Restaurant: The Willows Inn Restaurant – Part 3/5
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:
Westcott Bay Traditional Cider San Juan Island, Washington – Everyone starts off with a complimentary glass of this award winning cider. It is not sweet, but a bit tart, crisp and slightly bitter. It is not a dessert wine and it is more appropriate with savoury food.
- The Tasting Menu includes 15 snacks (similar to Chef Hamid’s Diva Snacks) and it starts with this baked sunflower root.
- I’m sure the ingredient changes with the season, but the presentation is likely similar.
- Each diner was presented a cedar-wood box and as soon as I lifted the lid I was hit by the scent of smoke.
- Inside was a precious piece of sunchoke and it was giving off as much smoke as a bundle of incense.
- The sunchoke (sunflower root or Jerusalem Artichoke) was baked with moss and rock.
- It was baked on low temperature in an oven and then smoked.
- The flavours were very earthy and natural and it was simply sprinkled with salt, which could have been also smoked.
- It was lightly warmed with a wrinkly skin and naturally sweet and nutty.
- If you’ve never had a sunchoke it is a root vegetable that tastes like a potato meets an artichoke heart meets a turnip or radish.
- It smelled like a camp-fire and the smokiness was intense that I could taste it in my nose and almost smell it in my clothes.
- Yes, it was just a smoked sunchoke, but the quality of the sunchoke was very good.
- The smoking technique (top 10 food trends of 2013) was well done and applied without masking the sunchoke flavour too.
- The intensity of smoke reminded me of the Smoked Castelvetrano Olives at Wildebeest.
- I could have eaten a whole bag of these. It is one per diner and it left you craving 100.
- I’ve had kale chips before, but they never tasted like these.
- These kale chips were so frail, thin, crisp and delicate that they were almost fragile.
- I felt like I was biting into a single sheet of crisp phyllo pastry and it was nutty with a mild bitter aftertaste.
- The truffle purée was the dipping sauce and I liked how it was dotted all over to I had some in every bite.
- I could smell the truffle lifting off the potent purée and it had great umami, but I think it was enhanced with truffle oil.
- I’m not keen on truffle oil used in fine dining contexts – see why here, but I could still eat a bag of these.
- The truffle purée was sprinkled with rye breadcrumbs and I could taste some toasted fennels seeds in it too.
- It had the perfect salt content and the rye bread crumbs tasted like nutty seasoning salt.
- My ideal bag of “modernist chips” would have these alternating with Chicken Bacon and Baked Potato and Chives “Chips”.
- It was another simple snack, but the flavours were enhanced and it delivered more flavour than it showed.
- Shiitake mushrooms originate in Asia so it would be nice to see a local mushroom.
- I’m not sure if Morels or Oyster mushrooms grow there, but being spring it would have been suitable as well.
- This mushroom was incredibly meaty in texture like a filet mignon.
- It was tender yet firm with a slight crunch and they were not wrinkled or dried out from being roasted.
- The Shiitake was compressed in Shiitake mushroom broth and I think grapeseed oil, so it was infused with extra mushroom flavour.
- Mushrooms naturally have umami, but the umami was further intensified with the methods used.
- It was also fire roasted outside and as soon as I put it to my lips I could smell and taste that smokiness.
- It was smoky sweet and earthy, but also juicy and savoury and it was a fantastic tasting mushroom.
- I’ve also had compressed Shiitake mushrooms before though so I wasn’t crazy blown away by this, but it was still very good.
- I loved this! It was almost like a savoury cannoli. It was 1 per person and I could have had 10.
- The crispy crepe was almost like a wafer and it was super thin, light and crisp.
- It was filled with a cream that tasted like crème fraîche and folded into it was cured and smoked salmon roe.
- It was a very light and unassuming bite, but there was an explosion of flavours and textures.
- I’m big on textures, so I loved that this was crispy and creamy with savoury pops of salty smoky roe.
- Chef actually gets the roe from a whole fish and cures and smokes it himself.
- It reminded me of smoked salmon, cream cheese and onions with the chives, but it was much lighter and elegant.
- These were Puget Sound scallops which are native to the Pacific Northwest.
- They are small scallops often served steamed in their pink shells.
- These were served sashimi on top of chilled rocks and an ice cold bowl.
- They were super fresh and smelled like the ocean and I felt like I was eating them on the beach.
- Singing scallops are naturally more briny than sweet and these were topped with ramp oil, cream and micro herbs.
- The meat melted in my mouth like silky tofu and the cream tasted like horseradish cream with a mild heat.
- As much as I love West Coast oysters, it was refreshing to see scallops in their shells which is surprisingly rare.
- I usually only see steamer scallops served in their shells at Chinese restaurants.
- At Chinese restaurants they serve it with sweet minced garlic and vermicelli noodles underneath. It’s one of my all time favourite appetizers.
- This was another snack and it was totally new for me. I was excited!
- The basket was made from kelp and weaved locally by a woman on Lummi Island.
- I’ve never tried moss like this before. I’ve tried Chinese “black moss” (Nostoc flagelliforme), but not moss like this.
- This was fried reindeer moss which is a source of food for reindeer, caribou and other herbivores.
- It is available for retail although trickier to source, but this was likely foraged on Lummi Island. I saw lots of it.
- It was very light and it reminded me of a hair net and it sort of had a rougher texture.
- It smelled salty and it was light and flaky and not oily.
- It was crispy and crunchy and lighter than a potato bird’s nest.
- Piped into the bundle of moss was a dollop of sweet and savoury grilled and caramelized scallion purée.
- It was almost like chips and dip again and I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like it.
- I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t crave it although I would eat it again.
The next day I went on a personally guided tour of Lummi Island and I unexpectedly found the reindeer moss! (At least it looked like it.) The food cost on this snack was the labour in picking it. Picking berries and fruits is easy, but it takes a professional forager to go beyond fruits and vegetables. It requires knowledge and experience and not everyone can do it so I really valued this course even if it wasn’t my favourite.