Ballet. Discipline. Harmony. Home.
These were the words that kept popping into my head as I spent an evening in the presence of epicurean mastery at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island in the San Juan Islands.
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.
I wrote about the first part of our meal, the procession of snacks, a few days ago, and prior to moving into the first of our 5-courses, Mr. Misadventures (by permission of the chef) stepped into the tiny kitchen to take some shots of the team in action.
Chef Blaine Wetzel (or one of his sous-chefs) looked at each and every dish before it left the kitchen. The sous-chefs delivered the snacks as a form of subtle introduction (likely unnoticed by any of the other diners) and then wait-staff took over for the main part of the meal. [Once the climax of the meal crescendoed, the sous-chefs returned to ensure the end of our evening was as pleasant as the beginning.] Every single aspect of the meal was played out with precision and grace.
Mid-meal visit complete, we began the dinner.
Organic grains with pickled mushrooms. If I read my notes correctly the morels served in the grains were from nearby Mt. Baker (the same place the smoked Shitake from the snacks came from). Every dish was served with some sort of greens foraged somewhere on the island.
The plating is rustic and original (chef Wetzel uses only 1/3 – 1/2 of the plate in most instances). It does not detract from the food and provides a harmonic sense of balance and whimsy. In reality, chef Wetzel lets the food be the star, he just excels at elevating and coaxing it into fulfilling its natural course, which lucky for me, ends up being my mouth!
But just when you think you are “getting into the meal,” another snack arrives!
Smoked Sockeye Salmon. This one is the pièce de résistance in Mr. Misadventures eyes. A bear in his former life, he can (and often does) eat salmon every day. Sockeye is my favorite variety and these are caught out on the reef near the inn. It is smoked all day and served “Lummi-style” which I guess means on a plank! It was dense and waxy, it had the consistency of fudge and it was scrumptious.
After each dish, its essence lives on. The smokiness of the Shitake and the salmon, the earthiness of the truffle resist and linger. But then the next course arrives and like a jilted lover you cannot remember what perfume your old lover wore. The new lover is all you can think about, all you have eyes for.
Drawing us back to the menu, the next dish was Quinault razor clams with wild beach peas. It was served with St. John's Wort and mussel foam as well. The included greens are so vibrant you cannot help but feel happy while eating, of course, that is a natural effect of St. John's, but it is true for every part of this meal.
The dish works well as a combo, if you have a component by itself, it may be too bitter, but together the flavors play together well.
And the kitchen acts in the same fashion. It is a ballet that is perfectly timed. A performance with acrobatic agility that moves to a well-rehearsed rhythm and cadence. As the chef moves to a station to attend to an ingredient, a sous-chef steps into the vacant spot without missing a beat. They are so young, yet so disciplined, as someone who grew up in a military family and has seen troops on display, it is nothing short of impressive.
Onto another snack. Salt baked spot prawn. This is a cooking method I always wanted to taste. I love langoustines and could imagine a whole pile cooked this way! The cooking is slow so the fish is done to perfection (prawns, shrimp, lobster, all of these can turn into rubber once overcooked, a pet peeve of mine!). Warm and juicy, it was divine. I can only imagine at the end of the month when the spot prawn season is in full force how amazing it would be to have a whole bucket of these guys.
Next came the house churned butter and baked bread. Smart not to put it on the table too soon! Especially to a table that leans French, as it was, we ate our fair share, which could not be helped as they kept bringing us new batches whenever the bread cooled!
Venison tartare with wild herbs. The tartare was served on a matzo cracker. Not hearing the announcement, Mr. Misadventures thought it was tuna. And while tuna is pretty meaty, I don't think there are any native to the area (I could be wrong). It was definitely venison, although I hope not any of the three we had seen earlier in our backyard! I was happy to have something on the heartier side (if you can call tartare hearty) as I was starting to feel like a rabbit with all the greens. In fact, except for this snack and one other, the meal is perfect for vegetarians who may be considering a visit to the Willows Inn.
As I was processing this meal my thoughts turned to what farm-to-table meant. There is just no need to engineer food. No reason to eat processed crap. This is slow food, the very definition of slow food. Done better than Chez Panisse, done better than Olivier Roellinger at his Maisons de Bricourt (Chateau Richeux) which I can say with first-hand knowledge. Chef Wetzel is not necessarily a chef but an architect building a dish from the materials at his feet. In the end, it is artistry, as many great architects become labeled.
At this point in the meal, the light was fading making the remaining photos harder to take and darker in temperature. Earlier in the day chef, Blaine had joked about us only being able to take photos of the appetizers and had extended an invitation to take pictures of the dishes in the kitchen. We did not want to interrupt the flow of their dance, so we chose to just have dark photos. Outside, this is what was going on:
The third dish of the 5-course meal was Nettles Farm asparagus with fresh cheese and pine. You want to call this simple, but you cannot. Its intricacy is deceptive. The ingredients are incredibly fresh and bright.
Another snack. Grilled oyster with tequila and sage. I have only had warms oysters one other time. It was once along the Sonoma Coast when I had oysters served Rockefeller-style. This one was much cleaner, not hidden by heavy ingredients.
I was trying not to eat bread as I did not know how many more snacks there would be. Then a magical potion was placed on our table and I was immediately placed under its spell. What was this elixir of the gods?
Pan drippings. In this case from roasting a chicken. There was no chicken served at dinner, likely it was prepared for the staff dinner or used in menu items in the hotel's cafe. But no matter because after tasting these drippings I might roast chickens just to have it! The only problem being I am sure that mine would never taste like this. It tasted like home. Like Grandma's house for holiday meals.
The drippings are meant to be sopped up with the house bread, but I didn't want to eat too much of that. Lacking a spoon, I ended up dipping the end of my knife into the bowl to bring each bewitching bite to my mouth. Emily Post would have rolled in her grave, but at that moment I was hypnotized by its taste, and did not care one iota about etiquette!
Fourth course and I would call it the main. Haro Straight halibut with roasted bone sauce and homemade capers. I have to say that I was a little disappointed when I heard the announced dish. I have no love for halibut. I will eat it but don't like it. It does not matter how masterful the chef is, it is not something I am going to enjoy. Food is subjective and that makes writing reviews a challenge, so while I was frowning into my glass, my husband across the table who loves halibut, was nothing less than delighted. Even more so when I gave him my portion after eating half.
They roasted the halibut bones to make the sauce which added to the layers of flavor, the celery (I suspect from the front of our room as well) was perfectly cooked and added a nice crunch, but did not detract from the dish.
While not quite a cheese course, our next snack was goat cheese on rye toast. The cheese was from Quail Croft goat dairy on San Juan Island where they have 9 goats and make very small batches of some pretty amazing cheese. The rye and buttermilk bread is housemade twice a week and then allowed to dry out.
Time for the sweet endings. The moment in the evening when you realize you are nearly done and you begin to wonder did I take the time to enjoy everything completely, to savor the offerings? I am on an island that is a plane, car, and ferry ride away. This is not a place that I can come back to next week. Have I given it proper reverence? Did I make note of how I felt trying each course? Will I be able to savor these moments later?
It is not as stressful as it sounds, but it is a process I go through, a matter of paying respect to the genius and the hard work of the team. There is no doubt that it is an exceptional experience, I don't take it for granted and pay the appropriate amount of consideration for the achievement. Mr. Misadventures captured me in deep thought about exactly that. (Also just goes to show you how kind the candlelight is as in this photo I am au-natural without make-up!)
My reverie was interrupted by the arrival of sweets. The first one playfully announced as the house cocktail in the form of Spotted Owl candy. Made with pine eau de vie it must be eaten in one bite so that the tantalizing liquid can be released into your mouth and down your throat.
As the finale to the 5-course meal, we were served Lummi Island wildflowers with lemon verbena. They were served with cherry blossom ice cream and lemon (it might have been lime) granita and small bits of meringue. I thought it would taste like potpourri, but it definitely didn't. There were 15 different wildflowers collected from all over the property as well as candied leaves that tasted pretty close to mint. There were three in my dish and once I tasted one then the other, I pushed the last one aside to savor as my last bite because the initial taste had struck me with a sense of nostalgia. I can't tell you why it just did.
I hesitated to drink the last sip of my champagne. I did not want this undefinable taste of my childhood to disappear and I lingered for a good five minutes. I should mention that of course the champagne was perfectly paired with the dessert as all the offerings in the wine pairing were. My one nit is that one of the selections was from Loire Valley (France). I wished that all the choices had been local. But I guess one out of five is not such a big deal. What I really appreciated is that we were allowed to share the pairing. Neither my husband and I are big drinkers, so allowing us to share was really cool. There is also a juice pairing that we chose not to do, but looked delicious.
Our last little gift was housemade caramel with toasted flax seed. We shared one and I took the second back to our room for a midnight snack. It was at that moment that chef Wetzel also visited the table and we engaged in conversation and shared our appreciation for his craft. Blaine is gifted, has a talented team that resonates rapture and zeal while remaining humble and unpretentious.
He could be anywhere in the world, cooking at the top restaurants (and in reality he has) but he chooses to be “home” in the Pacific Northwest and for that, I count myself lucky. If you live on the West Coast and want to indulge in a true farm-to-table adventure then I implore you to get to The Willows Inn. It will be one of the most memorable moments of your life. A meal that you will look back on in twenty years' time and say, “yes, that was worth it.”
My gluttonous nature wanted more of everything (well except the halibut) but that didn't mean I was unsatisfied. I was pleasantly full as we prepared to leave our table. But I had one devilish thought….would wipe up that last spot of pan drippings on the table be overkill?
For many more photos (including some from Mr. Misadventures) check out my album on Flickr.
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.
How about you? Which course do you most want to try? Are you ready to head up to Lummi Island to try for yourself?
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