Restaurant: The Willows Inn Restaurant – Part 2/5
Cuisine: Organic/Modern American/Seafood
Last visited: April 25, 2013
Location: Bellingham, WA (Lummi Island)
Address: 2579 W Shore Dr
Phone: (360) 758-2620
Price range: $50+ ($150/person for Tasting Menu)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
Food: 4.5–5 (based on this Tasting Menu)
- Chef/Co-owner Blaine Wetzel
- Modern American cuisine
- Seafood focused
- Unique dining experience
- Award winning
- Destination restaurant
- “Seed-to-table” dining
- Organic ingredients
- Seasonal menu
- Casual fine dining
- Tasting menus only
- Reservations mandatory
- Route requires 10 minute ferry
- Twitter: @WillowsInn
**Recommendations: No a la carte. Tasting Menu is $150 (5 course dinner with 12 one bite snacks, taxes and gratuities not included in price). Wine pairings +$60, fresh juice pairings +$40. If you are not doing a juice pairing I highly recommend ordering the carrot juice a la carte ($10). Bed and breakfasts are found throughout the island, but guests of Willows Inn get priority reservations for the restaurant, while others must give 2 weeks notice. If you stay at The Willows Inn, breakfast at the restaurant is included. It is an estimated 3 hour dinner and they have recommended babysitters on the island for children under 12… read between the lines, not ideal to bring the kiddos.
See Part 1 – Follow Me Foodie to Lummi Island!
**For a better understanding of Lummi Island & The Willows Inn please read Part 1.**
I came to Lummi Island especially for The Willows Inn restaurant. It opened in 1910, but it was only in the last few years it took on a new vision and became an internationally recognized culinary destination. I guess it could be considered an “industry secret”, but this island is on the culinary rise and it hasn’t even hit its prime or peak.
Make yourself at home. No, really. That’s what they want. It is considered a “fine dining restaurant”, but it isn’t fancy. What they do is progressive, but Lummi Island has a population of 1000 people and casual works best here. It is one of the most non-pretentious fine dining experiences I’ve had, and the quaint atmosphere makes it even more memorable than the perfect dinner time sunset and waterfront view.
If it wasn’t for all the press and media coverage calling it the “Top 10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride” (The New York Times, 2011) and “Top 10 US Travel Destinations for 2013” (Lonely Planet), The Willows Inn would be an unexpected surprise. Even being fully aware of its current awards and accolades, I was still surprised because it is impressive to see an unassuming tiny island pull off a dining experience as interactive and sophisticated as this.
Experience and context is key at The Willows Inn restaurant, and it is easy to be captivated by the small town charm of locals working there and tourists dining there. The tourists come from everywhere nowadays, especially after all the media exposure since Chef Blaine Wetzel took over, but everyone somehow absorbs the local energy which makes for an effortlessly genuine ambiance.
I was invited to Lummi Island for the main purpose of trying The Willows Inn. I tried to avoid coming with high expectations, but I found myself more infatuated with the whole experience more so than the food alone. Mind you, the food was not disappointing.
I’m going to talk a lot about experience and environment because “culinary magic” isn’t really what happens here. I say that with no offence because Blaine is talented, but a major part of why The Willows Inn restaurant succeeds is because it is incredibly controlled.
Timing is everything here and the style of dining would not work in another context. Being on a rural, remote and eclectic island helps, and it already gets the diner in the mood to play along with Lummi Island time. It also helps that The Willows Inn is small and they only have one seating a night Thursday-Sunday by reservation only. (Wednesdays open starting May 15 and they close during the winter months). This is common for many fine dining restaurants focusing on seasonal and local though.
The set up is almost like a formal dinner party or event and all guests are asked to arrive for dinner at 6:30 pm. Everyone gathers on the outdoor patio of The Willows Inn restaurant which is under the same roof as the check in/lobby area for the Inn. You’re welcome to order cocktails or drinks (at your own expense) and by 7 pm your host comes out to bring each individual party to their seats. The anticipation only builds from here.
The dining room holds about 30 and from the moment I sat down on those fur cushions I was hooked… and tempted to steal them. The service is warm and the dining experience is so personal it almost feels like playing house.
There is only one Chef’s Tasting Menu and they space out the orders and it feels like they are cooking just for you. This is small scale cooking so there is little room for error. At times I felt a little bit rushed (I am incredibly slow and can make a 3 hour dinner 6), but the dinner generally takes about 3 hours. They do have front of the house staff, but often it was the cooks, chefs and Blaine himself coming out to serve dishes. That rarely ever happens, but I appreciated it.
I mentioned in Follow Me Foodie to Lummi Island – Part 1 that I met with Mary VonKrusenstiern, who is the culinary gardener for the exclusive specialty garden dedicated to The Willows Inn. Her dedication and passion to farming is the essence of what Blaine tries to bring to the table. Eventually he will be sourcing most ingredients from the Willows Inn farm starting as early as spring/summer this year, but it wasn’t quite ready during my visit.
For the time being, Blaine is currently sourcing from Nettles Farm, another family owned and operated farm on Lummi Island. Therefore what I tried is not necessarily representable of what his food will taste like months from now, but it gives me an idea since his current ingredients are still premium.
Mary is an asset to Blaine’s culinary vision and together they will team up to exceed the “farm-to-table” concept and execute a seed-to-table menu. Farms are global and Willows Inn is not the first “seed-to-table” restaurant – see my posts for Blue Hill in New York, Hastings House in Salt Spring Island, and Au Goût d’Autrefois in Quebec City just to name a few. Farmers have existed and ate like this for centuries, but Mary and Blaine take it to another level. Farm-to-table restaurants are more common, but seed-to-table restaurants are more rare, and few are capable of bringing this calibre of dining without the proper chef. The Willows Inn is special.
As organic as they are, what they do is very controlled, just like their dining environment. With her expertise on producing a pristine ingredient, and his culinary skills exceeding some chefs with years more experience, they are creating food Lummi Island locals haven’t even seen or tasted. The Willows Inn restaurant is truly unique to Lummi Island and it can’t be experienced anywhere else.
I wrote about Chef and part owner of The Willows Inn Blaine Wetzel (on the right) in Follow Me Foodie to Lummi Island – Part 1, but I didn’t get into his cooking philosophy, culinary vision and style.
Just a brief recap, but Blaine is locally born and bred in Washington and he is only 27 years old. He worked at Noma (#1 in Top 50 World’s Best Restaurants) for 2 years before taking over at Willows Inn and therefore gained a reputation as “Rene Redzepi’s protégé”. This year he was named a finalist for Rising Star Chef 2013 at the James Beard Awards and he is getting a lot of attention especially at his age. His whole team of currently 8 chefs are also young, but all of them have experience at world renowned restaurants. Nonetheless I still feel this is only the beginning and I look forward to seeing Blaine’s career and The Willows Inn farm blossom and grow.
Blaine’s food philosophy and style are somewhat already moulded and heavily influenced by Redzepi, who is known for reinventing Nordic cuisine. Blaine approaches the bountiful harvest of Lummi Island in the same way and everything he serves is fished, foraged and farmed right on the island. It is a small scale restaurant which makes concepts like this sustainable for a business as well.
Not every meal has to be “the best meal of my life”, but when I can see a chef’s culinary vision I feel as though he has succeeded. Of course it still has to be good, but that’s not a problem for Blaine. Course by course I got a clear understanding of what he was trying to do and showcase. It was simply the bountiful harvest of Lummi Island.
To be honest, the majority of his cooking methods and techniques are not necessarily cutting edge, but instead very simple and an ode to how things were done in the past. It was back to basics. Ingredients were stripped down and appreciated in their pure state. Sure there were courses with progressive and modern approaches, but that’s what gave the ingredient driven menu fine dining umph. It was more than what one would do at home, but never complicated or fussy. However, some dishes didn’t reach their full potential and would benefit from further refinement or even one or two more components and/or textures.
The flavours were simple and clean, but executed professionally and therefore most things tasted more complex than they looked. The seasoning was almost home-style with less salt, but it was never bland either (I have a high tolerance for salt). There was surprisingly little acidity in many dishes, but he always found a way to bring umami to every dish even if it was only in one component.
Working with the highest quality ingredients is already half his work done, but to be innovative yet respectful of each ingredient is no easy task. Blaine creates a story through presentation, aromas and garnishes, and the menu really sings in tune with the season. He delivers a memorable dining experience and I am eager to come back during the summer.
I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t go through every page of the menu, but the leather bound menu was such a nice touch to the theme of the restaurant. It has a couple notes from the kitchen as well as descriptions of some of the ingredients featured on Lummi Island.
Lummi Island would not be where it is today without The Willows Inn, and vise versa. Without Blaine’s skill and the many talents in the kitchen there would be no culinary excitement or desire to celebrate what the island has had all along. The Island was always equip with good and easily accessible food resources, but Blaine helped develop it to what it is now. He is literally and figuratively planting new seeds on Lummi Island and with more time and experience I can only see it getting better.
The words forage, local, and sustainable have more or less become meaningless buzz words, but at The Willows Inn it goes without saying. Their philosophy comes with a degree of honesty and pride, and their dedication is rewarding for those living on Lummi Island, and for those visiting.
On the table: