Vacations are time for dreaming. While vacationing in a particularly idyllic spot, I like to imagine myself as a local. “See that house way up on the bluff? Wouldn’t that be a beautiful place to live?” “Or what about this cabin on the waterfront? I would take a beach walk here every morning.” Of course vacation makes everything romantic, and these wistful reveries ignore the reality of life, but isn’t it fun to dream?
The marina and reef net salmon fishing area; rocks we collected on the beach.
Lummi Island, Washington is one of these places that brings your mind to wander. A five minute ride on a tiny county-owned ferry takes you away from Bellingham to a rural island. From the east side of the island are breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, and the west side has views of the sun setting behind the rest of the San Juan archipelago. It’s the perfect stage for meditation and daydreaming. And at only two hours from Seattle, it’s possibly the most accessible of the San Juan islands, making it an ideal location for a quick getaway.
We did just that last week, taking advantage of the weekday dinner package offered from Labor Day to Memorial Day at the Willows Inn. A discounted rate offers a gourmet breakfast and multi-course dinner with an overnight stay. And this was a dinner we were particularly curious about.
The buzz about the dining room started this summer, just before we headed out on our trip to Copenhagen and dinner at Noma. Noma was voted best restaurant in the world last spring, and everyone was atwitter with the news that a sous chef from such an extraordinary restaurant would come to little Lummi Island. Blaine Wetzel arrived fresh from an 18 month stint working with Noma’s famed chef René Redzepi to head up the kitchen at the Willows Inn. Chef Redzepi himself introduced 24-year old Blaine as an “unusual and rare talent” at a Seattle reception we attended last fall.
Blaine was drawn to Lummi by inn proprietor Wiley Starks, who has established a reputation for his commitment to the Slow Food movement and serving local, sustainable foods at his inn. Wiley himself is a commercial reef net fisherman, providing all of the salmon served at the restaurant. And he owns, operates, and lives on nearby Nettles Farm, which provides fresh eggs and produce to the kitchen. Blaine has two full-time farmers at his disposal.
Slow roasted beef cheek with grilled onions.
We arrived three days before the kitchen was to close for a six-week remodel. Blaine excitedly told us that when they reopen in February, it will be a completely new experience, with a reinvented menu, updated dining room, and a modernized kitchen behind it all. Since his arrival in August, he has been getting to know the foods of the area, working within the existing format of the restaurant, and visualizing next steps.
So the five-course one-seating menu we enjoyed exists no longer and may be only a hint of what’s around the corner. While this is certainly no Noma, it is inventive food more than worth the short journey.
While everyone settled in at their tables, the kitchen sent out a couple small amuses, or “snacks” as they call them at Noma. My favorite was the toast with turkey liver pate, house made capers, and dill, but I also savored the potato chip with house made sauerkraut and smoked black cod.
A round loaf of whole wheat bread still hot from the Wood Stone oven arrived with a simple slab of butter. The bread was cut in wedges, exactly like the loaf served at Noma, but in a country bread basket from the inn.
In our first course, deliciously sweet Totten Inlet mussels were dotted on a plate with small rounds of potatoes and thick, vibrant green circles that turned out to be cucumbers. Fluffy horseradish granita made the flavors pop. Dots of green dill oil floated in a shallow broth, a visually engaging presentation. I only wish the lighting at the tables was brighter than a single candle, since much of the visual appeal was lost in the darkness. Hopefully lighting will improve in the remodel.
Then the decidedly not local Weathervane scallops arrived. In a row down the plate, with cooked cabbages washing over them and mussel foam sauce lapping on one side, this dish looked and tasted like the sea, and was one of my favorites of the night.
The third course looked a lot like the first (more green dots), but flavor-wise was reminiscent of a dish I loved at Noma: potatoes, lovage, and whey. Here, it was Nettles Farm potatoes with melted Havarti and buttermilk whey. Every table around us was talking about how much they liked the flavors.
Crème brulée with toasted walnuts and homemade marshmallows; reading by a cozy fire in the inn’s common room.
Blaine and his sous chef were in and out of the dining room throughout the evening, delivering dishes from the kitchen alongside the wait staff. This is trademark at Noma, where chefs, including Redzepi himself, visit tables. Blaine says it’s important for the chefs to connect with diners, and they’re the ones best able to answer questions about what’s on the plate.
He delivered our main course, which was a medallion of slow roasted Skagit River Ranch beef cheek with grilled and pickled onions. And just when we thought we were moving on to dessert, they brought out a bonus course of the tail braised and served with julienned kohlrabi.
Dessert, as read on the menu, was a puzzle to me: “crème brulée with toasted walnuts and homemade marshmallows.” Why would an inventive chef serve crème brulée, a dessert that’s so standard on American menus? And marshmallow doesn’t at all seem like something that should be paired with crème brulée. Instead of a ramekin, it arrived in a tall glass, more crème than brulée. And as soon as I took my first bite, I understood. This was Girl Scout camp in a glass: marshmallow, campfire, and even hints of chocolate. Delicious.
Overlooking the Rosario Strait at sunset.
We definitely plan to return, perhaps after they’ve had a few months to get into a rhythm after the kitchen reopens. Dinner will certainly be more magical when the earth tilts back and puts the sunset back into the dinner hour, since the dining room has a spectacular 180 degree view of the Rosario Strait.
And if we can’t make it in the spring, perhaps in the the summer, when they will continue the inn’s Sunday tradition of cooking up live spot prawns on the deck, served with margaritas and a sunset like none other.
The Willows Inn
Lummi Island, Washington