A chef in the wild. Photo by Charity Burggraaf
Everybody knows about The Willows Inn, and no one does. Or that’s at least what it feels like sometimes. Written up in nearly every national food and travel magazine, not to mention all the regional coverage it’s gotten, you’d think it was old news. Yet, surprisingly—or maybe not, given its tucked-away location on tiny Lummi Island—I often get a puzzled look when I ask Seattleites about it. After all, I’ve been here four years and have only this month made it out there for an overnight stay and dinner.
Given that chef Blaine Wetzel just took home the 2014 Best Rising Star Chef honor from the James Beard Awards, though, it’s likely that even more people will flood the dining room in the coming years, from both nearby and afar. (The ferry to get there is just outside of Bellingham and carries only about 20 cars at a time.)
I had no intention of writing this story before visiting the Inn. Rather, it’s a birthday gift (from June, but we could only get a spot in August), and I’ve been relishing the date all summer. I knew Wetzel, from Olympia, had made a name for himself by working at the world-famous and revered Noma in Denmark under chef René Redzepi. I knew he’d come back to the Pacific Northwest and turned The Willows Inn into a utopian culinary retreat—a place where the ingredients for his rarefied dinners are sourced from the inn’s own farm, the fish are caught right off the coast by reef-net fishermen, and the lamb is raised from island farmers; where everything from the butter to the broths infused with local herbs is made on the premises. I’d also talked at length with journalist Joe Ray, who spent a year living on Lummi collaborating on a cookbook with Wetzel, forthcoming from Running Press.
Yet none of this prepared me for the experience at The Willows Inn. Hours before the 6:30 dinner seating, we’re lounging on the deck of one of the Inn’s separate cottages—about a mile down the road, situated so close to the great, open expanse of the Sound that we watch a young seal gliding its slick body through the sea while an otter lumbers onto shore 20 feet from us. I begin to understand the fuss Ray made over his year living here. I spot a large Dungness crab off the pier and watch a terrifyingly big jellyfish undulate near the rocky beach, haphazardly strewn with beautiful, gray-washed driftwood. The sky is clear and the sun still warm. I feel a peace I haven’t in a long time.
When we drive the short distance to the Inn for dinner, I’m both blissful and incredibly eager. We’re led into a bar area, though one that feels more like a handsome beach house’s living room, and seated next to another couple. We order drinks. Then a bowl of rocks—in which are nestled two deeply cupped shigoku oysters—is whisked before us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the oyster I slurp down is the coldest, freshest, most delicately briny one I’ve ever eaten. It sets the tone for the rest of the meal.
Delicate Shigoku oysters at Willows Inn.
Photo by Charity Burggraaf
The couple next to us is beaming, and instantly engages us in conversation. There’s a palpable sense of excitement throughout the sitting areas and the dining room, with its unencumbered views of the Sound—a childlike excitement, even, from people who, like me, have so obviously been looking forward to coming here for some time and would have to sit on their hands to contain it. It makes for easy conversation and a laid-back vibe despite the “seriousness” of the food we know we’re about to indulge in.
Ten minutes later we’re led to our table, and I open a small, chapbook-like, leather-bound menu, with pencil drawings of fish, mushrooms, and other edibles throughout it. Though the first item listed is plum skins, a server tells us we’ll instead be eating an off-menu “snack” (we get several of these surprise items throughout the multicourse meal.) A couple beats later, a chef—yes, the chefs here also serve some of the dishes!—sets a small wooden box in front of each of us. Before lifting the lids, from which wafts of light smoke will rise, he tells us that inside are caramelized mussels, smoked for four hours. It sounds utterly precious, I know. But when you bite into a mussel that’s been given this much care, it gives you pause and makes you aware of the essence of what you are eating.
I had originally decided not to do the wine pairing ($85 on top of the $165 per person prix fixe), but, caught up in the reverie of the evening, I change my mind. It’s a smart choice, because even wine pairings here are done differently. Instead of getting a glass pour per entrée, the server brings an entire bottle and allows you to fill your glass at your leisure through a couple of dishes until it’s replaced with another bottle. There’s also a lovely cider—Eagle Mount from Port Townsend—served at the beginning of the dinner.
The meal is mostly one hit after another, served beautifully; it reminds me of a Japanese kaiseki meal, a many-coursed pageantry of seasonal delicacies. Plum skins in a fragrant broth of young grapes and thyme are startling in their simple perfection. Salt-roasted beets cooked in a bread dough with dill, lavender, and parsley seeds along side a gin-infused yogurt taste like no other beet preparation I’ve ever had; the aged venison leg topped with grated cured egg yolk and heart and served with a housemade rye bread and purslane tastes like some kind of gourmet version of a BLT. When one young, earnest chef serves it to us, we jokingly ask him which leg it is, the left or the right, to which he answers “I’m not sure.” We tell him we’re kidding. When he leaves, we chuckle, but also marvel at how young these chefs are—Wetzel included, of course—yet how incredibly talented.
Potatoes cooked entirely on the grill get seasoned with smelt rather than salt and are served with a watercress purée; geoduck comes in a mussel broth with toasted breadcrumbs; and a warm piece of smoked salmon is sweet and caramelized and meant to be eaten with your fingers, which is why they serve it with a lightly steamed napkin. Toward the end of the meal, a basket of fresh-baked bread is timed perfectly and served with hot stones to keep it warm and a side of chicken drippings to dip it in. Again, the details . . .
After the night winds down, I leap at a chance to chat with Wetzel. He is young, handsome, and soft-spoken. When I ask him about his prestigious James Beard award, he sidesteps the question, joking about how it cost him a fortune to go to New York to accept it. When the subject of celebrity chefs comes up, his humor comes through again. “That’s what I wanted to be,” he says, pointing to himself. "But that obviously isn’t happening.” Lucky for him, I think. Having worked on books by many of those “famous” chefs, I think Wetzel is the better for his humility. He’s not trying to win us over; instead, he’s genuinely interested in what we think of certain dishes, and you can sense the wheels spinning in his head at our various assessments. Not that Wetzel is some naive youngster. When I mention Bon Appetit ’s top 50 restaurants in the country, he asks, wide-eyed, “Are we in it?” When I tell him no, his indignation is obvious, if still somehow charming: “What?” he exclaims. “We were last year.”
The next morning we tour the Inn's farm, and see many ingredients from our plates the evening before: lovage, blackberries, woodruff, tiny cherry tomatoes with the leaves taken off to concentrate the flavor. I bite into a piece of shiso and let its zingy flavor infuse my mouth, transporting me back to dinner and reminding me how much work Wetzel puts into making sure his food tastes like the most fundamental part of what makes it what it is—be it the leaf of an herb or the flesh of a fish.
If that seems counterintuitive—why would you need to “work” to make something taste like itself?—it’s not. Rather, it’s a gentle coaxing, an innate understanding of what other ingredients or preparations can make something shine. And here on Lummi, with its 900 residents and quiet natural splendor, there’s little distraction from that single-minded purpose. Wetzel was made for this place and vice versa—the chemistry as undeniable as that which exists on his plates. The Willows Inn 2579 W. Shore Dr., Lummi Island, 360-758-2620, willows-inn.com. Opens 6:30 p.m. four or five nights weekly.