Willows Inn Summer ’14 – Elemental

Has it become a summer ritual? Queue up the car. Pay the ferry and cross the choppy waters. Disembark and roll down the windows. Turn right and follow the island’s loose curves for three miles. Look for the wafts of smoke drift across the road. The same journey every year offers a total escape with each visit.

Crisp air. Overflowing greens brush along the roadside. Red, blue, and pink dots pop in the brush. A kaleidoscope of buoys pop even brighter on Legoe Bay. Purple starfish crawl in the tide pools. A brilliant blue sky hugs the world. And on some nights, just before dusk, black and white orcas breach the still waters.

“When the trees are gone the sky will fall and we and the salmon will be no more,” reads an ancient Lummi prophesy, but the waves might continue to crash. Water is always the background – the island’s natural rhythm and heartbeat. On a sunny summer day, every view has a twinkle of light cast from the water. Of boats and birds bobbing. Of seaweed cast back and forth. Of entire schools swimming just under the waves.

This is the annual backdrop for two summer meals on Lummi Island.


The mussel is the first table-side snack.

And with it comes the Anticipation. Picked from the surrounding waters. Served on a bed of seashore rocks. Boxed in the thousands-year long smoke of the Northwest, of the Lummi Island natives. The same smoke that filled the air upon your arrival to the inn. Gently cooked for up to four hours, caramelized, and just singed on its edges.

With every party seated, another cedar box puffs white.

It is the upcoming menu, over in a bite. But the smoke lingers.


Creme fraiche & steelhead roe

Kale with black truffles

Six visits and my grasp on the restaurant should still be considered one-dimensional, at best. The extremely local nature of Blaine Wetzel’s philosophy necessitates a changing menu throughout the year. Seasonal edges can not be smoothed over by simply extending the geographical radius – the island is limited to nine square miles. And very few products are sourced outside of the island and its waters. Summer brings fruit and farm; winter is fished from the bay. The strictly local requirement gives the restaurant a kaiseki quality – very seasonal, perhaps to the week, and any complete summation of the place must include every season.

This post features two summer meals. Familiar snacks, like the creme fraiche and salmon roe, or kale with black truffles, pictured above, were already reviewed in Willows Inn – Island as a Plate. Meals three and four, last summer, included the second annual First Harvest Dinner featuring Grant Achatz, Chris Kostow, Dominique Crenn, Justin Yu, and Virgilio Martinez. That review never materialized.1 So this marks meals five and six. Each night, the menu followed a similar composition so the dishes are presented thematically. Some, like the smoked salmon and shiitake, were repeated both nights. As they should be.

What has changed over three years? Not much, which is the ultimate compliment.2


Halibut skin with clam and halibut emulsion<

Halibut skin with clam and halibut emulsion<

Halibut skin with clam and halibut emulsion came in two very different preparations. It is interesting to see the framework being used.3 Taking inspiration from a hand roll, the halibut cone allowed more emulsion and clam chunks with each bite. It had a great contrast of textures – crisp, chewy, and creamy – where the chewy clam is persistent but never dominating. The elaborate second version, looking like rocks lifted directly from the sea, let the clam’s texture and briny taste lead. The skin became tertiary crunches with each bite. Succulent beach lettuce leaves lent more texture, and a spike of bitterness. The first made an enjoyable snack but the second was a great dish.

Albacore crudo was served in a broth made from its smoked bones. With the slightest hint of smoke, the cool albacore broth accentuated the fish’s silkiness. It is such a natural pairing for raw fish, providing clean-tasting and pure foundational notes. With top notes of salt crystals and horseradish flowers, each piece had piercing clarity.

Grilled spot prawns followed a similar pattern. Grilled, chilled, and barely cooked in the middle; the prawns were served in a cool broth made from their shells. The shellfish broth is a naturally bolder flavor but the sweetness of the prawn stood up to it. Sweet and salty tugged back and forth, thanks to a clutch of the briny eggs that sat on the bottom of the bowl.

These two dishes show a key part of the Willows Inn playbook: pristine ingredients in pared down preparations, where nature’s quality is teased out. Many dishes have this kaiseki feel: the season, right now, this week, presented with just the right tweak.

And the shiitake pictured takes the concept to its extreme – simply grilled. It is unbelievably intense – juicy umami with bright jabs of salt. Ingredient, fire, salt – and discipline.


Local albacore with smoked bones

Spot prawns grilled with their roe

Shiitake

Meat seasons and supports what is generally a light tasting menu. Here, it surfaced in the beginning of the menu, with an intense burst of tartar, and then receded until the very end. Fruits, grasses, and grains are characteristic of the summer months. Vegetables take starring roles – and both vegetable mains were among my favorite dishes. It’s a trend being anxiously re-worked across the country – Foraging! Vegetables! 4

Just four leaves from a cone cabbage, treated with reverence. Variations of crunchy, tender, and silky textures as one ate towards the thicker bottoms. Caraflex cabbage was poached, roasted, and then grilled to get those beautiful burnt ends. Dried herring roe was grated atop. Again, perfect bursts of salt brought out subtle sweetness, as well as a distant oceanic background note. With the perpetual smoke and bitterness of the grill. Ingredient-focused but thoroughly technique-driven.


Roasted caraflex cabage with dried herring roe


Salt-baked beets

Thin sheets of salt-baked beets were draped atop a hazelnut butter and sprinkled with dill and blue woodruff flowers. A gin-flavored yogurt foam added a delicious and herbaceous zing. Hazelnut butter was distracting in both taste and texture; and I just could not resolve its clunkiness with the remaining lightness of the dish. However, it was easily avoided. The faint pop of herbs was outstanding with each sweet bite.

A tartar of 30-day aged venison had an intense backbone of game and minerality. Lemony purslane was included. Just the ingredients were placed on the table and one constructed their own version atop a crisp of seeds. The floral quality of a past version with blackberry and rose was streamlined here with the purslane; allowing the venison itself to come forward. There were great textural contrasts, thanks to the crisp and the stalky purslane.5 Was one better? In a deal with nature, with tasting menu as medium – you take what you are given – happily.


Aged leg of venison with purslane


Smoked salmon

The smoke drifts throughout the grounds all day. It puffs out of the mussels. A slightest hint in the albacore’s broth. But it absolutely explodes in two bites of smoked salmon! The entire history of Lummi Island settlement acknowledged in two sublime bites.6


Smoked black cod

Silky and seductive, seaweeds were gently braised to a complementary texture with dungeness crab. A broth of brown butter added slight richness. This was restrained and could easily tilt a few wrong ways – too rich, too crunchy, or too mushy – in less attentive hands. And the title: Wild seaweeds braised with dungeness crab – again, a clue to the aspirations of the food.

A similar textural effect was created with charred radicchio and squid. Radicchio leaves were cooked to a tenderness, and presumably charred to finish. The squid, too, was tender, with a similar charring. The textures were similar, but not the same. The bitterness of the vegetable, and the different charred bits, was stimulating! A scallion emulsion enriched it all.

This is exciting cooking. Meat supporting vegetable has become a media cliche; but rarely does it attain this level of sophistication and symbiosis.


Wild seaweeds braised with dungeness crab


Charred Radicchio with scallion and squid


Bread


Lummi Island rockfish steamed in parsley and lovage


Slow-roasted lamb cooked en papillote

First night, primal lamb with pickled elderflowers, fresh mint sauce, and cherry and elderflower preserves. The dish was more composed than it looks – cherry and floral notes, slight sweetness, and singing mint that cut through the juicy dark meat. But the next night showed a more composed lamb course – grass-fed lamb with island grasses. The meat was poached in marrow and it was deliciously rich. The bright (grass) sauce, again, made the dish sing. It was more amped up than the typical Willows Inn summer dish but it was quite an end to the savory. On both nights, other tables were absolutely enjoying eating the bone in their hands!


Grass-fed lamb with grasses

Desserts at Willows Inn are more an indulgence in refreshment, instead of sweetness. Herbs, grasses, and berries are used extensively. The aesthetics of the island are well incorporated and represented, and the desserts follow the trajectory of the earlier menu. And they are quite good too.

Wild forest berries was literally the pick of the day. This was a favorite from my first meal, where I wrote It could be served as dessert. And here it was, at the end. It is nearly sweet, sometimes bitter and astringent, with sudden clusters of a berry’s sweetness. The tartness and astringency of the red current might dominate one mouthful before the sweet grass broth refreshes the next. Each bite is wonderfully different.

And, finishing both nights, Blueberries with woodruff and malt. The blueberries were slightly cooked, warmed and quite tart. They were a great contrast to the sweeter and herbaceous woodruff ice cream. The crumbly, salty soil provided excellent contrasts to the berries and the ice cream.


Wild forest berries and grasses


Salmonberries with wild roses


Hazelnuts and chestnuts


Blueberries with woodruff and malt

Are there criticisms? The steamed rockfish seemed under-seasoned to me, as was its black cod counterpart the night earlier; but it was a very subtle dish. The first half of the menu is very similar, if not the same, as past visits but the dishes and snacks are just that good. The salmon has to be on the menu; as does the shiitake; as does the smoked shellfish; as does the venison; as does the… An expanded menu option could be one solution! And, remember, my timing has been within the same two week period – it is what the island gives. Regardless, these are quibbles – this is exactly the food I want to eat.

Willows Inn is one of the great kitchens in the country.7 It is not particularly hard to reach, like, say, Michel Bras; but you are taken to a special place.8 It could change you. While it might be impossible for Wetzel to escape the “he cooked at Noma” tagline, for better or worse; his food is clearly his own.9 The island is captured, by hook, net, and hand; and it is plated. There are few restaurants in the Western world that express their surroundings so vividly and coherently – it is a reminder that most of the world used to be a pantry. Just add fire, sometimes.

- chuck

PS – Breakfast in the dining room is mandatory. Spectacular house-made English muffins, fermented porridge, lox, charcuterie, cheeses, shiitake jam, and more. Too few people were taking advantage of this delicious meal. (iPhone photo below)

1 – The second annual First Harvest dinner was exciting – one of the more satisfying guest-chef dinners I’ve attended.

My favorite dish was Dominque Crenn’s Ocean and Land – which I thought was phenomenal. A spot prawn was lightly cured, wrapped in a thin sheet of venison, foie gras & crustacean foam, and a few pickled rose petals. The rose petals gave it a slight floral quality, and a brightness. The foam and venison combination was really special – just a really amazing combination for the raw-ish prawn texture and sweetness. This was a dramatic dish; and regardless of your position, it’s exactly the type of risk you want to see in a collaboration dinner.

Most surprising dish? Grant’s Achatz’s green tomato gazpacho was Achatz Unplugged. A green onion straw, topped with onion flowers, provided an immediate impact that then gave way to the tangy gazpacho. But then a pronounced, and extended, heat lingered on the palate. With every sip, one got the green onion pow. It was quite refreshing and exceptional. It makes one wonder what could be.

The most beautiful dish? Either Virgilio Martinez’s Halibut with beet root and tiger’s milk or Justin Yu’s Salted raspberries, fresh peas, kale juice and bitter and sweet herbs.

If you want a comprehensive post about the second annual First Harvest Dinner, Follow Me Foodie captured every possible detail imaginable. To have those note-taking skills!

Where has this blog been hibernating? A few Saison posts have not materialized because the pictures just aren’t up to the level – but it is performing spectacularly in its new location. Grace in Chicago was quite special but dark lighting mixed with wine consumption may prevent a post. Sixteen, also in Chicago, was spectacular but the memory can’t compensate for the lack of notes. L2O passed through the filters; we’ll see if time frees up.

Given how long it has taken to write this post; I need to make an effort to get myself back in the habit.

2 – Many of the snacks are the same, or similar enough. One could argue the salmon and shiitake are so iconic, already, that they can not be removed. The main dishes can also be quite similar, but with variations on a theme (explored above with the halibut and clams dish.) The kitchen has clearly honed in on its identity and the kind of food it wishes to make.

The garden moved on my last visit; it’s larger, far more bountiful, and now plants can be grown, and harvested, to exacting specifications. If Wetzel needs sixty tiny petals for dinner service, the request has a chance of being fulfilled. It is not simply what the garden gives you; it is also exacting some control over its production.

It is also worth noting that Blaine and I exchange emails from time to time. However, both meals were standard operating procedure for the respective nights. On the first night, we had the same meal as everyone else, to the dish. On the second night, since we were repeat visitors, we got variations. Both meals and the hotel were paid for.

3 – This is one of the advantages of visiting a high-end restaurant on back to back nights – they rarely want to serve you exactly the same dish. So you get variations on a theme, which provides interesting insight into the mind of the chef. The modular nature of so many dishes is quite fascinating to me. It would make a great cookbook concept – a kind-of choose-your-adventure but here-are-the-elements to consider with each step. I always wish cookbooks would just add an aside saying “try it with this; think about substituting that.”

4 – The exclamation points are not indictments of the restaurants/chefs, so much as the media hype around it. Some might accuse both. How can you say vegetables are a trend when Jeremy Fox was re-writing the rules back as far back as 2007? And hit a genius stride in 2009? Or Alain Passard earlier in that decade? Patricia Wells wrote The Vegetable Redemption in 2001. And it’s about Paris! How long has The French Laundry served a vegetable menu? At least as far back as my first visit in 2001 and possibly since they opened. It’s an old story; and the new stories are often mis-informed, promoting third-string restaurants as must-visits.

5 – This is one of my favorite things to make at home. I got the original inspiration from the noma classic dish – tartar and wood sorrel. But a purslane salad last year at Boulibar (in the San Francisco Ferry Building) convinced me that the entire tip should be used; and not just the leaves. They have such great texture, especially when they are young. So a post-workout power meal might be beef tartar with purslane tips, seeds, and some sort of vinegar (cherry is a great option) or fish sauce. You can also throw in something crunchy like Raincoast crisps from Whole Foods. (They are hideously expensive but quite tasty!) Make a bowl of equal parts meat and purslane tips, and throw in an egg yolk too if you wish.

And then, completely independent, Wetzel served it as a course in both meals!

6 – As a culinary statement about one’s environment and history, and then defying all expectation, this bite ranks up there with Sean Brock’s Charleston Ice Cream.

I’ve asked this before, maybe on Twitter, but is there a scientific reason why smoke and sweetness go so well together?

Pro-tip: if you like the salmon, you might want to read all of the inn’s promotional materials – very very carefully.

7 – Some other reviews that would agree:
Food for Thought
Foodty
Ulterior Epicure: Heart of Tartness

8 – Given the amazing geography of the United States, there should be more places like this scattered around the country – restaurants that are truly a destination because of their unique geography and historical setting. Perhaps the renewed interest in food could provide a market for such culinary destination. Of course, it’s not easy. After reading The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine, even Michelin-starred restaurants in France’s countryside, during they heyday of nouvelle cuisine, found it difficult to attract customers year-round. I would not necessarily recommend the book; read The Great Chefs of France for a much better overview of that period of French cuisine.

9 – In fact, I’d argue his food has more similarity to In de Wulf and, I’m guessing, Faviken. How long will I be guessing?

  • Mijune of Follow Me Foodie

    Whoa! Thanks for the shout out Chuck! Just saw this!

    Too bad you couldn’t make the dinner this year…. I need to recap it soon, or it’ll be one of those “my post has not materialized”… and when you’re out of the moment, it’s really hard to get back in ;)

    Hope to see you at one of these dinners… or just dining somewhere else around the world! Slightly surprised it hasn’t happened already!

    Best, M