Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Willows Inn - Lummi Island, Washington

The first thing I notice upon arriving are the smells: the salt ocean air, fresh cut grass, a whiff of wood smoke. The ferry ride from the mainland takes only about ten minutes, but Lummi Island - the home of the Willows Inn - seems almost a world to itself. Lummi, about a dozen miles from end to end, is the easternmost of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the Strait of Juan de Fuca stretching between mainland Washington State and Vancouver Island. It's also one of the more beautiful places I've ever been.

We spent a couple days on Lummi Island before eating at Willows Inn, and I'm glad we did.[1] We saw the reefnets where salmon are fished in the same way that Native Americans did it centuries ago.[2] We caught (and released) a massive thirty pound lingcod. We kayaked along the island's coast, tasting bull kelp and sea lettuce we pulled right out of the water alongside our boats. After a little while, it starts to seem as if the entire landscape is edible: blackberry bushes flourish everywhere, salmon occasionally jump over the waves, their scales glinting silver in the light, deer and rabbits roam out of the woods at dusk.

It provided context. And perhaps more than anything else, Chef Blaine Wetzel's cooking is all about context.

The best meals not only nourish and satisfy; they tell a story. It doesn't need to be a complicated one - and indeed, when your mode of communication is a plate of food, it probably can't be. The story of Willows Inn is a simple one, eloquently told: "Here is where you are, right now."

This is the story of Willows Inn, and Lummi Island, on August 15, 2013.[3]

(You can see all my pictures in this Willows Inn flickr set.)

(continued ...)

The heart of Willows Inn may not be the kitchen - rather, it might be this smokehouse, just a few steps away. Every morning I saw one of the cooks out here, scraping the bark from logs with a small hand-axe to prep the wood for the fire. Salmon from the reefnet fishery a few miles down the coast are smoked here throughout the day, to become what may be one of Chef Wetzel's signature dishes.

There is one service for dinner, in a rustic dining room that seats about thirty people. On one side, open doors peek into the kitchen. On the other, windows look out onto the expanse of the Rosario Strait and the San Juans. In the place of a menu, a leather-bound book tells the stories of some of the key ingredients that wind up on the plate.

For the most part, these ingredients are very simply presented, though not without some whimsy. A wooden box when opened releases a billow of smoke, then reveals an oyster nestled on the same rocks that line the shores here. The oyster is smoked but entirely unadorned, plump and perfect unto itself.

A crisp delicate crepe shell wraps itself around a filling of salmon roe, maple cream and chives. It is creamy, salty, and sweet, the fresh green herb complimenting the roe's marine brine.[4] It is also head-smackingly delicious.

More snacks arrive, meant for eating with one's hands.[5] Crisp, airy puffed halibut skin, a yin and yang of the fish's charcoal-gray back and white belly, filled with a clam cream and dusted with seaweed powder, look like some sort of exotic mollusks washed up on the shore . Ribbons of crispy kale are dotted with a musky truffle purée and dark rye crumbs, earth tones in three shades.[6]

And then, for the first course, a dish that captures a sense of place possibly more perfectly than any other I've had. Plump blackberries rest in a pool of an emerald green juice of herbs and grasses, garnished with more of those same delicate herbs and their flowers. It is, very much literally, the landscape right outside the restaurant, on a plate.

Shiitake mushrooms, cooked in embers, seasoned with coarse salt, warm, plump, juicy, meaty and earthy. Albacore tuna, scraped with an abalone shell, garnished with freshly grated horseradish. Elemental and pure, the fish so silky and clean, its flavor enhanced and extended by a jus of its bones.

That salmon: reefnet caught, alderwood smoked, sockeye salmon, glistening, vibrant red, faintly warm, fatty, rich, smoky and sweet. You eat it with your hands. You want to go slowly, and savor every bite, but it's hard to resist. You surreptitiously watch your kids to see if they're going to finish theirs.[7] You consider asking for more, even though it's a generous portion. You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life.

Something light - a delicate dish of zucchini and lemon cucumbers with five different basils and a nasturtium vinaigrette. Something hearty - gorgeously crusty hearth bread, served with warm chicken drippings in lieu of butter. I'd seen the chef breaking down a tray full of chickens earlier in the day, and yet there is no other evidence of them on the menu, only these drippings - which taste as if an entire bird was distilled into this little ramekin.[8] I'm only slightly embarrassed to say I soaked every last bit of it up.

Black cod, with pickled elderberries and sheets of tender charred leeks, the fat of the fish and smoke of the charred allium cut by the brine of the elderberry capers. Then, aged duck, with meltingly tender beets and red currants, tart wood sorrel leaves and tiny flowers. Only in retrospect do I notice that no mammals, and barely a couple feathered creatures, grace the menu, which otherwise operates lower on the food chain.

As a transition to sweet things, Wetzel offers up a plate of quartered cherry tomatoes, garnished with a shower of frozen, shaved goat's milk and a scatter of lemon verbena leaves. The tomatoes are poised between tart and sweet, the composition almost like a caprese with the addition of dairy and herb.

And to finish, a return to the edible landscape of the first course: berries - blueberries this time - and grass - here, woodruff ice cream. The sweet berries are barely cooked to just release their juices, the green-hued ice cream is sweet, grassy and herbaceous.[9] It's a bright and refreshing bookend to the meal.

Instead of a tray of mignardises, some simple flax seed speckled caramels - nutty, dense and sweet - are the final send-off.

Chef Sean Brock was recently quoted as saying, "Stories can enhance a meal, but if the products aren't delicious, people aren't going to care." Wetzel cooks with the supreme confidence of someone who knows his products are delicious, letting him tell their story without artifice or embellishment. There is still a true art in telling that story this well: few meals have moved me the way this did.[10] And the beauty of Willows Inn is that, as so many restaurants around the globe start to resemble each other, you will never find another meal like this anywhere else in the world.

Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Drive
Lummi Island, Washington

The Willows Inn on Urbanspoon

[1] Mrs. F initially questioned my decision to spend three days on Lummi Island. By the time we left she was perusing the real estate listings.

[2] The fishery is just a couple miles down the coast from Willows Inn. Nets are strung between two boats, and when fishermen standing on towers atop the boats spot schools of salmon swimming through, the nets are pulled up and the fish are spilled, live, into a netted holding pen where they recover from the stress of the catch. Unwanted bycatch are returned to the ocean, and the salmon are bled in the water and then put on ice.

[3] I am assuming familiarity with the story of Willows Inn and its chef, Blaine Wetzel, but here is the short-form version. The Willows Inn has been in operation since 1910. A few years ago, its then-owners recruited young Mr. Wetzel to run the restaurant there. Wetzel, 23 years old at the time, was a Washington native, but had spent the prior couple years cooking in the kitchen of Copenhagen's Noma with  Rene Redzepi. Wetzel both possesses the talent and, apparently, was given the leeway to create a world-class restaurant, and despite the out-of-the-way location, recognition came quickly. In early 2011 the New York Times named Willows Inn one of "10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride," the following year Food & Wine named Wetzel one of its "Best New Chefs," and he's already been a James Beard Award semifinalist a couple times over.

[4] Those of a certain tribe may perceive this as a "take" on a bagel with salmon and chive cheese, in which case it is the best I've ever seen.

[5] Everyone notes that Wetzel is a disciple of Redzepi, but many forget that Redzepi was himself a disciple of Adria. These "snacks" to start a meal, all meant to be eaten without silverware, are a legacy I trace back to Adria.

[6] The truffles come from Oregon, which is about as far as they stretch the idea of "local" here.

[7] The kids are old enough now that they not only have the patience for these kinds of meals (occasionally), but also the capacity to enjoy them. And they really enjoyed this one. My daughter doesn't eat duck (too cute), and insisted she picked better blackberries herself, but otherwise I think every course passed their muster.

[8] I assume the chickens' meat finds its way into the menu at the casual Taproot Café open during the day downstairs from the restaurant.

[9] Woodruff's aroma comes from coumarin, whose distinctive sweet smell of fresh-cut hay is often used in perfumery and potpourri. Coumarin is also found in tonka beans, cassia cinnamon, and several varieties of orchid, among other places.

[10] Our lunch at Etxebarri a few years ago - still among my favorite dining experiences ever - keeps coming to mind as a point of comparison.


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  2. I ate here roughly a month ago, and while normally I'm one to document such glorious meals as these, I was sorta dumbfoundedly blown away, and as such didn't record practically anything we ate. As such, it was good to see a thorough write up, as many of the dishes were if not identical, logical offshoots of the things we enjoyed.

    Truly magnificent! I'm lucky enough to live only an hour away :)