Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Dinner of a Lifetime- The First Harvest Dinner at Willows Inn

It all now seems like but a dream.

Myself and Hubby, nestled by the window, watching the sun set over the water, as six of the world's most talented chefs come to our table and personally serve us dishes prepared specifically for this occasion.
Blaine Wetzel- The Willow's Inn (Lummi Island, WA)

Grant Achatz- Alinea (Chicago, IL)

Christopher Kostow- The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena, CA)

Dominque Crenn- Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)

Justin Yu- Oxheart (Houston, TX)

Virgilio Martinez- Central Restaurante (Lima, Peru)

It would be exciting enough to visit any one of these chef's restaurants individually, but to have them all in one place, putting all of their talents together to create one cohesive meal is every foodie's dream come true.

And indeed, all of my dreams did come true at the First Harvest Dinner at Willow's Inn.

Hubby and I visited the Willow's Inn for the first time on the Easter long weekend to celebrate my birthday (see my post here).  For a locavore like myself, it was the ultimate local dining experience and, as I savoured my last bite, I asked Hubby "So when are we coming back to do this again?".

We both agreed that we just had to return to this magical place again, but, with our busy jobs and hectic lives, we did not know exactly when that would be.

But sometimes, opportunity comes knocking and you just have to answer.  The news of the First Harvest Dinner broke on Twitter and Hubby just happened to stumble across it that evening.  He excitedly told me about his discovery and the rest is history.  After a brief discussion of how we were going to pull this off in the middle of the work week, we decided that we would worry about the details later and the next morning, we called to reserve.  And within a day, it was sold out.  35 guests each over nights of July 24th and 25th.  And we were going!

And this is how it came that Hubby and I became the guests at one of the most amazing dinners that one could imagine.  Our busy lives went on for the next couple weeks, until we found ourselves pulling up once again at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island in the late afternoon of July 24th.  I could feel the butterflies already in anticipation of what the evening was about to bring.

We had stayed at the main house of the Willows Inn on our last visit and we loved its rustic charm.  There was no room left at the main house this time, so instead we stayed a mile and a half away at an off-site house right on the water called the Marina at Legoe Bay.  We stayed in the Eagles Fly Away, one of three rooms in the house.  Although we were initially disappointed to not be staying on-site, this room made it more than worth the short drive to dinner.  The spacious room came complete with a tall king sized bed, large soaker tub and private deck which overlooked the clear blue Lummi waters.  My only complaint is that we did not have more time to enjoy all that it had to offer.  Fortunately, I did have just enough time to head out for a quick walk along the road before dinner.  The smell of the salt water and the cool breeze coming off the water made this summer's night even more incredible.

The Main House
View from the deck on our room (Eagles Fly Away)

And then it was time.  We hopped in the car and drove back up to the main house, just ahead of our 7:00 dinner time.  We were greeted with some Rose sparkling wine that we drank out on the patio to enjoy as much sunshine as we could before being ushered inside to being our meal.

I feel I am doing the evening a disservice by calling it a "meal".  This was a complete experience, with many different components that made it one of the most special evenings of our lives.

There was the unassuming, simply decorated dining room which compliments the natural beauty of Lummi...

The gracious, polished service from both the Willows in staff and the chefs that prepared our dishes (I almost lost it the first time that Grant Achatz came to our table)...

The open kitchen that allowed guests to watch these famous chefs putting the finishing touches on each dish with such focus and care...

The sun as it set over the water (perhaps the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen)...

The chef "meet and greet" at the end of the meal (I was totally star-struck!)...

And last but not least- the food!

Each chef contributed three dishes to the 18 dish dinner, composed of 6 small "starting"courses (what Chef Wetzel refers to as "snacks" in his menu at the Willow's Inn) and 12 "courses".  Chef Wetzel usually serves his "snacks" interspersed between the larger plates, but for this Harvest Dinner, the small plates were all served at the beginning of the meal.  For the most part, the dishes alternated between chefs so that you really appreciate the contrast of styles and flavours profiles.  The chefs all used ingredients that they had fished and foraged on Lummi Island the day before and they made dishes inspired by these ingredients.  One of my favourite parts of the experience was having the chefs serve us their dishes and explain the inspiration behind the dish, and how it was best enjoyed (one bite vs. several bites, hands vs. cutlery, etc.).  The chefs obviously took great pride in their dishes and wanted their guests to love them too.  It was quite impressive at the quality of dishes that these chefs were able to conceptualize and execute in such a short time, using some ingredients that they had never even tasted before!  This is certainly the mark of a truly talented and resourceful chef!

As with all dinner services at the Willow's Inn, guests had the choice of either wine pairings or homemade juice pairings.  I was delighted by the juice pairings during our first meal (such a novel idea!), while Hubby again ordered the wine pairings.  They were very generous with the beverages and we were kindly given top-ups when we were running low.  There were five pairings in total that accompanied the "courses" as well as a glass of their homemade apple cider to enjoy with our "snacks".

Here is a synopsis of the dishes of the evening, with a star (*) beside my personal favourites:


Oysters and Turnips (Chef Yu)- Tokyo turnips poached in oyster juice

This dish was a very appropriate introduction to the meal as gave guests a "taste" of what was to come-  simple ingredients, subtle flavours and clean presentation.

***Salmon and Barley (Chef Crenn)- Salmon with barley and pickled ramp mayo 

This was a very nice, local play on the traditional smoked salmon and cream cheese appetizer, but oh so much more delicious!  The salmon, caught the day before by Chef Crenn herself, was the star of the dish as it should be.  The fish was just very lightly smoked to let its natural flavour and texture shine through and the pickled ramp mayo added a welcome creaminess.  And there is just no denying that dill and salmon are a match made in heaven, especially with the dill has been picked in the garden a few hours before!

Romaine Root (Chef Kostow)- Romaine root, grated herring roe, yogurt

These beautifully presented romaine roots made me think of like two women in fancy summer dresses.  The flavours were just as beautiful and I enjoyed the hearty texture of the romaine root balanced by the light and fragrant herbs.

***Gazpacho (Chef Achatz)- Green tomato gazpacho with fennel olive oil and green onion straw

This dish was great on so many levels.  First of all, it was the first dish served to us by Chef Achatz and I must admit that I was more than a little starstruck when he delivered it to our table (Hubby said that my eyes were as big as saucers!).  Secondly, I loved the playfulness.  Chef Achatz instructed us to first chew the herbs and flowers and then to sip the soup straight up through the green onion "straw".  So fun!  Lastly, the freshness of flavours were unbelievable, to the point where you could distinctly taste each and every ingredient.  It just screamed summer!

***Bull Kelp (Chef Achatz)- Bull kelp with prawn, lichen and togarashi

Although Chef Achatz really has nothing to prove (he is, after all, one of best known chefs in the US!), this dish really demonstrated how talented he really is.  The amount of earthy flavour in this one bite, created with simple seaweed and spot prawn, was mind-blowing.  And what is even more impressive is the fact Chef Achatz had never even tasted this variety of kelp or lichen until the day before when he foraged it, let alone cooked with it!  There can be few other chefs in the world who have the palate and understanding of flavours comparable to that of Chef Achatz.

***Lummi Island Salmon (Chef Wetzel)- Smoked with green alderwood

One should never mess with perfection and this is obviously something that Chef Wetzel knows quite well.  We had this salmon on our first trip to Lummi and were hoping and praying that it would be included on the First Harvest dinner.  There is no way to describe it other than to say that it may just be the best bite of our lives.  As you can tell, we was utterly impossible to take the time for a picture before taking our first bite!


Peas and Raspberries (Chef Yu)- salted raspberries, fresh peas, kale juice and bitter and sweet herbs

The dish shows that good things come in small packages!  It is quite impressive that Chef Yu was able to combine kale and few raspberries (just at the beginning of their season on Lummi!) to create such depth of flavour.  It was almost too pretty to eat!

Ceviche (Chef Martinez)- Halibut with beet root and tiger's milk

This was our first dish of the night from this Peruvian Chef and we immediately got a sense of his personality and culinary style.  Being from Peru, Chef Martinez is certainly well-versed in ceviche and the way that he was able to combine the fish with the native Lummi Island vegetables and herbs shows how versatile and creative he is.  Just look at those colours!

Kohlrabi (Chef Kostow)- glazed in its own juices with fresh rye, fire roasted crab and nasturtium

This unique dish from Chef Kowtow was notable for its different textures- the firmness of the kohlrabi,  the crispiness of the toasted rye and the smoothness of the crab.  Another flavour dimension was then added with a salty crab broth served on the side.

***Broccoli (Chef Yu)- roasted over fire with sauce of dried clam 

Chef Yu really proved how talented he really is- he made Hubby not only tolerate broccoli but LOVE it!  This is all thanks to the tremendously delicious sauce which he calls the XOXO sauce that was adapted from a sauce that his mother-in-law initially created.  We still maintain that he could become rich if he started bottling to sell.  We would be the first to order a lifetime supply:)  

Venison (Chef Crenn)- Ocean and Land

This was Chef Crenn's play on surf and turf.  A thin layer of raw venison was wrapped around a shrimp and paired with a sorbet to cleanse the palate at this midway point of the meal.

***Bread and Roasted Chicken Drippings (Chef Wetzel)

This was another of Chef Wetzel's that we had enjoyed at our first Lummi meal and that Hubby especially was hoping would make a repeat appearance.  And enjoy it he did!  He ate a two full wooden boxes of bread to soak up every last drop of drippings before I could even blink an eye.  Enough said!

Swiss Chard (Chef Achatz)- Swiss chard with shellfish, broccoli and kale

Juice/Wine  This dish, although simple was among the most visually stunning plate of the evening and shows Chef Achatz' skill as not only a master of flavours but also an artist.  The way that the greens pressed on the plate reminded me of a lily pad, which was of course very fitting for this seafood-based dish.  The edible flowers, found around the property, gave a radiant "pop" of colour and that little element of playfulness that seemed to make its way onto Chef Achatz' plates in some way, shape or form.  That so many ingredients could be incorporated into such a small plate and all work so harmoniously together is quite mind-blowing!

***Lamb (Chef Martinez)- Lamb carpaccio, turnips, sea lettuce emulsion

Just as Chef Yu managed to make a broccoli lover out of Hubby earlier in the meal, this dish by Chef Martinez pleased my normally non-meat eating self enjoy meat.  At our previous meal at the Willow's Inn, I had requested a pescatarian menu (the menu ended up being almost completely meat free that night anyway!) but for this meal of a lifetime, I wanted to have the meal in its entirety without substitutions.  And when I tried this dish, I was sure glad I did.  This dish was also one of my favourite presentation-wise and I loved the textural contrasts of the crunchy turnip, the raw lamb and black "sand".  The garden theme of the plate was so perfect for this local meal.

Lummi Island Chicken (Chef Achatz)- Chicken with smoked oyster, currents and lavender

This dish was almost a refined play on a holiday dinner, very fitting for this celebration of great chefs and local food.  With its inclusion of both light and dark meat, currants for sweetness and a hint of lavender in the "gravy", this dish was sure to please everyone.

***Escarole (Chef Wetzel)- Braised escarole lettuce, pickled roses and capers made from apples

Chef Wetzel, not surprisingly, has a real knack with vegetables and this vegetarian dish really demonstrated that level of mastery.  There are few other chefs who would dare to build a main dish around escarole, but Chef Wetzel quite confidently made it the star ingredient in this perfectly seasoned and visually stunning dish.

Pork (Chef Kostow)- Pork collar, smoked in seaweed, dried smelt and mustard succulents

This was the last savoury dish of the evening (I was getting pretty sad by this time when the end was nearing!).  There was a bit of a ceremony around the dish, with Chef Kowtow brining the whole collar, wrapped in seaweed, for the guests to see in its entirety before cooking it.
The seaweed "crust" was a unique touch, adding both texture another layer of flavour, while the mustard succulents made me remember the leftover ham sandwiches of my childhood.  A nice balance of traditional and "out-of-the-box" flavours.

Berries (Chef Crenn)- Berries from Lummi Island 

This very light, simple dessert was just the ticket after this multi-course meal and stayed true to the meal's purpose of highlighting the bountiful harvest of Lummi Island.  Our server told us that she had picked the berries herself that day (even the serving staff participated in the foraging!) and they were served with a simple cream and edible flowers for garnish.  The natural sweetness of the berries was a perfect end to the extraordinary experience.

Although the evening passed by far too quickly for my liking (great things always do!), I feel so fortunate to now have so many wonderful memories.  And on days when I question if it was indeed just a dream, I turn to the leather-bound book that holds the menu from the evening as well as a note from each chef.  I will cherish this lovely souvenir until next year, when I hope to have the opportunity to do it all over again!

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1 comment:

  1. Wow! After having just eaten at Willows Inn this weekend (and desperately trying to figure out a way to go back soon!) I'm so jealous that you were able to make it to the Harvest Dinner. What an experience - thank you for sharing!