what surprised us most about this dish was the focus on bitter – obviously not a flavor frequently featured in American cuisine – and then on what Wetzel chose to do with it; at times highlighting it with the raw stems of plants greens harvested months earlier, at times muting it as with the case of the croutons, and finally turning it into something totally unexpected – a substitute protein in terms of taste and texture every bit on par with firm tofu soaking up the environment around it.
Clearly noting that most American palates would not be satisfied by a vegetarian main course the final dish of the evening was perhaps the most predictable of the night’s courses but even taking into account the fact that I generally don’t eat (and certainly never order) beef the “Slow Roasted Beef Cheek with Grilled onion and herb puree” still turned out to be quite impressive with the cheek itself supple, juicy, and nicely paired with the herbs while the onions in no less than 5 varieties ranged from intensely sweet to downright potent provided yet another glimpse of the bounty of the land without seeming superfluous or overwhelming in the least.
With the noise level of the room clearly picking up a notch as many of the patrons enjoyed their pairings, cocktails, and half bottles the next item presented was another off-menu selection and without a doubt the sort of thing you can only get at a place like Willow’s Inn – an unnamed goat cheese made by “a woman down the road” paired with Rye Crisps made with grains harvested from Nettles Farm that tasted almost on first taste yet sweet and smooth swallowing.
At this point nearing 11:00pm and starting to feel strangely full we were offered coffee, tea, or herbal infusions and electing for coffee I neglected to ask if it too had been produced on the island but none the less it was a bold cup with fruity notes that was refilled without request while my sister’s tea was also deemed quite good even if neither really went with the night’s particular dessert.
Having heard mixed things about the sweets at Willow’s Inn I was not surprised when “Wild Rose Hip Berries with Sweet Herbs and native frost-ripened wild rose berry ice cream foam” arrived with a lengthy explanation from the chef but what I was surprised by was just how flavorful it all was – a nearly indescribable admixture of floral and herbal notes without a lot of sweetness but tons of texture; like crispy meringue on a bed of Italian Ice with crunchy shards of hard candy mixed in.
At this point feeling a bit warm and more full than I’d have anticipated the final bites of the meal would arrive in the form of a quartet of Flax Caramels and with the bite intensely sweet and buttery with a nice textural component added by the flax this would prove to sate everyone’s sweet tooth quite nicely without throwing off the entirely organic nature of everything that preceded – a meal and a chef so loved by its patrons that the room actually broke into a round of applause; something I’ve never seen before and something that apparently Chef Wetzel had never seen before either as he turned rose red, smiling, bowing, and then pulling the rest of his team to the forefront to take the credit.
With the waiters and waitresses slowly circulating with the checks (as you can guess, dial up only on Lummi Island) as we watched the same men who’d just fed us – including Chef Wetzel himself – scrub the counters, grills, stoves, and even hoods it would be perhaps fifteen minutes before we paid our tab and were escorted to the door by the same young woman who’d taken our coats and with a “thank you so much for coming” we returned to the car in the crisp night air to begin our drive to the docks where the same Ferry would return us to land en route for Vancouver; a place that seems very far from Ohio as I look back on it but a place that at the same time seems so much more familiar than Lummi Island or Willow’s Inn – a destination restaurant not only based on location but more so based on just how different it is from everything else being done in American cuisine today.
** Note: Having mentioned the night that followed I must elaborate here that although I cannot be 100% certain I am 95% certain given the timecourse that the “full” feelings and heat I was feeling towards meals end were related to a bout of food poisoning suffered from the pair of lightly poached oysters. I say this because it was not only the only thing I ate all day that no one else indulged in, but because after (thankfully) making it over the border in good time I spent the entire night in the restroom of our Richmond hotel vomiting profusely – the first time I have done so since June 29 of 1999. This was not the flu and it did indeed resolve in approximately 10 hours after the first episode but the severity of it did prevent me from enjoying much of the following day’s dining due to abdominal tenderness. As a physician I will note that I contacted the restaurant via E-mail to inform them of the assumed contamination largely to make sure no one else was affected and I received response from both the chef and maitre d’ confirming there were no other cases but that I had their apologies. They did not try to make excuses, they did not falsely assume that I was trying to leverage something in return; they merely stated they were sorry and hoped that it would not prevent me from returning. It wouldn’t – the only thing that would prevent my return is the fact that it is 2,000 miles away and I can only assume one of two things will soon happen; either reservations will become impossible to obtain or Chef Wetzel will be lured away because his incredible talents, pedigree, and personality are a particularly appealing trifecta in the era of foraging, terroir, and “New Nordic” cuisine.