The setting. Willows Inn. Lummi Island.
We had the meal of a lifetime at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. One year earlier, venturing into Stumptown Coffee’s Seattle roastery, frazzled, trying to get coffee set for the restaurant that was days away from opening, I met the guy that would tell me about this hidden gem, and eventually, one year later take me away for the meal of a lifetime. So yeah, it was an anniversary of sorts…the restaurant had just turned 1, I had three days off, and it was the “the first day we met” kind of celebration.
Really it was completely serendipitous that Chef Blaine Wetzel would be awarded one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs only days before. Although to be honest, to me this title can in no way encompass the forward thinking and talent that Chef Wetzel and his entire staff possess…especially when considering the other Seattle chef that was also honored. This restaurant and the team behind it are in a class alone.
So mushiness and a touch of cattiness aside, let’s look at some food porn!
First, here are a couple of quick notes that elevate this experience:
- Nearly every element that was on our plate was hunted, fished, foraged, or gathered from Lummi Island. Really something to be celebrated.
- As sad as it makes me to hold back, I’m only going to share the photos that photographed best. The meal was so beautiful that I just can’t bear to post the crummy photos I took after sunset. It just wouldn’t do justice to the team that worked so hard to create this meal for us. Trust me, it’s hard not to share but what I do have will still keep you satisfied, I’m sure of it.
- The first and final courses were each served by the chefs, including Chef Wetzel.
- My guy had the wine pairing and I had the juice pairing. More on that below.
The welcome. A tiny cedar box filled with moss, smoke, and smoked sunflower roots. A perfect way to set the tone for the rest of the meal. Inventive in it’s core ingredient but so basic in how it was prepared. So much meaning in this first course–history in a single bite.
Mini crepes filled with herring roe, crema, and chives. It’s going to be hard to choose, but this was definitely one of my favorite bites: the wafer thin crisp of the crepe, the salty and slippery roe, the richness of the cream, and the punch of the most fragrant chives I’ve ever had.
House potato chips and sauerkraut with smoked wild halibut. Doesn’t hurt that the halibut was caught that morning. Truly, an amazing bite. For the super finicky gastronomes out there, I’m sure you’ll be expecting one or two gripes, so if I MUST say anything I’d say the chip was a tad soggy. But really, as it was it, and if I had a hundred afterward, it really was splendid. The tartness of the kraut with the rich, smokiness from the halibut was truly dreamy.
Shigoku oysters marinated in sauerkraut juice, tapioca pearls, sorrel. Heaven! Never would have guessed it, but the addition of the tapioca (underneath each oyster) was a brilliant touch. I had initially thought that they were the ones with the vinegar taste, serving as a mignonette of sorts, but it was actually the oyster that was marinated, lightly. A truly thoughtful and elegant dish. Also be sure to note the presentation: beach stones, iced. Muah!
Charred kale, truffles, bread crumbs. Light with the crisply toasted kale leaf, but slightly decadent with addition of the truffled breadcrumbs. All I could think was: “If I had a tub full of this I’d pop it like popcorn.”
Fresh scallop, milk, island arugula. This dish was DIVINE. Like the chives with the crepe, the arugula was more fragrant and peppery than any I’d ever had. This was a subtle dish for sure, but elegant in its simplicity. The milk was just beyond; a delicate touch that was just so sexy.
Fried scallop roe. Alright, so we’ve had conflicting stories of which part of the scallop anatomy this actually is, but regardless it’s another one of my favorite courses. To be clear we did not ask the chef to clarify, but in recent weeks here in Seattle we’ve heard different stories from different restaurants. Male or female organs…no one knows right now (and a super quick google search revealed nothing of much help), but regardless, this was slippery and buttery. Taste and texture-wise, think uni or monkfish liver. I feel like this course might seem out of place or odd to some, but for me the importance lay in the fact that this amazing piece of sea life is most often thrown out. Decandent to the very end.
Geoduck sashimi, organic grains, watercress. Geoduck has to be one of the most unpleasant things to look at, but it’s quintessentially Northwest and when it’s done right it’s amazing. I loved this dish. The briny and tender geoduck (not chewy at all) was the perfect accompaniment to the mix of grains and watercress juice.
Venison heart tartare, house capers, island greens. I will never get enough tartare of any sort, but this was truly stellar. There wasn’t an iron-y heart taste here as I’d expected, but somehow I was able to taste the venison (Psychosomatic? Perhaps.) The homemade capers really stood out here also. Again, I could have popped these endlessly.
Smoked salmon. This was the most intensely amazing bite of salmon I have ever had, and growing up with a hobby salmon fisherman, in Seattle, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about salmon. Here’s the scoop: Chef Wetzel sampled the locals take on smoked salmon. He took the best components of each and created this masterpiece.
One other important piece to note here is the use of Reefnet fishing. Along the shoreline we noticed large platforms with four towers at each corner. These pontoons of sorts are rolled out to the bay where each tower has a fisherman with a corner of the net. They trap the salmon and pull uniformly to raise the catch. Can you imagine the muscle this takes?
Reefnet fishing is a historical method that allows for a more humane and sustainable way to catch the salmon, but it also allows the fisherman to select the best catches and set free those that don’t meet culinary standards with minimal shock. I firmly believe that similar to cattle, toxic shock has everything to do with how our food tastes.
For me the skill here goes beyond the smoking, but lies in where he knew how to let the fish be what it is.
Local squid, kohlrabi, oyster emulsion. The charred bits of squid with the decadent pistachio-colored oyster emulsion was unbelievably good. The addition of the raw kohlrabi added a great bit of crunch and freshness. This was “the second” of the five listed courses.
Stinging nettles, fresh cheese, young pine needles. For me this dish sums up the importance of eating local and seasonal. Nettles are incredibly healing but also a culinary delight. The young pine needles, so clean and only lightly fragrant. These are the things we’re meant to eat at this moment in spring. We both agreed that we felt very “connected” to the island, feeling clean and almost euphoric after this course. This was the first tasting I’ve had where I wasn’t gorged (yet sluggishly happy). Instead I felt nourished, gastronomically* inspired (and happily envigorated).
The remaining courses (the unphotogenic):
- House bread and butter. The bread was very Tartine-esque, and the house churned butter was unbelievable.
- Smoked local shitake mushrooms (whole).
- Baked oyster, brown butter, tequila.
- Fried halibut skin with abalone.
- Chicken drippings as a dip to accompany the bread. SERIOUSLY. This actually happened.
- Halibut, bone sauce, house capers. This was the final savory course. The perfectly cooked halibut was incredibly juicy and toothsome. (Yup, toothsome.) The bone sauce, from what we could tell, was the result of extracting the fatty marrow from the halibut bones. It was incredibly flavorful and creamy, and when paired with the house capers again it was magical! Once again the best I’d had.
- Wild flowers, lemon verbena granita, cherry blossom ice cream, elderflower meringue. The single best dessert of my life. Cherry blossom ice cream? I mean, come on! It was gorgeous.
The little touches that meant so much:
- The juice pairinings. GENIUS. The sommelier is in the process of relocating to Lummi Island, and while my guy thoroughly enjoyed his wine pairing we both agreed that my juice pairing was beyond brilliant. The selections are made and created by Chef Wetzel and to sum it all up, his decision to pair huckleberry juice with the last course of halibut and bone sauce was the pinnacle of the evening. There really are no words.
- Coffee & tea. With this course we got the most incredible mini chocolate, chocolate chip cookies.
- The first and final courses: With the chefs serving it created the most wonderful, relaxed atmosphere. They were genuinely interested in sharing their food and conversing with each table. A lovely and meaningful touch!
- The service team was unparalleled. Relaxed, genuinely happy, and in turn the dining room atmosphere was the same. Unlike other tastings this dining room was quietly abuzz. Not a touch of stuffiness anywhere (just a note this was aThursday night).
The meal for us was epic in its execution and in its message. Northwest cuisine finally has a place, a face, and a name. Until now, we’ve been lost: Seattle as a gastronomic* destination is lacking and with cities like San Francisco and Portland leagues ahead, I’m happy that Chef Wetzel is poised to help shape our culinary culture. I truly can’t wait to go again.
*Soap Box Moment: I am purposefully avoiding the word “foodie” here. This is another post for another time; but for now, I feel like this experience cannot be summed up, in anyway by that term.
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