review: heart of tartness… (willows inn)

Thimble berries.

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Is there a happier summer soundtrack than the splash of cannonballs accompanied by the reckless hoot of youth?

My friend and I arrived at the ferry slip on a warm summer afternoon to the sight of children hurling themselves off the headworks into the cool waters of the sound.  We got out of the car and cheered them on as we waited for the ferry to arrive from Lummi Island.

It’s hard not to romanticize my first visit to Willows Inn last year, which unfolded like a summer flick on the big screen, easy and neat.

After settling into the Aerie, a two-bedroom apartment leased by the inn a quarter-mile down the road, my friend and I took a long walk on the beach.  With the sun warm on our backs, we picked sweet thimble berries as we went – the brambles lining the island’s circumnavigating Shore Drive were quickly closing out their season on these raspberry-like gems.  We played bocce while cooks shuttled back and forth between the kitchen and the small smokehouse nestled in the treeline just beyond our court, which had been smoldering since we arrived.

And we napped until it was time to eat.

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Smoking.

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My second visit to Willows Inn in November of last year, was no less memorable than my first, but for very different reasons.  A violent storm had swept through the Pacific Northwest that day.  When my friend and I arrived at the inn, it was completely dark. The storm had knocked out the power on the island.  But, we were reassured that chef Blaine Wetzel, with the help of a generator, would still be serving dinner.

On both of my visits to Willows Inn, all of the guests gathered at the inn’s reception for cocktails at 18.00.  A half-hour later, we were seated, table by table, for dinner in the restaurant’s dining room, aglow the first time with the sunset radiating through its West-facing wall of windows, and the second time with with flickering candlelight.  There is only one service each night at Willows Inn – everyone eats at 18.30. (See my Travel Note at the end of this post for details about the ferry schedule.)

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Sunset on the deck.

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My dinners at Willows Inn consisted of around fourteen to sixteen courses, with eight to ten “snacks” at the beginning, three “main courses” in the middle, and two desserts plus petits fours at the end.  This set menu cost $150 (plus tax and tip).

Both times, my friend and I ordered the non-alcoholic pairing – seven or eight different juices spread throughout the meal. Unlike most other non-alcoholic pairings I’ve had in restaurants, the vast majority of the juices I tasted at Willows Inn was highly quaffable.  At Next in Chicago – which has what I consider to be the most sophisticated, well-crafted, and most thoughtfully paired non-alcoholic beverages I’ve ever tasted (I’ve had a wide sampling of Next’s non-alcoholic pairings over the course of six different menus) – the drinks have tended to be cerebral and the flavors were often intentionally off-kilter, calibrated to pair specifically with the food.  Next’s non-alcoholic drinks have included tea infusions, fermented liquids, and bitters, making them much more like cocktails than juices, more suited for sipping than slamming.  The pairings at Willows Inn, on the other hand, were highly drinkable, often focused on showcasing a “single varietal” vegetable, fruit, or herb: velvety carrot; tangy, bright sorrel; and fragrant elderflower, for example. They didn’t necessarily pair as well with the food as the drinks at Next did.  But they were more approachable and delicious, and very capable of standing on their own.  The non-alcoholic pairing at Willows Inn cost $40. I highly recommend it.

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Snack: Cauliflower

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From my brief exchanges with chef Blaine Wetzel – a few sentences between courses and a couple of emails – I’ve gathered that he’s an outdoorsman.  From his food, I can taste it.

His ingredients, many of which he personally gathers from his environs, are pristine.  And, having carefully considered each one, he understands how to maximize the potential in every one of them.  Often, this involved little more than applying a bit of heat.

Everything we were served, including the house-made hearth rye bread (I wrote about this bread in an earlier post; scroll to the bottom footnote on bread), was incredibly well-made.  The flavors, the textures, the sentiments; they were all earnestly and thoughtfully presented.  And all of it celebrated the bounty of the Pacific Northwest.

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Snack: Grilled Shiitake

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My favorite dishes at Willows Inn were the simplest ones.

There was a fat, juicy oyster, which ranked high on my list of best dishes from 2013: “It was just an oyster.  But it was an unforgettable one.  It had been smoked in the shell, gently, for hours, until the surface of the oyster darkened, concentrating the flavor of smoke and the ocean in a caramelized layer that was not thick enough to be called a crust, and yet firm enough to seal in the warm, creamy interior.  To say that I went through the trouble of flying back to Seattle and driving two hours to Lummi Island, with a ferry ride across the sound in between, just to have this oyster a second time this year is probably a stretch. But it was definitely a motivating factor.”

Upon my return, the oyster was gone, and in its place was a mussel, smoked in the same way.

There were beautiful shiitake mushroom caps from Cascadia Farm in Bellingham (the town on the mainland side of the ferry ride), simply grilled.  The flavor was intensely umami, the texture sublime – the cap was predictably tender, but the stem was equally so, not woody or fibrous in the least.  That was impressive.

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1st Course: Charred Kohlrabi

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Some of Wetzel’s food was packed with flavor – like a sliver of neon-red sockeye salmon, smoked and glazed with a mixture of butter and brown sugar.  That also ranked high on my list of best dishes last year.

Some of it was incredibly delicate, like florets of cauliflower steamed in buttermilk whey and garnished with lovage oil.

A plate of charred kohlrabi with oyster cream was all about texture.  The kohlrabi had been shaved thinly, and then dry-cooked until it softened enough to be pliable, yet retaining some of its crispness.  The humble kohlrabi was an austere proposition in this dish, both in flavor and texture, that Wetzel contrasted brilliantly with a luscious dollop of milky oyster cream.

Likewise, Dungeness crabmeat, for all of its cachet, has a texture that quickly becomes monotonous when served alone.  Wetzel blanketed the crabmeat with a silky, slippery mantle of wild seaweeds and anointed all of it with a slick of brown butter.  It was a seductive combination of textures and flavors.  It was one of my favorite courses at both meals.

And some of his dishes showcased a specific flavor.  Braised radicchio, garnished with thyme and “apple capers” (cured and preserved apple buds, about the size of an olive), presented a colorful rainbow of bitterness.  Quince granita with tangy yogurt was a journey into the heart of tartness; it was one of the best desserts I had last year.

In all of his dishes, Wetzel proved himself confident in the quality of his ingredients (this is partly ensured by his collaboration with Loganita Farm, an organic garden a half-mile down Shore Drive that is dedicated to growing produce for Willows Inn) and confident in his ability to unlock their deeper potential.  Like his non-alcoholic pairings, Wetzel’s dishes were incredibly simple and clean, focused on one or two outstanding ingredients that, together, formed a mosaic of the Pacific Northwest.  His is an elegant rendering, sophisticated in its subtle contrasts and purposeful in its couplings – a hint of aromatic rosemary softened the acidity of that granita; a touch of brown sugar smoothed over the coarse, smokiness of that salmon, and a bit of fat to helped lubricate the otherwise dry corners of that charred kohrabi.

Ultimately, Blaine Wetzel’s food was incredibly delicious.  And because of that, I count the two meals that I had at Willows Inn last year among my very best.

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Lettuce wagon.

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Guests at the inn used to have breakfast in the same dining room in which they had dinner the night before.  That has changed.  Now, guests must drive about a mile to Beach Store Café, close to the ferry slip, for breakfast (breakfast is included in a night’s stay at the inn).

Coffee at Beach Store Café comes in large, wide-mouthed mugs, and the food is served in American-sized portions.  I had a buckwheat pancake the size of a hubcap topped with blueberry compote; my friend had a generous bowl of creamy polenta, topped with a poached egg and crispy pancetta.  All of it was quite good.

Before leaving the island, I toured Loganita Farm (you can set up a morning tour ahead of time).  The garden, which consists of raised beds and hoop houses, is tidy and well-kempt. Its produce –  fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers, much of which is tailored to the restaurant’s needs – is beautiful.  You can read more about the farm’s bio-intensive gardening practices on its website.

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2nd Course: Wild Seaweeds

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There are very few restaurants in the United States to which I would attach the word “must.”  Willows Inn, here and now, earns that distinction.

If you can afford the time and money to stay overnight, I encourage it.  It will pad your dinner with the unhurried leisure that it deserves.  Take a quiet stroll along the beach. Go berry picking.  Play bocce in the afternoon shade.  Take a nap. Go running in the misty morning around the island before having breakfast at Beach Store Café.  And don’t forget to tell them you want to see Loganita Farm.  All of that will provide context to your meal at Willows Inn: the place, its smells, its flavors, its colors.

But, if you can’t, dinner at Willows Inn, alone, is worth the journey and effort.

Here are links to the photos that I took on Lummi Island:

Willows Inn (July, 2013)
Loganita Farm (July, 2013)
Beach Store Café (July, 2013) 
Willows Inn (November, 2013)

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Travel Note: While Lummi Island is remote, it is not unreachable.  Altogether, it is about a two-hour journey north of Seattle (about an hour and a half drive – that’s with little traffic – and a ten-minute ferry ride).  Depending on when you arrive at the ferry slip, and how many cars are ahead of you, you may find yourself in line for a while.  Payment for the round-trip is taken on your way to the island (last year, it was $7 for each adult; as of January 1, 2014, the ferry is accepting credit cards).  So, when you return to the mainland, you do not pay.  Depending on the day, the ferry runs either on the hour or every twenty minutes.  The ferry back to the mainland runs at least until midnight (it runs even later depending on the day), so, if you decide not to stay on the island overnight, you should have plenty of time after finishing dinner to make it off the island (on my second visit, my friend and I finished our meal, lingered for a couple of cups of coffee, and made the 23.00 ferry with plenty of time to spare).  Consult the Lummi Island Ferry website for updated schedules and fares. 

Photos: Brambles of thimble berries on Lummi Island, Washington; the smokehouse at Willows Inn; the lazy summer sun descends on the horizon above the Pacific Ocean, seen from the porch at Willows Inn; cauliflower steamed in buttermilk whey, with lovage oil; grilled shiitake mushrooms from Cascadia Farm; charred kohlrabi with oyster cream; a vignette from Loganita Farm; Dungeness crab with wild seaweeds and brown butter.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 31, 2014.

2 Responses to “review: heart of tartness… (willows inn)”

  1. As always, a beautifully written review. Your prose makes the place and the food come alive. I’d love to go there, but unfortunately, there’s not much chance it will ever happen.

  2. That really is such a great place to stay. And of course the dinner is sumptuous. I love to be there if only I have a spare of time.

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