The experience of a place. At a certain moment. At a certain time. To celebrate the objects around you and see their perfection. Their uniqueness. Their connection to the land and its mechanisms of timeless balance. Is to understand that place. All great food cultures start with this. Our participation in this ecology binds us to that place. And we dissolve into coexistence. This philosophy of connection and presence is championed eloquently through Chef Blaine Wetzel and his team at The Willows Restaurant on Lummi Island, located high in the pacific northwest, about a half an hour from Canada and two hours north of Seattle.
Grey and wind stripped rocky beaches strewn with grey driftwood like lonely bones, the grey blue silhouettes of other distant islands and ghostly black faces of ancient edifices stare silent back towards the shore, the wet tangle of fallen leaves a carpet between stark aspen groves and large leaf maples swayed from dense moss and ferns, the wheeze of foghorn across the still farmlands carved from the forests and dotted with the season’s last offerings of tree fruits, berries, and nuts. This place that I’ve grown to love has a voice like no other’s.
We rented a house on the beach in a secluded area for a few days before our reservation at the Willow’s Inn to allow the stress of the city and the tech world melt away into the rugged indifference that slumbers there. To reconnect with the land.
Guests of the inn get priority for dinner reservations so we booked a separate night there as well. The Willows Inn has several rooms in their main lodge but also owns many houses across the island they rent rooms from. On our first visit in 2013 we stayed in a house on a private beach a short drive from the restaurant but this time we chose the “Sunset Room” directly over the dining room. It was great to stay in the main lodge with plenty of time to explore the grounds where much of the food is grown and watch the cooks collect and prepare the day’s meal.
[A note on photography: The Willow’s restaurant is lit primarily with candles which creates a very romantic mood but presents challenges for photography. I’ve tried to correct for the very low light and orange tint but I will not be able to reproduce the full beauty the dishes deserve. But I’ll do my best.]
I’ll start with the main event. It stands on its own, but you can experience a deeper connection by exploring the land itself. Look closely at the plants and environment that surround the restaurant. Your meal grows from this and is a communion with it.
Dinner starts at 6. There’s only one seating for the night and everyone gathers in the social space outside of the dining area beforehand in intimate spaces or group tables depending on your needs.
The meal begins here. You’re served with an introductory drink and a couple of small bites.
The meal generally is a progression of small bites, often grouped in themes, and featuring a specific ingredient, an elevation, or to me a small poem or ode to celebrate this single note within a chorus of natural beauty.
This was followed shortly by a crudite of seasonal pears from the island, one the size of a small ball bearing.
One by one each party is lead to their seats in the adjacent dining groom. I chose the wine pairing and Katy the juice pairing.
The first course is light, almost all white, a preparation of three chilled island radishes and a fourth orb from the greens. Then a fresh broth of radish ladled over the top which was quite spicy. The wines for the first three courses are very light and unobtrusive.
The next course similarly light and nearly colorless. Slices of cured scallop in a pickled poblano broth. Katy really liked this one for the balance between creamy scallop and bright sour liquid.
And then the third and final bite from this set, native oysters in a bright green and oily watercress base.
Katy is served quince juice from fruit we saw picked earlier in the day.
The next five dishes were brought in quick succession, all celebrating smoke. Cooking with fire and from local wood is a trademark of the restaurant and these dishes showcased that craft, from a light touch to deep earthy flavors. Along with a collection of straightforward earthy reds. I was really looking forward to this set.
The next course came alone. At first glance it looked like a pretty salad but was described as a tostada. The salad is arranged on a crispy black corn base with a savory oyster filling. The herbs are a compliment to the complex and rich taste.
Instead of where I might expect a poultry course we were treated to a study of squashes. A platter of roasted quarters. The server scooped a bit of each on my plate along with a variety of condiments: roasted pumpkin seeds, roasted miso, and seasoned salt.
Next the main meat course, simple and direct. A slice of local pork, a dollop of rosehip, and roasted kiwi berries still on the vine. Along with slices of in-house heirloom wheat bread and fresh local butter. Balanced and delicious.
The first dessert included a puree of paw paw, an obscure fruit native to Appalachia but foraged on the Cascade foothills near Mt Baker, along with a tea of toasted birch bark and branches. Then quickly followed by a cold dish of fresh and preserved quince that served as a pallet cleanse. Tart, sweet, icy.
The main dessert was a quartet of nut treatments including ice creams and butters of different sorts. Along with fresh sliced nuts. I stirred the entire selection together. Delicious. Served with a 1987 Kopke Colhieta port which has a nutty flavor from the 31 years aging in oak.
Afterward we enjoyed the benefits of the main lodge with a late night soak in the hot tub!
Unavailable on our first visit the inn now offers lunch and breakfast options. We tried them both!
From 8:30-10:30 the Willows offers a three course breakfast that shouldn’t be missed.
Course 2: Smoked salmon, ham from Salumi (a local charcuterie in Seattle), soft cheese, smoked and fried bacon, sliced cheese, and honey comb, kale, dark crepes, sliced radishes, a soft boiled duck egg, and jam.
More of the restaurant
A closer look at the island
Before dinner I had a chance to wander around the grounds and briefly spoke to a team member about some of the plants. She was very excited about the varieties of salvia that were in bloom, especially because it was so late in the season. She made clippings for the table arrangements. The lodge would soon be switching to dried arrangements for the winter.