A meal at The Willows Inn Lummi Island (Part 1) The Snacks
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 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. 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 prior to 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 in 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 served covered in a wooden box that holds moss root used to smoked 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 suspect 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 in close by 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 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 it an experience you would want to try?
Like it? PIN it!
Crispy crepe with Steelhead roe look mouth-watering, this is due in part also to your great photo. 😉
@Laura, thank you!
I would go back to Willow’s Inn in a heartbeat. So glad you enjoyed this – I kinda would feel responsible if you did noT!!
@Mardi, I did! Great experience and I love the SJ Islands!
It’s so much fun to see the photos and read your descriptions. I spent two nights at The Willows last year for a magazine article and loved it. Blaine and crew are just as you say, and that potato chip dish still haunts me.
Glad to have stumbled onto your blog (thanks, Twitter). Looking forward to part two!
@Tea_Austen, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ve got the potato chip and the kale chips on my mind. There is one more item that will appear in Part 2, totally obsessed with it!
I couldn’t agree more with your assessments of the wonderful food that Chef Blaine prepares. I believe that my husband, parents, and I were at the table next to you as you dined. We’ve been looking for a way to share with other family and friends the amazing meal that we had and appreciate having your blog to be able to do that. I can’t wait to read about how you describe the rest of the meal.
@Anne, hello there, so nice of you to visit and comment. Sorry if our incessant photos, discussion and note-taking disturbed you…my husband and I are passionate about food and can talk about it for hours! Part 2 comes tomorrow as well as a post on the hotel on Saturday. Also there will be a link to my FLickr album tomorrow as well, so there are plenty of photos to show your family and friends as well. Happy to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the meal as immensely as we did!
I loved reading this post. I love to be taken along on someones journey. Awesome photos too!
@Deb, thanks! That is much appreciated!
What was the price of the tasting menu? I find it odd that there are so many writeups of this place, and no one ever mentions the exact number.
@Mike, I had to hunt around but I finally found it! It is $150 a person. You can’t actually see the price on the site until you try to make a reservation, it is a line item that you can add to complete your reservation. Wine or juice pairings are an additional amount.
What a mouth-watering post! The truffles are so tempting and your photography is spot on too 🙂 I love macro photography — especially birds and insects.
I’ve also done a few food reviews myself, but none as extensive as this. You can find them through my blogger profile if you are interested:)
I’ve followed you on twitter as @StairwellChoir and @HollyWroteIt
@Holly, food reviews…I’m there! Look forward to checking them out. I am still dreaming of that meal!
Your descriptions are remarkable, Andi. I can almost taste it!
Happy SITS Day!
@Angie, thank you that is one of the best compliments I have ever received!
This sounds like an incredible expereince! When you said 15 courses, you weren’t kidding! Amazing that everything is made on site or farmed and produced locally.
@Kim, I just read someone’s post from a trip to Noma (where chef Blaine comes from) where there were 30 courses – crazy!
I’m a vegetarian, so some of this appealed to me and then other parts not at all. Anchovie butter? YUCK! Not even When I ate meat did I consume fish. I ate crab on VERY rare occasions – basically when my mom was screaming at me that I wasn’t taking my vitamins and I needed protein. Much to her dismay, I discovered protein shakes and thus problem solved. Just from this, I am dying to go here and explore and demand that they teach me all they know! What do you think, does the chef/staff offer cooking classes?
@Sara, you’d like this meal, plenty of vegetarian products since they are foragers. I don’t think they do cooking classes, but if they did, I’d be the first to sign up!
Nice post. I will check out the second half after work. Thanks for the review. I live in Washington and have been looking for a meal like this to celebrate a special occasion. Enjoy your SITS Day.
@Sheila, it is definitely a killer spot for a special occasion. I love the Pacific Northwest!
Hi Andi, This is awesome! Fresh is usually best way to eat. Eating is one of the things I look forward to when visiting other places. It gives you a taste of what grows there. All the dishes you posted looked yummy! Happy SITS! -Dorothy
@Dorothy, as you can see my hubby and I will definitely travel for food, we live through our stomachs!
I am now hungry! Lovely pics!
This looks insane. I am salivating. SALIVATING. And I’m incredibly intrigued by these San Juan islands – I’ve never heard of them, which makes me all happy that you challenged us to explore other parts of your blog. Off to read more about this chain. By the way, have you found your one special island yet? 🙂