After traveling by plane, car, and ferry to get to the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, I was anxious to begin the meal I had been thinking about eating for four months (see the background post here). I will be posting about my weekend on the island and my stay at the Inn, but I just need to get this post out of my brain. I have been back from Lummi for a week and it is still on my mind and likely will be for some time.
Note: This story was written about my meal in 2012. It has brought to my attention that things were not as idyllic as it seems in the kitchens of The Willow Inn and I am sad to learn about the terrible abuse of both the inn and the chef. I do not condone any behavior that involves abuse.
Chef Blaine Wetzel orchestrates an amazing culinary experience following a farm-to-table philosophy. Farm-to-table is not new, in fact, the mother of the movement, Alice Waters, continues to run Chez Panisse here in Berkeley, where I live, with much success. And while a meal there is always good, I feel like the restaurant has moved away from its roots of locally sourced ingredients.
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There are still a lot of them on your plate, but they seem to be mixed in with food from a lot farther away than I would like when considering the baseline philosophy of the movement. But I digress. Farm-to-table is having a nice little revitalization (see a few places doing it well around the world in this post on AFAR) and I am a big fan.
After exploring the island during the day, Mr. Misadventures and I had the opportunity to meet Chef Wetzel and his team in his kitchen before the start of dinner service. Wanting to respect their time and responsibilities we showed up around 4 PM, a good three hours before the service started. The staff was bustling (as it had been all day) with final preparations, cleaning, and planning before taking a staff meal that they would all need to sustain their energy for the night ahead.
David Lebovitz very recently wrote about people scoffing at the prices you have to pay for meals like these, that they don't understand the hours and the fastidiousness that goes into every aspect and every detail of what is put in front of you. If you had seen these young men and observed them throughout the day as I had you would begin to understand that it requires more than wanting to be in the profession, it requires passion, dedication, and a little madness…and you get what you pay for.
We left them be and went on our merry way hungry and impatient to taste what they were spending hours crafting!
As the light began to fade into a beautiful Pacific Northwest sunset a couple of hours later, we finally were seated in the petite dining room (25 seats) to begin our journey. Although we did not travel far. Every delightful dish was sourced in the Pacific Northwest. The only exception that I am aware of was wickedly good sea salt from Sitka, Alaska.
We began the meal with a lovely hard cider from Wescott Bay on San Juan Island. As fans of cider, we were thrilled to learn there was a distillery on the islands! We were quickly presented with a variety of snacks. This is the real reason the dinner isn't really 5-courses but rather 15 (or 17 depending on how you want to count and the reason I had to split this post into two!). The snacks are interspersed throughout the meal and keep your taste buds alert!
So here we go!
Baked sunflower roots are covered in a wooden box that holds moss roots used to smoke the roots. Makes me wonder if I should not have been stealing sunflower stalks the whole time I lived in France! We passed by fields of these flowers all the time never knowing their stalks were so delicious. To me, it is very similar to artichoke hearts, just slightly tougher. They are meaty and satisfying.
Herb toast with browned butter. Herbs from the property. Butter churned on-site!
Crispy crepe with Steelhead roe. This was roe from Quinault trout served with cream inside. I should have eaten this in one bite as I suspect it was meant to be. But as we were only getting one piece of each one of these snacks I was trying to savor them a bit longer. I think in this case it was a mistake as I found the first bite too sweet. I had yet to make it into the middle where the salty roe was. The roe balanced the sweetness of the cream.
Potato chip with sauerkraut and smoked cod. This was black cod smoked on-site in the smoker pictured earlier. It was torture only getting one of these, the salty goodness was right up my alley. The acid of the sauerkraut cut the bite of the salt and the smoke perfectly and added a nice texture.
Nettles Farm radish with toasted flax and anchovy (butter?) spread. The radish was just pulled from the ground, and we suspected our front yard (I went looking for them the next day!). It was fantastic with the mild anchovy and cracked black pepper flavors which somehow (that is where the genius lies) heightened the very delicate taste of the radish. This is a snack you find often in France, but I have never been served it in a restaurant. I think it is a nice palette cleanser myself.
Pickled oyster with sorrel. The oyster is pickled for 7-8 hours with the juice extracted from the sauerkraut (from the chip snack). This may be the best oyster I have ever had in my life, but I think I need about a dozen more to be sure. Despite the fact it was pickled it tasted like it just came from the sea, and in reality, it had…
Kale toast with black truffle and rye. Not French truffles. Not Italian truffles. Not Croatian truffles. No. These are Olympic Peninsula truffles and they are to die for! I have often written about a bucket list meal in the south of France where every course is truffles.
No need to go so far (although you know me, I don't need a reason to go to France…) as these are earthy, musky, just incredible. Kale is all the rage right now, but kale chips from the farm on the property with truffle on top…wowza! Is it terrible to say I wanted a whole bowl with an ice-cold beer?
Fanny Bay scallop with cream and arugula. Fanny Bay is close to British Columbia (the San Juan Islands continue north into Canada). I have no doubt that the scallop was fresh and amazing, however, the arugula completely overpowered it. Of all the greens in the world, I love arugula the most, but this is the one time I actually wanted a little less of it.
Grilled Shitake mushroom. These mushrooms are from nearby Mt. Baker and were plainly roasted over a fire for 45 minutes and are served bare without sauce. They were beautiful, especially as the light started to fade, and tasted wonderful. Woody, earthy, meaty with a touch of smoke.
There would be a few more snacks, but this ended the initial parade, as the first of our main courses, dictated by the menu, was presented to us.
And as I am at over 1400 words it is also a good point to break and continue with the rest of the meal in another post!
Practical Information – How to get to Willow's Inn
Willow's Inn is a hotel on Lummi Island in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago between Washington State in the US and Vancouver Island in Canada. To get there from Seattle we drove to Bellingham (2 hours) and took a ferry in our car. There is a small regional airport in Bellingham, we could have flown in there and taken the ferry to the island that way. You definitely need a car on the island to get around.
What do you think of the first part? Is a meal made of ingredients that are locally sourced and as fresh as you can get an experience you would want to try?
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