Feeling the Vulnerability at Willows Inn

As much as I've been enjoying the chance to lead the commentary during live Sexy Feast dinners at area restaurants, I was equally looking forward to actually eating last Saturday's "sexy" meal at Willows Inn, which The New York Times recently named one of the world's "10 restaurants worth a plane ride." Blaine Wetzel recently took the helm as head of the kitchen at this Lummi Island inn, having previously worked as sous chef with Rene Redzepi at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that S. Pellegrino named the "best restaurant in the world" for 2010.

I consulted with Wetzel about the menu, which looked impressive. But in addition to what was listed, there would be a few surprises, such as a series of small morsels to start the meal. Included was one bite per person of smoked salmon, sitting in a wooden box.

So what does Willows Inn's smoked-salmon starter teach us about sex?

It's about vulnerability and intimacy.

Each little salmon piece, hit by a butane torch before serving, looks so small and vulnerable, trapped in that wooden box.

Vulnerability is a key component of intimacy, which is one of the three parts of the triangle of love, per Robert Sternberg's The Psychology of Love. The amount (if you can quantify this) of passion, commitment, and intimacy determines what type of love you and your partner share. Passion can come quickly, and commitment might be easy to pledge (though longer to prove), but intimacy takes time, partly based on building trust.

So while it might be strange for me to focus on a salmon bite out of the whole splendid meal at Willows Inn, there's good reason. You build trust and intimacy in small nibbles.

It strikes me that everyone's vulnerable in this dining experience. You've paid a price ($70 is the usual amount) for a multicourse dinner, and now you need to trust that you'll like it. The chef is vulnerable, not knowing how you'll react to the meal, especially with accolades that have increased expectations.

But Wetzel is earnest, creative, and talented.

Like an amuse bouche, his salmon bite is the foreplay, tickling your taste buds and hopefully earning your trust. Your meal, like a relationship, continues to grow as it unfolds. As dinner moves from oysters to cod to crab, then mussels to scallops to squash, and then beef cheeks to beef tongue, you let go and open yourself to the possibilities. And when dessert of "green apples and buttermilk and licorice" arrives at the table, you're ready for anything.

Many are now asking the question: Is Willows Inn really worth a plane ride? I would hesitate to bestow such a superlative on this place, or any place. After all, superlatives are so subjective. That said, Willows Inn is certainly a special place. Dinner is full of care and creativity, and is quite delicious.

I can declare that the restaurant, like intimacy, is well worth the journey.

(Note that the inn itself is in a unique island setting, with very simple rooms. Avoid the Rose Room if you value your sleep, as you'll feel like you're in the adjoining kitchen, with pots and pans and people noisy until the wee hours of the night--and then again early in the morning. That kitchen experience may be a little too, well, intimate.)

Would you like to experience a Sexy Feast in person? This column comes to life, as area restaurants will be hosting Sexy Feast dinners over the next few weeks. Picture a winemaker dinner, but instead of an explanation of wines, Jay Friedman will explain the sexual lessons learned from each dish in your multicourse meal. A fun and stimulating way to talk about romance and relationships, with tips and techniques to spice up your sex life! Check here for more information.

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