Remarkable Dinner at the Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA)

19 Jul

Since reading about Blaine Wetzel at The Willows Inn a few years ago (a good article, from earlier in its existence before he’d won the James Beard award), I’ve always wanted to eat there, but getting to a restaurant on a small island a three hour drive and ferry ride north of Seattle was always logistically tricky.

Last week I finally made it happen… and it’s up there in my list of memorable meals and dining experiences. A dinner of 15+ small courses, each based around a few incredibly fresh ingredients, almost all caught, foraged, or grown on the island and prepared with care. I’ve never tasted squid so tender and tart (raw, fresh from the ocean, with oil and bright, intense flowers picked off herbs), such smooth and buttery cabbage and razor clams almost the same texture, squash blossoms so delicate (with a grassy green sauce from the stems), or anything like some of the drink pairings (an earthy mushroom-infused vermouth, a fermented rhubarb juice).

And eating those and more while the sun set across the ocean, highlighting green in the water and the shadows of the San Juan islands, with the hint of smoke from the outdoor grill, the sound of the waves, a large eagle flying by like that’s nothing unusual, and a great dining companion… these too made a difference.

A few photos (click to enlarge):

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After many courses, a break for some soothing, relaxing tea made from birch branches:

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The breakfast the next morning was also remarkable– with a toothy, coarse porridge of various whole grains, a salmon cured in fennel, brown butter brioche, even cheese from a “dairy with a mere 9 goats” on a nearby island:

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And in a weekend on the island arranged around this dinner, there were hints of the source everywhere, from the dense, biointensive garden grown just for the restaurant nearby (talking to the farmer, she meets with the chefs every fall to plan out what plants, leaves, fruit, roots, and flowers they want to cook with the next year), to the restaurant pantry packed with dried, preserved, and fermented ingredients from across the island (cured venison heart, smoked egg yolk, bundles of birch branches, fermenting garlic, berry syrups), to seeing several of the chefs walking that corner of the island before dinner the next day (whether scooping up buckets of water from the ocean to lug uphill or picking flowers and leaves and tucking them away in an array of little plastic bins to bring back to the kitchen)…

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…to even the breadth of berry foraging available when we took a walk in the woods– picking up thimbleberries, blackberries and relatives, huckleberries, salmonberries, and salal berries for dessert in our apartment the next night:

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