Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Willows Inn | Lummi Island, Washington | October 2016

Our first visit to Willows Inn was almost exactly three years ago. It still stands out as one of my most memorable dining experiences. (I wrote quite a bit about it here.) It was so good, in fact, that when we finally made a return visit last month, just seeing this dock – for the Whatcom Chief ferry that traverses between mainland Washington and Lummi Island – triggered a Pavlovian reaction.

There's nothing particularly showy or ostentatious about chef Blaine Wetzel's cooking. Quite the opposite, he willingly sets his ego aside and let the ingredients take center stage. That's not to diminish the skill with which he handles the wonderful things he finds in this little corner of the world, but rather to say that he really knows how to tell a story of time and place through a meal, eschewing unnecessary embellishment in favor of clarity.

So here, then, is the story of Willows Inn, and Lummi Island, on October 9, 2016.[1] More pictures, less words from me this time. (You can see all the pictures in this Willows Inn - October 2016 flickr set.)

We arrived early afternoon, dropped off our bags, were happy to see the smokehouse in action, and took a long walk on Sunset Beach, which stretches along the shore just beneath the inn. Wetzel has added a brief mid-day menu of simple things to nibble on before dinner, but our timing was off and the kitchen was already gearing up for dinner service by the time we got back to the inn.

As on our first visit, the meal starts with a series of snacks; but this time, they were served on the patio and in the Inn's cozy living room, rather than the dining room. Since there is only one dinner service a night, all the guests gather at the same time, and the atmosphere is more casual dinner party than stuffy tasting menu temple.

First, an assortment of raw, shelled nuts, paired with Eaglemount cider, produced in Port Townsend on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. An old favorite, undulating ribbons of crispy kale, daubed with a paste of rye crumbs and black truffle. And a new item, for me anyway, sheets of crisp, vibrant pink potatoes, sandwiching a creamy ragout of cauliflower mushroom.

Another old favorite: a fragile, crisp crepe shell encasing steelhead roe and a maple cream, capped with finely snipped chives on the ends. This is just perfect. Followed by a new (for me), perfect bite: puffy, savory doughnuts, filled with silky smoked black cod, and sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed. I could eat a dozen of these.

(continued ...)

A round of raw seafood, fresh from nearby waters: delicate little clams with iridescent purple shells; cold, briny oysters; chunks of albacore tuna dusted with fresh horseradish; and a particularly special treat, gooseneck barnacles, prehistoric-looking things that taste like the essence of the ocean.

The guests were then shown to their seats, and dinner started with a simple statement: an assortment of pears from the island, served completely unadorned over ice. The austerity focuses attention on the different expressions of the fruit: one pure and sweet, another floral, another spicy, the dried ones tasting of honey and caramel.

More seafood from the surrounding waters: slices of rockfish, lightly cured in kelp, awash in an intense, cold broth and gelée of the fish's bones; plump sea urchin roe, napped with a broth of dried trout shavings; and delightfully briny razor clams, charred over fire and seasoned with coarse salt.

Our first visit to Willows Inn was in August, and while everything is pointedly seasonal and local, there was one dish in particular that tasted almost literally like an edible late summer landscape: a bowl of freshly picked blackberries in a verdant green juice of herbs and grasses. This time, in October, the early fall landscape was captured in this dish of meaty, earthy porcini mushrooms, served over a burdock root cream drizzled with a grassy, fragrant woodruff oil – like tasting a walk in the woods.[2]

With the sun setting over the Rosario Strait outside, there was another burst of color at our table: what Wetzel calls an herb tostada. The "tostada" is a mustard green leaf, fried in a delicate tempura style batter. It's spread with an oyster and herb emulsion, and then then topped with an assortment of vividly flavored leaves and flowers: nasturtium, shiso, basil, mint, brassica flowers, and more. It's incredibly delicate but intensely flavored, with each bite yielding a different surprise. This is a beautiful, wonderful dish.

A dish of translucent picked crab meat, soaked in cold pine nut milk and topped with toasted golden pine nuts, was maybe the quietest of the evening. And then the one that followed was the most visceral: a cube of aged, barely seared venison heart, tasting and feeling exactly like what it is. Next, what for me anyway effectively serves as the "main course" of the evening: fat tranches of Willows' gorgeous, crusty, flavorful heirloom grain bread, served with both butter, and a ramekin of rich, sticky chicken drippings. I was not too ashamed to accept a second round of bread to soak up everything in that ramekin.

This dish of king salmon, steamed and swimming in a dark green lovage broth with tangy husk cherries, was very Japanese in its austerity. I have to admit: I longed for the fatty, silky, perfect smoked sockeye salmon we'd had on our prior visit. (I said then: "You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life." Still true.) It was followed by an entirely unflattering looking, and delicious tasting, plate of grilled bits of black cod: fins, and skin, and some belly meat, salted and charred and oozing silky fish oils.

Before proceeding to desserts, a digestive tea made of birch branches, sweet and calming and restorative. Then, a simple dish of kiwi berries in a light syrup of their juices, sprinkled with delicate purple-hued lemon thyme blossoms. Next, a compote of roasted crabapples with hazelnuts and sage, served with a quenelle of hickory nut ice cream.

And for a final send-off, a ribbon of sweet, nutty pumpkin seed fudge, which I paired with a tipple of Zirbenz stone pine liqueur.

Only three dishes were identical to those I had three years ago – the kale chips, the cylindrical crepe filled with roe and cream, the bread and chicken drippings. I would not have been at all disappointed had there been at least a couple more repeats: the grilled shiitake mushrooms, the smoked salmon. Some things were entirely new: the smoked cod doughnuts, the potato and cauliflower mushroom sandwiches, the raw seafood course. Several others were, to a greater or lesser degree, similar compositions with different components based on seasonality or availability or just the whim of the kitchen. The cured rockfish mirrored the albacore tuna tartare with a bone jus we'd had earlier; the cucumbers and herbs with a nasturtium vinaigrette we had previously was like a prototype version of the herb tostada; the sliced kiwi berries with lemon thyme reminded me of the tomatoes with frozen goats milk and lemon verbena we'd had before; even the porcini with burdock cream and woodruff oil, as I noted above, echoed the the berries and grass juice, a similar arrangement for a different season.

So many ambitious restaurants try to reinvent themselves every couple years, chasing novelty or attention or greater glory. But at Willows Inn, it feels like not an awful lot has changed since my first visit. As far as I'm concerned, that's just fine. This is, without qualification, one of my favorite restaurants, in one of my favorite places on earth, and I'm perfectly happy with it exactly as it is.

One final thought. If you go to Willows Inn, you'll likely stay at Willows Inn, and if you stay at Willows Inn, a word of advice: don't skip breakfast. It is outstanding.

Served family style, the lineup varies from day to day. (More pictures from breakfast in this Willows Inn - breakfast flickr set.) Ours started with some fresh, luridly magenta-hued plum juice, served in a coupe glass, followed by some local doughnut peaches with creamy fresh yogurt topped with toasted hazelnut butter. Then a really glorious breakfast smorgasbord: a runny soft boiled egg; a pile of buckwheat crepes; fat slices of gravlax with fresh farmer cheese; house-smoked bacon, pancetta, and an aged, spice-rubbed cheese; kale wilted in flaxseed oil with coarse salt; sweet plum jam, tangy late-season rhubarb compote, silky fig custard drizzled with honey; a fat slab of creamy butter. Assemble as you wish. I can't imagine a better send-off.

Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island, Washington

[1] I had been looking forward to a return to Willows nearly from the moment we left three years ago, but this one nearly didn't happen. Mrs. F had a week-long conference in Seattle and the game plan was to squeeze a visit to Willows onto the back end of her visit. But I wasn't sure if I could make it out until a few weeks before. Once I'd cleared my schedule, I booked us a room online and added on a dinner reservation, as you do at Willows, only to get a response a couple hours later that the restaurant was fully booked already. I have never wheedled and begged so much in my life, and they were gracious enough to squeeze us into a table at the bar even though the dining room was booked up. It worked out just fine, and I'm so grateful to them for accommodating us.

[2] They had a stunt porcini which they showed around the dining room which was gigantic, practically hanging off a dinner plate.

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