Willows Inn on Lummi Island

“Just juiced” cucumber juice with 2007 Villa Maria Riesling from the Marlborough region

Foragers by day, chef extraordinaires by night
25 year old protégé chef Blaine Wetzel, is catapulting Lummi Island into the foodie stratosphere with his mad culinary vision and execution at Willows Inn. 

Wetzel, former sous chef of Denmark’s Restaurant Noma (#1 in the world last year according to Pellegrino’s World’s 50 best restaurants), oversees this unassuming restaurant located in the charming Willows Inn B&B.  He takes the “farm to table” concept literally as fresh, coastal, and tribal zen are prevailing themes of this destination restaurant.

The restaurant at Willows Inn is one of those places where you sit down, prepare your palate and just let go.  Aside from choosing whether you want the wine or the house-made juice pairings with your meal, all you need to do let the precocious chef take you on a 10 course culinary journey:  5 “bite-sized” snacks and 5 main courses.

Ever since the New York Times deemed the restaurant as one of the “41 places [in the world] worth a plane ride” (right up there with Santiago, Chile and Iceland) and Wetzel was named a James Beard semi-finalist for best rising star chef, this peaceful and mostly rural island has seen an influx of food-seeking visitors from the mainland.

Speaking of mainland, I can see why Lummi Island (named after the Lummi Indian Nation living nearby) is touted as the most accessible San Juan Island.  We make the two-hour drive from Seattle to Bellingham and board the smallest ferry I have ever seen.(a maximum of 22 cars, to be precise).  During a front row seat on the eight minute ferry ride, I look out towards the island and the glistening water and feel all of the worries of the work week drift back onto the mainland.

Front row seat for the ferry ride

The restaurant whispers understated elegance the moment you enter through the door.  There is no grand overstated performance (the uncomfortable theater-like spectacle at Herb Farm announcing the cast and crew in their line-up comes to mind).  Instead, you are warmly greeted with a 180- degree surreal sunset view of Rosario Strait and the San Juan Islands.

Enjoying the sunset from the restaurant

Sunset at Willows Inn restaurant

As I take in the view, I wonder to myself :  Aside from the natural beauty of the island, what would possess an up and coming talented chef like Wetzel to land on an island with a population of ~900 instead of a fancy kitchen in Paris or New York?  Here’s what I figure:

  • Freedom: Willows Inn and Nettles Farm owner Riley Starks and Wetzel  both share the same passion for sourcing all of their ingredients locally, sustainably and organically.  In fact, Starks takes cues from Wetzel on crop selection as part of their ongoing commitment to source the majority of  produce from the island.  The farm is located five minutes away from the restaurant.  These two see eye-to-eye so I suspect the recent kitchen remodel in February may have aligned with Wetzel’s requirements and vision.  Now, patrons can comfortably walk around the perimeter of the kitchen and watch the chefs in action.

  • Accessibility: Olympia-raised Wetzel enjoys being closer to his family and hometown, but the youthful chef and his staff also enjoy working  just a few miles away from the produce and seafood they use to create their  culinary sensations.  Not only is Wetzel a working chef, but he and his staff can be found foraging all of the beach plants, wild herbs and fresh spring shoots in the hills and valleys of Lummi Island when they are not in the kitchen.

As soon as we are seated, food and a starter drink of prosecco start arrive at our table.  The staff openly encourage us to snoop around the kitchen that is in the next room. 

The first taste mysteriously arrives at our table in a cedar box, and as the staff removes the lid, a poof of dry smokey heat penetrates my face like one’s initial entrance into a sauna.  I take a whiff and am immediately reminded of a comforting campfire on a brisk Pacific Northwest night. 

Once I recover from my hypnotic nostalgic state, I see two bite size pieces of tenderly-smoked plump sockeye laying atop a smooth slice of cedar and surrounded by miniature wood chips.  

I take the advice of the staff and ravenously eat the salmon by hand.  Sweet, smoky, tender and euphoric are the words that come to mind.  I down the drink with a cucumber juice, while the wine pairers savor a 2007 Villa Maria Riesling from the Marlborough region.

Bentwood cedar box cookery – looks like a spin out of the traditional indigenous way of cooking.

Although the next few “bites” cannot match the shock factor of consuming food out of a cedar box, the second “snack” of the evening – Radish on a rock -comes close.  The distinct texture combo of the three C’s -crunchy (rye crumbs), crispy (radish), and creamy (herb-like angelica emulsion) –converge  to produce an earthy and refreshing result.

Radish on a rock

Black cod on a crisp chip.  Pow. The bite is exhilarating.  Wispy dill gently strewn across a mild, buttery white fish with a salty fried foundation.  Genius.

Potato chip prettied up with cod and dill

Just when I think I have reached the food presentation pinnacle, Penn cove oysters from neighboring Whidbey Island lightly drizzled with pickled sauerkraut juice and majestically resting on a frozen rock bed come into focus. No joke.  The rocks are combined with water and frozen for five hours so the oysters are pristinely chilled at the optimal temperature when they arrive at the table.

Oysters on frozen rock bed

Tip:  Try as hard as you can not to get full on the bread.  Rookie mistake, you think, but the sweet crusty bread baked on premise – served warm on hot beach rocks – is hard to resist.
The five starter bites are followed by the five course dishes, the latter matching the understated elegance of the preceding starters. 

On the roster, we have a compilation of stinging nettles with fiddlehead ferns, pine and fresh cheese followed by Nettle Farm potatoes served with Havarti, buttermilk whey and drizzled with dill oil.  Each bite of salad makes spring come alive in my mouth:  The cheese is wet and damp, while the smell of pine equivocates to the  clean Pacific NW air.  The ferns represent all of the vegetation that is creeping up above the earth.

Nature in a bowl

Seafood is clearly the persistent theme of the evening as we transition back to weathervane scallops with Willows Inn garden grown cabbage and kale, topped off with a brothy mussel sauce.  The Lummi Island tribe-sanctioned fishery catch the halibut in the Haro Strait which is in view sight of the restaurant. 

Mr. Fishy is prepared sous vide style at 132 degrees to lock in flavor and guarantee a tender texture.  Sous Vide is a rising cooking technique trend in the restaurant world as it is known for producing enhanced flavor and optimal texture results that are easy to repeat.

Although presentation is exquisite and clearly well thought out, all the dishes taste simply prepared.  You can taste the essence of every herb – chives, spring shoots, rosemary, fresh dill- and you are left with a clean after taste.  No over saucing and overworking of dishes here.

The last course  is optimal for people who appreciate a cool and fruity alcoholic dessert to end a meal – Thinly shaved bosc pears with walnuts, crystallized sugar candied lemon verbena and frozen mead.  Think slushy granita meets the farmers market and the liquor store.  Mead is a honey wine produced by fermenting a solution of honey and water.

As the chef makes his rounds to each table, my husband and I conclude it is the best 3 hours and $329 we have spent in a long time.  I want to return to this culinary oasis at least once a month.
Address: 2579 West Shore Drive;  Lummi Island, WA 98262
Price Range ($-$$$$): $$$$
Reservations: Yes

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3 Responses to “Willows Inn on Lummi Island”

  1. kristin costello
    May 23, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    after reading your review, i am pretty much fascinated by this place. now on my list of things to do . . . thanks jen!

  2. Jen
    May 25, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    I am so glad to hear it, Kristin! You will not be disappointed.

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