Willows Inn (Lummi Island, WA) – Island as Plate

To get away – seclusion, slow time, and the freedom to explore. To live with the land, honor its history, and work within its bounty. To be inspired by the physical connection to food and walk amongst it – on the farm, into the brush. Down to the beach: berries on the slope, stonecrop along the shore, and sea lettuce in the water. Spot prawns swim just beyond. A land of possibility. To take the ideas of noma and practice them on a nine-mile island, most of it uninhabited – welcome to Willows Inn.1

Blaine Wetzel is the twenty-something chef of the inn. Born in Washington, he cooked in California, Las Vegas, and found his way to Copenhagen, before it was popular. His pedigree is stellar – Richard, Stratta, and Redzepi.2 Lummi Island, and its surrounding waters, are his inspiration – plants, berries, herbs, flowers, and fish. Nearby farms supply the meat and milk. Up the hill, Nettles Farm grows what nature does not.3 And the winter months are stocked with pickles and preserves. Willows Inn’s proximity to its entire menu is perhaps only matched by The Sportsman.4

Less is more. Butter is used sparingly, mostly relying on the animal’s fats. It is a natural cuisine. Chickweed, coriander, queen’s anne – herbs and potent flowers are used for full impact with minimal footprints in the dish.5 Smoke drifts and lingers throughout the meal; throughout the day, really, on the grounds of the inn. Most dishes have been pared back; it is analytical in its reduction. The extravagance here is the vision of minimalism, eschewing the tendency to turn everything into a salad of leaves and greens with this type of food.

This is a meal from late July, the night before Willows Inn’s First Harvest Dinner. It reads like a love letter; it might be.6

The menu officially reads five or six courses but many snacks are served throughout. More substantial than hors d’oeuvre, each danced around themes of the restaurant – smoke, herbs, and the island’s treasures.

smoked sunchoke roots

With the gooey inside consistency of a date, a smoked sunchoke root was the first dish. The burnt ends of moss came out still sparkling, whiffing small clouds of alder smoke. The outside was expectedly dry. Every bite released sugars from the root. The crunch to filling ratio of a crepe, roe, & crème fraîche was just right. The salmon roe, caught less than a mile away that day, had a faint brininess when tempered by the sweet-ish cream.

Smoked cod lay creamy on the salty chip but a dab of mild sauerkraut mediated the two. The dill, looking too precious, gave it that careful edge. An oyster brined in sauerkraut was refreshing with nice competing edges of salt, sour, and sorrel. It retained all of its briny glory. Tapioca, like a slightly chewier roe, was also a nice textural complement. And its rocky plating stole a scene from the beach outside. Earthy, pungent, and bitter – the smoky kale chips had a nice crunch that was almost sweet but kept getting pulled back by the Olympic Peninsula preserved truffles.

The shitake was carefully grilled with just a few pinches of sea salt. Is anything more necessary?

creme fraiche, salmon roe

smoked cod, potato chip, sauerkraut

oyster brined in sauerkraut, sorrel, tapioca

kale chips, rye bread crumbs, truffle

grilled shitake

berries, grass soup, queen’s anne flowers, thyme

It was a sunny day and vines strangled the roadside bushes.7 The roads blushed with color – red dots, white puffs, and purple stains. Sun-ripened berries hung supple and plump, dangling on the vines or splattered on the road. It is the best time of the year anywhere.8 Of the place, in the place, the brush in a bowl – this was Lummi Island, July, plated.

Each bite was different. The tartness and astringency of the red current might dominate one mouthful before the sweet grass broth refreshed the next. Each berry broke down differently in the bite. Herbaceous tones inflected each slurp – so many dimensions and angles to the flavor. It could be served as dessert; instead, it was the official welcoming to Lummi Island – this is why we’re here. The snacks were good but this was profound.

Early in the morning, puffs of smoke emanate across the grounds and mix with the ocean overcast. Salt and smoke fill the crisp air. It is the soul awakening – the smokehouse. You see the white puffs driving into the parking lot. Its smells lazily cling in the air around the inn. And it competes with the sun-setting horizon as one of two views outside the restaurant. On an island teeming with artists, the Willows Inn team too has elevated their craft to an art with this traditional device.

Caught nearby using old Indian netting methods, the salmon was thrown into the smoker. After smoking all day at very low temperatures, the fish is served directly from the smokehouse. The first plates begin scenting the room, and the smell builds with each new serving. It sweats, with little if any albumen, but mostly it smells – wonderful. Each bite captures the mouth with smoke, letting faint sweet touches out. Its texture is creamy with a raw warm center. It is a remarkable achievement.

smoked salmon

30-day venison tartar, shaved smoked venison, wild rose, cress, blackberry

The single red meat dish was the first official course – venison tartar. This immediately piqued my curiosity – how would this work? I’ve challenged the narrative where red meat must conclude a tasting menu in previous posts. If used as supporting role, or in smaller portions, the satisfaction from eating red meat could be used earlier in the menu. However, very few chefs venture beyond the protein with a side of vegetable or puree – a caricature of the possibilities.

A tartar was made from 30-day aged venison, whose game and minerality gave the dish backbone. Shaved smoked venison, mostly seen in the photo, perfumed and enveloped the mouth, smoothing the strong flavors of the meat. This was already great. Cress and blackberry jabbed with pepper and tartness, bringing dimension to different bites. But those glorious notes of the wild rose! They complemented the smoke above and the game below, engulfing the dish with a wonderful light floral quality.

Flowers are omnipresent on today’s menus, in appearance, but why are their floral flavors not more fully explored in the savory?

The smoky floral continued to hang when a cook presented the next dish – a prawn merely seasoned by the salt it was buried and cooked in. These were caught one-hundred feet off-shore, the server said. Yes, directly out there, pointing toward the horizon where the water twinkled below a setting sun. We looked out of the window, imagined a hundred feet, and mentally dipped our heads into the water. Neat. Dig the prawn out, break its shell, fight for the meat, and suck out the tomalley.

Again, what more is needed? The meat had bite, presumably its character since it was nicely cooked, and it was sweet. Saltwater burst out of the shells and infused with each bite. They were swimming around earlier in the indoor saltwater tank.

spot prawn

cone cabbage, mussel whipped cream, red currants

Cone cabbage flexed a playful side. Here, cone cabbage was poached in mussel juice and roasted. It was then paired with a mussel whipped cream. Austere but strangely luscious, the mussel cream had little, if any, sweetness, just a subtle taste. Sometimes the sweetness of the cabbage would peak through. Or the citric hints of coriander flower or tart currants would hit. These were sharpish flavors tempered by a mussel cream!

halibut skin, halibut emulsion, pickled razor clams

snap & english peas, mangalitsa lard, whey, mint

Alain Passard’s peas and grapefruit had kicked off a minor obsession this past summer. His recipe in The Art of Cooking With Vegetables, an excellent cookbook, uses thyme, butter, and the nice kick of grapefruit that somehow gets assimilated into the sweet nature of the peas. It sounds strange but it works. Mint, with its rosmarinic acid, also pairs equally well with peas. Pea, mint, and fat, as my endless repetitions have convinced me, are a guaranteed success.9

In this beautiful dish, the pods were left for extra crunch and texture. Whey lent a slight sourness with the sweetness of the peas. But the mint was the magic. Lard coated the mouth and the mint spiked out. It electrified the dish.

But the frenzy of tequila, fried sage, and brown butter over-powered a grilled oyster. If food memories trigger fondness, tequila is a tricky gamble.10

The final dish of king salmon and mustard greens was again too powerful for me. It ventured dangerously close to the leafy protein style that has become en vogue. The integration is largely lost on me – protein and leaves inter-mingle but their mouthfeels are so distinct that there is no bridge between the two. The mustard was interesting, in its variety of forms, but every bite was too forward. The fish itself was beautiful.

grilled oyter, tequila, sage

king salmon, mustard seeds & greens, pods, flowers

strawberry sorbet & fruit, wild alpine strawberry, chamomile, nougatine, & flowers

One dessert. A neighbor later complained there should have been more. And she’s absolutely right when it was this good. There was no sudden shifting to France in aesthetics. Composition followed the meal at large and blended seamlessly. Tart, sweet, floral, refreshing, soothing – this was a spectacular dessert.

What is a destination restaurant? It should offer a unique menu with distinction. Chef Blaine Wetzel’s commitment to Lummi Island ensures this collection of dishes could not be found anywhere else in the world. It is clearly singular. The berries were capitivating, the venison the dish of the night, but it is the salmon that lingers, like its smoke on the palate. It captured the restaurant on one plate – the rustic and wild, elevated to art. And, for that, the food is extraordinary.

Noma is the easy comparison because of Wetzel’s past employment and locavore constraints on the food. However, noma is more bountiful, more modern while Wetzel’s food is rustic and minimal. The food shares many similarities to In de Wulf in Belgium, one of my favorite meals. And the totality – constraints, philosophy, food – has shades of The Sportsman too. Willows Inn ranks very very high for anyone traveling for food. It is the definition of destination dining.

- chuck

1 – Interestingly enough, these pictures from The Fifth Flavor in 2010 look very much like noma. When contrasted with the dishes above in this post, it’s exciting to see that Blaine has developed his own style while still practicing the locavore and anything is an ingredient philosophy of noma.

2 – Blaine and I have crossed paths a few times over the years. He probably cooked at Alex when I visited. He worked at Manresa during the Manresa/Noma dinner before moving to Copenhagen to work on noma. Upon visiting noma, Blaine showed us around the restaurant. And he reads this blog. Despite this, we did not receive special treatment. In fact, the nearby tables with Sean Brock, John Shields, Jason Fox, and Kyle Cannoughton, or Kobe Desramaults, were certainly more important than mine! Every table in the restaurant was served the same meal, everyone beginning, and ending within a half hour of each other.

3 – Garden tours are offered every morning. A quick ten minute walk up, worth knowing anyways if a tsunami hits. They generally start right after breakfast. Breakfast? I usually skip breakfast:

4 – It’s not a competition and I’m sure there are other places operating within a very tight radius but it’s hard to eat much more ‘locally’ than this. Obviously, some will argue that it’s difficult to create a world-class restaurant when the ingredients are so localized; just as others argue a vegetable menu can not be as accomplished as a meat menu. There will always be grand restaurants for those people, with lobster from Brittany, whole roasted lobes of foie, toro from the Mediterranean, caviar from Iran, and enough butter to poach the remainder of the menu. There is a time and place for everything.

5 – The cynical might call it trendy – I call it the way I like to eat these days. Very light, little butter, very satisfying, and even refreshing. It’s what I try to emulate at home.

6 – More of my reviews read this way – why? I have discovered a style that I enjoy and I’ve done a better job picking the restaurants whose ideas align more closely with mine. Sometimes I venture outside this bubble, and I really wonder why.

7 – The Willows Inn site advertises free bikes, and electric bikes for a small fee. Electric bike, I thought, how silly is that? Sean Brock, paraphrasing his ride home the night before, summed up his enthusiasm with “Hell yeah!” Terribly out of shape, the first hill had me smiling – “Hell yeah!” Getting a little too used to the juice, and seeing my power bars dropping half-way through the ride, I started worrying “Hell no!” The fear of peddling home, forced me to peddle home.

8 – As a youth, in the then-wilds of Florida, I would escape for hours on the weekends to pick blackberries and blueberries. Riding through the endless terrain, I found a forgotten blueberry patch, surrounded by swamp, inaccessible without an ATV. Rattlesnakes loved the shade of these bushes, their sideways prints always etched into the sand.

Lining most swamp, and lakes, were endless blackberry vines; dense and impenetrable. Always mindful of alligators on the water’s edge, you don’t know fear until a rabbit bolts out unexpectedly. It never sounds like a rabbit! And why is it running?!?! And then there was the day I discovered wild boar tracks – armed with a mere .22, those berries did not look so good anyways.

There was also a forbidden peach tree that sat across a muddy narrow creek surrounded by under-brush. Those supple peaches were protected by the endless alligator tracks through the mud. Tiny little feet with a big fat tail between them. Invisible protectors of the peach – a peach is not worth a limb.

Blueberries were strictly for cereal. Blackberries preferred cobbler. Alligators? Deep-fried.

All of it is gone now – golf courses and houses for the retired.

9 – The astute reader will recognize this formula from one of my all-time favorite dishes: Jeremy Fox’s peas, mint, & white chocolate.

10 – Of course memories influence food – it is impossible to argue otherwise. However, it seems like it is equally impossible to create dishes that mine this territory in fine dining because everyone has different vantage points. There are tricks, like The French Laundry’s endless quotes on every menu, but I’m not sure how much of a shared memory different generations, and nationalities, have when it comes to the food of their childhood.

For me, tequila brings some memories of a very bad night and one missed day.

11 – Some misc info:
a – Great photos of the island Eat Live Travel Write’s blog

b – Good article on recent history of Willows Inn in Food & Wine

  • Manda Bear

    Beautiful review Chuck.

  • Godiva

    I was transported! Lovely entry! :)

  • Laurent

    Gorgeous, your pics are amazing my friend… definitely on my to do list… Your comment on In de Wulf means a lot to me ;)

  • Matthew

    I enjoyed a similar menu there in late June. It was the finest meal I have ever been served, having lived the New York and San Francisco good-to-fine dining life for a decade.

  • Skip

    Thank you for this. We ate there just a week after you did, and the menu was nearly identical to this. Just looking at the photos instantly brought each dish back so that I could almost taste it. Oh and that finger of smoked salmon… I have never in my life had a piece of fish so simple and perfect. As much as I love how good and properly paired wine elevate each other, I actually waited minutes after eating the last bite of that fish to drink anything because I was afraid to wash away the lingering soft and lusciously fatty flavor.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    you’re right Skip, i probably should’ve written an entire post on that piece of fish. i can see myself trying to make it 1000x, hoping to get that flavor back!

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    can’t argue w/ that Matthew, it’s definitely one of the best in the country.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    i only dream that i could go to In de Wulf as much as you :-)

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    it’s not too far away !

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    ditto for you – not too far away – and you could pair it w/ some Oregon wine tasting

  • Skip

    I think I might instead just plan another trip to Lummi!

    One thing I just noticed in looking back through the photos–and my recollection might be off, but we actually chatted with Blaine about that particular dish–but I think that might be sunflower root and not sunchoke. I barely heard him say what it was when it was set down, so I said, “Sunchoke?” and he replied, “No, sunflower root. I really love them.” Or maybe we had slightly different things. But I love the way you framed that picture of the box. It really conveys the sense surprise you get as you peek in…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nina-Laden/100001425972571 Nina Laden

    Thank you for capturing the essence of our island. I’m blessed to be an artist who lives across the road from the inn. We’ve been there ten years and Blaine has definitely brought a fine art to what we already knew was a treasure. We celebrated my husband’s birthday in the dining room the same week that you were there… (and now I have to hope my current novel sells so we can go back sometime soon.) It tickles me to read what other people say about the food and the place, and I must say that I think you “get” it more than anyone else so far. Come back.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    interesting; my notes read “sunchoke” but there’s always the possibility of error. it looks like the two are in the same family, at least

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1621232488 John Sconzo

    Wow, Chuck! Such a beautiful post of a clearly beautiful meal. Willows Inn was on my get-to list before this, but it just rocketed up towards the top.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    i hope your book does well too – to live across the street, wow

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    you will definitely dig it

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000750603106 Mira Mi

    Great post Chuck! I have been wanting to go there for months, and I am really jealous right now :) Loved all the photos, I can almost taste the food myself. I can see what you mean about being minimalistic & rustic. Sounds quite refreshing!

  • Aprilljinsd

    Beautifully written.

  • Mike Czyzewski

    nice job, chuck. that smoked salmon sounds dope.

  • http://twitter.com/CulturedPickle Cultured Pickle Shop

    FYI- Sunchoke, Sunflower Root, and Jerusalem Artichoke are synonymous. Great review as always. Your super talented, I wish we could hear from you more.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    thanks for the info & kind words.

    i wish i could make it to your shop more often – my favorite pickles anywhere :-)

  • http://twitter.com/CulturedPickle Cultured Pickle Shop

    Thanks for that- You just made my week! Next time you stop by the shop ask for Kevin and introduce yourself, it would be great to meet you and give you a VIP tour and tasting. Cheers!