Monday, August 18, 2014

The Willows Inn

The time the Halarnakar family ate organic flowers for dinner...

My mom's birthday is in August, and I had taken the entire week off to visit her for the occasion. I figured a "getaway" would be a perfect celebration, so I started googling locations around Seattle. As with most of my food research, I found myself on, scouring the article "The Best Food Lover's Hotels in America". I was stunned to read that one of the best, The Willows Inn, was in my neck of the woods!The Willows Inn is located on Lummi Island, which is part of the San Juans. The San Juans are absolutely stunning during the summer, so my research ended here.

So what is the all the fuss about The Willows Inn? Well, Chef Blaine Wetzel runs the ship, and he is an alum of the famed Noma. Since taking on his post, he has won all kinds of fancy awards, such as the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year and the Food & Wine Best New Chef. The other special thing is that Chef Blaine Wetzel sources all of his menu ingredients locally - either from the organic farm down the street, or from the waters surrounding Lummi Island. Doesn't get more farm to table than that!

Lummi Island is about two hours north of Seattle, and you have to take a ferry to get there. My sister and I played weird sister games in the back of the car and after waiting in the ferry line for about an hour, we finally arrived! We quickly freshened up and headed back to the main part of the inn for cocktail hour.

I wasn't going to order a drink until I glanced over the cocktail menu and realized we were a far cry from vodka sodas. The cocktails here were all fantastic and a bit whimsical.

Note, my phone battery died because I couldn't stop instagramming in the three hour drive up, so some of these are from my sister's iphone 4.

The restaurant offers only one seating, at 6:30pm, and has about 11 tables. The decor is Pacific Northwest chic (or rustic, depending on how you see it). 

There is only one menu, a tasting menu, and both wine AND juice, yes juice, pairings are available.  

Enough chattering, let's get to the main point! Our meal consisted of several snacks in addition to the menu items listed above.

We eagerly awaited our first snack, which was a smoked samish bay mussel. This evoked memories of Sushi Nakazawa, and, it was incredible. I'm normally luke-warm about mussels, but I really enjoyed the smokey, woodsy flavors of this dish.

Our next snack was a dish of flowers from the farm, with a nasturtium flower dip. In theory, this dish was very unique, but I didn't like it much. 

I've also noticed crispy fish skin topped with some kind of roe on several different menus. This one, a halibyt skin, was no less delicious. In fact, it inspired us to make some crispy skin salmon later in the week! 


My family laughed when our servers brought out this snack - kale with black truffles. This is basically my usual dinner - kale chips with a side of something else. Though, my at home kale chips do not get the black truffle treatment. 

Mushrooms are seriously underrated. These shittake roasted over fire, served with salt, were quite remarkable! 

Then we had a crispy crepe with steelhead roe - it was kind of like biting into a blini, but not.

I failed to document that during these snacks, our servers poured us very generous portions of our respective pairings. We were already tipsy by the time the tasting menu started!

Our first course was albacore with smoked bones (oooh, similar to Nakazawa!).

Our servers brought another snack out - Lopez Island smelt. 

Our next course consisted of salt-baked beets. I don't really like beets, so I wasn't really a fan of this course. 

Then, we were served the most exquisite dish of the evening. Guess!

Aged venison and purslane, with some toast. When I say this dish is "simple", I mean that it really only has three ingredients but tastes fantastic. Under no circumstances would this be simple enough for me to make in my home kitchen.


Then we had a sunset intermission. I'm not even kidding, everyone went outside to take photos of this sunset. I think this is why people put up with Seattle and its rain for the remainder of the year. Just for this one instagrammable moment.

When guests pull into the parking lot at The Willows Inn, they immediately see some kind of smokehouse. This smoked reefnet caught Lummi Island salmon, which we were instructed to eat with our fingers, was the outcome. 

Oh, salmon is probably the other reason Washington residents put up with the dreary rain for nine months out of the year. For three months out of the year, we get satisfyingly delicious and fresh salmon. 

More of that susnet!

Behind the scenes action!

At prior restaurants, I have seen lots of random vegetables as a course on the tasting menu. Remember at Saison when I was skeptical about the asparagus. Well, turns out potatoes are also underrated. They almost look like bacon!

Wild seaweeds braised with dungness crab. It's like you went for a walk on the beach and tripped and fell on the rocks and instead of biting your lip, this delight landed in your mouth.

Okay let's just stop everything right here. I am OBSESSED with fresh churned butter, and even more obsessed with yeasty, freshly baked bread. I think that I could make a bread tasting menu based on all my favorite restaurants bread courses (i.e. Saison, and, here, as seen below).


The final savory course of the evening was a let down. The slow-roasted lamb just was not well executed.  

Our first dessert course was wild chamomille and wood sorrel. I've also started seeing sorrel widely utilized on tasting menus. In fact, in the juice pairing my mom ordered, it was also a juice!

And, now the final course for the evening, blueberries with woodruff. Infant Sarika was overjoyed.

We even had the chance to speak with Chef Blaine! Pretty cool stuff...

The next morning, we took a tour of the organic farm where Chef Blaine sources his ingredients. He works with the farmers to prepare the farm for each season well in advance - it's almost like he has to be three steps ahead of the game. My friend will be going to Willows Inn in September, and I saw the beans and squash that she will likely be served, spoiler alert!

And what did I learn? Not all farms can afford to be organic certified even if they do practice organic farming. I also learned that fertilizer can be synthetic or organic, so if you are really neurotic about what goes on your plate, you should probably ask your vendor at your farmers market. Oh, I also learned that bees are more attracted to some flowers over others, and this helps with pollination. Bzzzz. While I like the idea of having an organic farm, I don't like bugs, so, I will stick to buying produce at Trader Joe's and the farmer's market.

Overall: This was a really unique experience for my family and I. It's not too often we trek on a ferry and stay over night all for one meal, and I think this was worth it. I would probably go back once a year, in the summer, as a nice getaway or celebration. The menu does change seasonally, so it would be really neat to explore all of Chef Blaine's creations throughout the year, if this was in close proximity to me, I would probably do just that! Reservations are required. If you plan to stay at the hotel, you can make the dinner reservation when you book your room (I did this in February for an August reservation). If you are not planning on staying at The Willows Inn, reservations open up 2 weeks in advance. Good luck getting one, maybe your Amex Concierge can help you!  

The Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Dr. 
Lummi Island, WA
(360) 758-2620

Note: In the summer, there was a queue for the ferry. We arrived at 4:45pm, thinking we could get on the 5pm ferry, but we didn't get on till about 5:40pm. 

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