Friday, 5 April 2013

Day 2 of Easter Weekend on Lummi Island: The Willows Inn

2579 W Shore Dr  Lummi Island, WA 98262, United States
+1 360-758-2620

Tastiness Factor: 10/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved? YES, YES, YES!!! (The very epitome of local, seasonal, sustainable cuisine)

Lummi Island, just off the coast of Washington, with a population of 900, has garnered a lot of attention lately.  Prior to a year or two ago, no one had ever really heard of this pretty little island, inhabited by a mix of locals and mainlanders with summer homes.  It is all because of Blaine Wetzel, a chef who, at the ripe old age of 26, won the 2012 Food and Wine Best New Chef Award, and more recently, has been named a finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award.  Unlike the other finalists who own hot spots in Chicago, NYC and SF, Wetzel has been keeping a low profile here on Lummi Island as chef at the Willows Inn.  Formerly a chef at the infamous Noma in Copenhagen, the young chef came to Lummi a few years back to further cultivate his love of locally sourced, farm to table cooking.  With Wetzel in the driver's seat, Willows Inn has won numerous world-class awards, including the title of "One of the 10 Restaurants in the World Worth a Plane Ride".

And, like many other visitors to Lummi Island, it was Wetzel that also drew my husband and I to take a little Easter weekend getaway to the this marvelous little island.  It also happened to be the weekend before my birthday, and I could not think of a better way to celebrate!  We arrived on Lummi late Saturday afternoon, in record breaking temperatures perfect for nature walks, hiking, running, and, of course, eating!   The review of Saturday night's dining experience at the Beach Store Cafe can be found here.

On Sunday morning, we awoke to an absolutely gorgeous and sunny day that promised record breaking temperatures.  We left our cozy room (we stayed in the Heather room just behind the Inn) and headed down for our first meal at the Willows Inn, prepared by none other than Blaine Wetzel and his crew.  Served between 8:30 and 9:30am, it is usually served in the main dining room, but, because the dining room was full, we were escorted into the bar area.  At first, I was a bit disappointed about this, but I quickly perked up when I realized what a great view of the kitchen I had from our table in the bar.  I could have sat there and watched the chefs and servers milling about in the beautiful, open kitchen for hours!

For breakfast, we were first treated to french press coffee made by Stumptown coffee based in Seattle as well as apple cider.  The apple cider was served chilled and had a more intense apple flavor than run run-of-the-mill apple juice.  We were asked if we had any dietary preferences and then service of a set course breakfast promptly began.  We were first treated to a small bowl of creamy, rich greek yogurt topped with homemade granola that was full of nuts, coconut and dried cranberries.  Next came my favorite dish of all- house-made gravlax served with crisp toasts made of rye and flax and a dollop of creme fraiche.  It was plated rustically on a piece of wood, with enough for us to share.  It was then on to the "main course" of breakfast (who doesn't love a multi-course breakfast!), composed of poached eggs on a bed of kale and mushrooms, back bacon and english muffins.  Because I do not eat meat, they graciously served us an extra portion of the egg dish, which I happily gobbled down.  The eggs were perfectly cooked (gotta love a nice, runny yolk!) and I really appreciated the large pile of fresh sauteed kale and seasonal mushrooms.  While I happily munched away on my eggs and veggies, my husband enjoyed the back bacon and english muffins, served with a side of homemade jam.  What a perfect way to start the day:)

After breakfast, we were treated to a very informative tour of the Willows Inn grounds.  Our very kind and knowledgeable tour guide showed us many of the edible plants spread along the property.  The chefs use this supply for meals served at the Inn, as well as the vegetables and edible garnishes provided by a nearby farm.  One of the highlights of the tour was a the smoking hut found at the edge of the property.  They use this hut to smoke some of their seafood, including their melt-in-your-mouth, thought-I-died-and-went-to-heaven, smoked salmon (more on that later).  One of the chefs, Matt, kindly  joined us and explained us how the smoker works.  We even got a sneak peak at the salmon inside, which is smoked for hours in the hut with wet alder at very low heat.  For the rest of the day, we saw Matt running out of the kitchen at regular intervals to stoke the fire.  Hard work, but when we tasted the salmon, we realized that all this TLC resulted in one of the most delicious things we had ever eaten.  Thanks Matt!!!

Fresh bay leaf tree

After the satisfying breakfast and inspiring tour, we had the fuel we needed to tackle Lummi's most difficult preserve, the Baker Preserve.  In comparison to the Otto Preserve and Curry Preserve that we had done the say before (both very easy nature walks), this offered a little bit more of a challenge, with a steep incline up from the parking lot, then nice rolling slopes the rest of the way up the 3.2 mile hike (took us about 1.5hrs).  It was a clear day so we got a fantastic view of the San Juan Islands.  Beautiful!

It was then back to the Inn to relax for a bit at the Taproot Cafe.  Taproot Cafe is opened to guests at the Inn and Lummi locals between 10 am-5:30 pm.  It serves up Stumptown coffee, local beers and wines, as well as sandwiches, soups and baked goods.  Guests are welcome to sit inside, where there is a TV and board games, but it would have been a crime to sit inside on such a beautiful day.  We happily perched ourselves on the nice little alcove outside the cafe, myself with a latte and Andrew with a beer (a West Coast Apricot Ale) and a sandwich (a nicely prepared beef and cheese sandwich) to hold us over until dinner.  We also sampled some of their baked goods over the course of our stay and they were very tasty!  Just make sure you get there early because their scones and cookies sell out fast!

After finishing our snack and going for a stroll on Sunset Beach right across from the Inn, the time I had been waiting so long for had finally arrived.  Dinner time!!!   Before being seated in the dining room, we wanted to savor a bit more of the record-breaking March weather, so we headed out a bit early for a drink on the patio.  And I was so glad we did!  Not only was I able to sit outside in a short-sleeve dress and sunglasses in March, but I was able to do it drinking a martini made of citrus and woodruff, an edible plant growing in the Willows Inn Garden!  The martini (predictably named the Woodruff Martini) had a wonderfully earthy quality, with just a hint of sweetness from the citrus.  My hubby enjoyed the Willows Old Fashioned made with rye, maple and black walnut which was also quite unique and very flavorful.

Just as I took my last sip of my woodruff cocktail, a server approached us and escorted us into the Willows Inn dining room.  I cannot even begin to describe how excited I was.  I practically danced into my seat!  The dining room is very plain, with simple decor, but has a very homey and warm feel to it.  We were fortunate enough to get a seat right by the window, where we could still appreciate the last hour of sunlight and see the beautiful sunset.

As we waited for the other guests to be seated, we read through our "menu" for the evening.  The "menu" was a bound leather book, that not only included our a list of dishes for the evening, but also gave information about the sourcing of all of the seafood and meat that we would be enjoying over the course of the evening.  Each individual fisherman was thanked for their role in making the seafood arrive on our plates.  How amazing is that?

Before I could read through all of this "menu", the dishes started to arrive.  And from this point forward, until 9:00pm, the dishes kept coming, and coming, and coming.  Unlike other multi-course meals that we have attended, where there were long waits between some courses and the meal seemed to drag on at times, there was never a dull moment during dinner at the Willows Inn.  The dishes rolled out of the kitchen at a consistent pace, with no longer than 5 minutes between any of the 15+ courses.  Service throughout the evening was impeccable, and it was such a treat to have many of our courses served by the chefs themselves, who were happy to chat with us and answer questions about ingredients.

The meal was centered around 5 main dishes, between which were sandwiched multiple "snacks".   The menu is centered around local produce and regional plants, many of which we saw on our tour earlier in the day.  Many of the snacks contained no protein at all.  On this particular menu, there were actually no meat or poultry dishes, although we were told that they do sometimes offer a meat dish as one of the mains.  For a pescatarian like me, this menu was just perfect!  The chefs are very accommodating to dietary preferences, and they will even cater to strict vegans.

In terms of drink, diners have the option of choosing wine or juice pairings with each of the five main courses if desired.  I was quite intrigued by the idea of juice pairings, as this was something I had never seen before.  I therefore chose to have the juice pairings, while my husband opted for the wine.  Others in the dining room ordered wine by the bottle or the glass.

Without further ado, here is the progression of dishes that we were treated to at the Willows Inn by Blaine Wetzel and his team of talented chefs.  Thank goodness they gave us a list of the dishes as a souvenir at the end of the meal so that I can remember them all!

Baked Sunflower Roots- This first course showcased was a great introduction to what Blaine Wetzel does best- showcasing ingredients in their natural form.  The chewy, earthy root came out in a smoking wooden box.

Crispy Crepe with Salmon Roe-  This second snack was a veritable party of textures- crispiness from the crepe, creaminess from the cream filling, and a "pop" as the salmon row explode in your mouth.

Toasted Kale with Truffle and Rye- The third snack was an homage to one of my favorite winter vegetables.  The kale was crispy and light, while the dabs of rye packed some serious truffle flavor.

Pickled Oysters- My husband is the oyster expert in the relationship (he has eaten many hundreds more than I), and he was impressed by how big and juicy these were (caught just down the road of course) and the splendid saltiness of the brine.

Weathervane Scallops- Presentation here really stole the show.  Absolutely stunning.

Grilled Shiitake- In this last snack before our first main, chef Wetzel yet again demonstrated his fearlessness in letting the natural flavors of the ingredient do the talking. Why mess with a great thing?  And what a perfect little bite it was.

Organic Ancient Grains Bound in Watercress with Geoduck Clams- This was my first exposure to geoduck and I am so glad it was in the hands of such a great chef.  The little slivers of geoduck were dispersed among ancient grains bathed in stunningly green watercress.
     Paired with it was an equally beautiful Cucumber juice for me, and for my husband, a 2008 aMaurice Chardonnay from Walla Walla Valley Washington.

Smoked Salmon- I could have spent an entire blog talking about how AMAZING this smoked salmon was. But it would be impossible to comprehend just how superb it is without tasting it yourself.  And the best part of it all was that, when my husband jokingly asked our server if there was any leftover in the kitchen for seconds, we were given a SECOND PIECE!  I was never so excited in my entire life.
     Yes, it is THAT good.  This in itself is a reason to visit the Willows Inn.  Just go and try it.  Soon.

Wild onions with Caramelized Mussels and Toasted Bread- These pan-seared mussels were delectable, and I have never in my life had such sweet scallions.  Simplicity at its finest.
       The Gooseberry juice pairing was my favorite of all the juices, and the sweetness married beautifully with the dish.  The same was true for the 2011 Longshadows Poet's Leap Riesling from Columbia Valley, WA.

Hearth Bread with Pan Drippings- This was my husband's dream- delicious bread served with the pan dripping of a roast chicken.  He really, really tried to resist the urge to eat the whole basket but in the end he failed.  And he loved every last morsel.

Stewed Lummi Island Stinging Nettles with Fresh Cheese and Salmonberry Shoots- This was a real treat for a locavore like me.  Vibrant green nettles, fresh cheese made by Wetzel's team and salmonberry shoots picked behing the Inn- Lummi Island on a plate.
     The juice pairing was a Pine juice (both the odor and the taste were magnificent) and my husband enjoyed a 2011 Buty Semillon Sauvignon from Columbia Valley, WA.

Crispy Halibut Skins- Such a playful snack!  The skin had a very unique, light-as-air texture and the little "barnacles" sitting on top were so fun!

Sablefish with Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Crushed Herbs- I was so excited to see my very favorite fish on the menu, and chef Wetzel's version was everything I could have hoped for.  The fish was cooked beautifully and the rich mushrooms overtop held up perfectly to the fish's natural "butteriness".
    The punchiness of the Crabapple juice pairing was also able to stand up to the fish without overpowering it, and the wine pairing was a poignant 2010 Boedecker Cellars "Athena" Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, WA.

Goats Milk and Grasses- This was the perfect bite to cleanse our palates before the dessert.  Who knew that grass could have such wonderful flavor?  Blaine Wetzel knows obviously knows!!!

Sweet Potatoes with Toasted Nuts- My one and only regret of the evening was forgetting to take a picture of this beautifully plated dessert, which I can confidently say was the best dessert I have ever eaten.  Seeing and eating this dessert gives you yet another reason to visit chef Wetzel.
   It was paired with a vibrant orange Carrot juice (made only of local, sweet carrots) which worked beautifully with the sweet potato in the dessert.  My husband ended with the only non-local wine of the evening, a sweet 2010 Dr. Loosen Riesling from Germany.

Flax Bites- And last but not least, a last little bite from the kitchen.  A just-sweet-enough homemade caramel with little flecks of flax.  A perfect end to a perfect meal.

As you can likely guess after reading this post, I had an absolutely extraordinary weekend on Lummi Island at the Willows Inn.  I would even go so far as to call it perfect.  Perfect company, perfect setting and perfect food.  What more could I ask for?

Oh, and did I mention the perfect sunset?

Taproot Café and Pub on Urbanspoon

The Willows Inn on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. So envious! You got a second piece of that incredible salmon?! :)