Lummis Island is in Whatcom County where I grew up. It is not an easy place to get to, only accessible by boat or ferry. I've been out there a few times, mostly when my friend Tracy lived there. I also went to her wedding which was held at the Willows Inn before it became the destination for foodies that it has become today.
The Whatcom Chief ferry was built in 1962 and can take up to 20 vehicles and 100 people. It departs from Gooseberry Point which was one of my favorite places to go as a child with my parents. There was a fish & chip restaurant there, the beach was there, and it had that funny name "Gooseberry".
We got to the point with plenty of time and good thing as we missed the first ferry we were in line for. No worries, the next one is in 20 minutes. We were first in line.
We drove around the island and arrived at The Willows Inn. Fantastic view.
There is one dinner service for everyone at the restaurant, 7 pm. Many of the diners were also spending the night at the Inn. We were staying with our friends who live about 10 minutes away from the ferry dock on the mainland. They were also out dinner companions. Lyle had requested the Chef's table and our request was granted. We sat off to the side of the kitchen with a clear view of all that went on inside.
The chef, Blaine Wetzel, is 24. When we looked into the kitchen I couldn't tell which one he was. Everyone there seemed young, fresh and passionate about the cooking they were doing. He trained at a restaurant called Noma in Copenhagen which has been called THE BEST restaurant in the world. Now he is off in this strange little corner of the world on an island.
When the chef came out and greeted us he asked if there was any reason we had specifically requested the Chef's Table. I answered, "We're nosy!" When we made our reservation they asked where we were coming from and the chef said to us, "So you're visiting from Los Angeles?" Well, yes and no. I was born and raised in Bellingham but no loner live there, Lyle has lived in Bellingham before as well, and then Richard and Christine live in Ferndale which is just 5 miles away. He was impressed. "We don't get a lot of locals coming out for dinner. We're seem to be more of a destination for foodies." Indeed, many of the diners were staying at the Inn that night. The restaurant has been lauded as one of the ten restaurants worth flying in for.
At each of our place settings was a menu that listed our five course meal. But first we would be treated to a series of snacks. Just some little treats from the kitchen to all the guests. Six different snacks to get your palette warmed up.
Unbelievably tasty. One bite. One square inch bite of perfection. It arrived inside a cedar box, with smoking cedar chips inside, and when you removed the lid, smoke wafted up and out.
This is the apparatus they used to pipe the smoke into the box moments before they shut it to bring to your table.
Again, just one bite (yes, my mouth is big enough to fit that in), but such a perfect blend of flavors and textures.
(I confess, I was hungry and ate a couple things before I remembered to take the photo.)
When this one arrived, the waiter said, "And don't be afraid of the dirt. It's all organic and edible." And we laughed as he walked away and then I said, "Uh, there's actually really dirt in there." We all leaned in and said, "Hmmmmm....." So I licked my finger pressed it into the dirt and put it into my mouth. "It's not really dirt," and then everyone followed suit. And we kept touching and eating this "dirt" trying to figure out what the heck it was. Chocolate? No. For some odd reason my brain kept saying chocolate to me. Finally we asked one of our servers who had to go into the kitchen to get the right answer. "Toasted hazelnuts in malt," she came back and told us. A-ha, the malt is something I only associate with malted milk balls covered in chocolate. That's why my brain went there. Very creative dirt indeed.
Tonight's Ingredients: All beach plants, wild herbs and fresh shoots were foraged on Lummi Island. All vegetables, herbs, berries and flowers were harvested from our own Nettles Farm, a five minute walk from the Inn.And so I asked if they all walked down the street each day and hauled the harvest back. Our waiter told us that sometimes they do take the car to haul the big things, but that more often they take bikes with baskets on them.
The menu continues:
The Salmon is Reefnet caught Sockeye from our own Reefnet gears in Legoe Bay. Reefnetting is considered one of the most sustainable fishing methods in the world. The oysters are harvested at Penn Cove. Quinault and Lummi Tribal members havested the geoduck and butter clams around Puget Sound. The Dungeness crab and spot prawns are locally caught and held live in our seafood tank just outside our kitchen doors.To explain how Reefnet fishing works, here is an except from the Sunset Magazine article:
It's far from efficient, but it's the most eco-friendly way to fish - all bycatch is released by hand - and it yields far superior-tasting fish, devoid of the lactic acid released during commercial-fishing struggles... from the waters off Lummi's west coast - the only place in the world where the ancient art is now practiced.And here we go, oysters...
I confess, I am not an oyster person. But I made a deal with myself to try EVERYTHING (unless it had banana, I really hate bananas). So I took a breathe, held it, picked up my oyster, tipped it in and swallowed. Like I was being punished. I waited a few seconds to make sure I was going to hold it down then grabbed a piece of bread with butter and tried to seal off my throat. I can say with great certainty that I do not like oysters. Lyle was disappointed, he thought he was going to get two oysters. In the future, he will.
Crab I like. Crab I can get behind. This was tasty and all the seaweed and greens on the plate had been foraged from the beach just in front of the Inn.
And then we were out of the snacks and onto the menu...
Still not really certain how the horseradish (which is the white blown out dust looking powder on the right) was prepared. Lyle thinks maybe it was a horseradish ice that was shaved. It had a punch, but was not over powering. I asked the waiter where the geoduck clams were. Having grown up in the northwest I have seen geoduck clams. They are big and they are ugly. There was nothing big and ugly on this plate. He explained to me that he himself had seen the big ugly things in the kitchen and agreed with me, they are big and ugly. They had been sliced thin and placed on the plate and then he pointed out which ones they were.
That oyster parsley emulsion was another tricky flavor to sort out on out tongues. We had to ask for that one to be explained as well.
From the Willows Inn website:
One of Rosario Strait's most delectable residents, spot prawns. Found in cold fast moving waters about 300 feet deep, These shrimp aren't like others because they don't have a digestive vein, they are more like langostinos. In fact, we call them Puget Sound lobsters. We keep them live on-premises in our special tank, and sauté them head-on in olive oil as you watch. Spot prawns are best when cooked live and whole, and not steamed.
The one misfire in my mind. The rhubarb was very sharp in my mouth and the onions were the smooth flavor. I still ate it.
Duck is a weird meat. My favorite way to have it is duck confit (boiled in a vat of duck fat for three hours then grilled). It can be chewy and tough if you aren't very careful. They were very careful at the Willows Inn. It was a perfect texture. The outer fatty duck skin was crisped to perfection, but the meat inside was tender and juicy. The accompanying local berries and beets set the plate with a delicious sweetness to complement the savory duck.
We took another pause to stretch and admire the view and the peace and quiet.
At last, dessert, fresh, clean, light, delicious and the chamomile was unexpected. Others at the table were thankful to not finish on a heavy handed dessert. But uh, how do I say this? As much as I loved the taste of it, I wanted to waddle out of the dining room complaining that I could never come back because they give you too much food. Let's just call that a "personal preference" and leave it at that.
The sommelier was very good. We had the wine pairing with our meal and each one was a perfect compliment.
There was a lot of discussion on keeping things as fresh as possible from the ocean to your table that I sort of tuned out on. I like a little distance between the thought of my food being killed for my pleasure. Suffice it to say, it's damn fresh.
Lyle asked the chef to sign our menu, he looked it over and saw all the writing on it (how else can I remember all the things we had?) and he wrote, "Hey... not too many notes, I will lose all my secrets!" And so, to honor that thought, I've held a few things back. Everyone needs a few secrets.
One very satisfied group of diners.