Our trip began with a two-hour car ride north from Seattle. To the west, we passed the Olympic Mountains, their peaks scribbly against the horizon, and the network of sister waterways (including Puget Sound) that comprise the Salish Sea. The Cascade Range stood watchful to the east. Near Bellingham, 25 miles short of the Canadian Border, my two friends and I arrived at Gooseberry Point and the terminal for the Whatcom Chief ferry. The dock’s steel girders were painted a surprisingly soothing blue that popped against the churning sky, its color standing out like a robin’s eggs nestled among twigs.
By the time we had waited a half-hour for the catamaran (which can hold around 20 vehicles), and then sailed the short seven-minutes to Lummi Island (nine square miles, with an estimated population of 944), we were ready for a substantial lunch.
The Willows Inn — our journey's end — obliged. From the restaurant's short midday menu, we ordered a freeform tartare of albacore tuna, salmon, and rockfish, all piled into a bowl with some halved cherry tomatoes and finished with grated horseradish and minced chives. Each type of fish was as fresh as the crisp oceanic air we were gulping in. We spooned up pureed summer squash soup scented with basil, and we polished off a hunk of gently smoked salmon tucked among lettuces, pickled fennel, and a pilaf of buckwheat groats and other gratifyingly chewy grains.
This was exactly the kind of meal we were craving, though it wasn't the reason we had traveled all this way. We had come to the Willows Inn for dinner — for the tasting-menu extravagance of nearly two dozen dishes orchestrated nightly by chef Blaine Wetzel. A native of Washington state, Wetzel was only 25 years old when took over the inn's restaurant in August 2010, a job he accepted sight unseen after two years working for Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen. The kitchen was a bit battered when Wetzel arrived (the inn, a working hotel, has been in operation since 1910). But perhaps thanks to his time with Redzepi, steeped in a philosophy of foraging and cherishing the land, Wetzel recognized the extraordinary, innate bounty of the island.
Within months of his arrival, Wetzel had turned dinner at the Willows Inn into a fine-dining astonishment — on a remote island at the farthest fringe of continental America. He made luxuries out of the fish, meats, and produce of Lummi and surrounding islands, temperate swathes of land blessed with extraordinarily hospitable growing conditions. A farm on the island, Loganita, had already been working closely with the inn, and Wetzel and farm manager Mary von Krusenstiern soon began experimenting with unusual varieties of vegetables and fruits — squash, strawberries, potatoes, herbs — to see what else might flourish in the island's rich soil. (Short answer: plenty.) They've continued to tinker with heirloom seeds every season. At this time of year, when the harvests are generous and the fishermen's nets steadily come in full, around 80 percent of the food Wetzel serves will come from the 9-square-mile island.
Wetzel's tasting menus have earned him two James Beard Foundation awards (Rising Star and Best Chef: Northwest) and inspired a cookbook that was released last fall. In the past year, though, Wetzel has expanded his reach beyond just the restaurant, taking over operations of the entire inn. The most striking change, food-wise, is that breakfast and lunch have become special meals in their own rights. They aren't extravagant whimsies of technique and imagination like dinner, but they are nevertheless occasions where sublime ingredients, like the ones my friends and I relished we when arrived, tell a plainspoken, eloquent narrative of eating on the island.
After that lunch, I understood why friends who'd visited the Willows Inn recently — including Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt — had nudged me to plan to spend the night as part of my visit. The staff have been refurbishing and expanding accommodations over the last couple of years; they maintain eight rooms in the inn itself, and eight more off-site cabins and apartments within walking distance of the main building. You can certainly try to snag a dinner reservation alone (though overnight guests have first dibs on the tables in the 26-seat dining room), or you could drop by for a casual lunch on an afternoon excursion to the island. But I will pass along the same recommendation given to me: If you can swing it, stay the night. Plenty of fancy hotels and picturesque inns across the country serve lovely meals throughout the day, but I'd wager that none of them serves meals with a headier or more delicious sense of place than the Willows Inn.
Each night for dinner, all the guests sit down at the same time — when I was there, dinner began around 6 p.m. We kicked off the evening outside on the patio, where the fading sunlight bled gold onto the surrounding trees and greenery. Servers produced glasses of local dry cider and then a steady procession of small bites. First came flaxen wedges of raw chanterelle mushrooms dusted with fine shavings of smoked smelt and dried cherry tomatoes; Wetzel thinks of these as the restaurant's bar snacks.
A small bowl of just-picked huckleberries appeared; so did partially shelled side-stripe shrimp atop a craggy piece of brick. The creatures had still been alive minutes before their arrival. Impossibly thin kale chips, dotted with black truffle emulsion and toasted specks of rye bread, undulated in the air like slithery dragons. Steelhead trout roe's pop and salinity rippled through crème fraiche wrapped in a crackling crepe wrapper. Slivers of sea cucumber were seared until their innate sliminess transformed into something pleasantly chewy. Soft flakes of smoked black cod hid in the center of a warm doughnut, a preparation that drew especially contented noises from the assembled crowd.
When we moved inside the restaurant and settled down at a proper wooden table for the evening, we were greeted with a bowl of wild plums, sliced into an ombre ribbon of yellow, red, and purple, and an arrangement of crunchy crudités: Asian pear, tomatillo, celtuce, and two types of cucumber, all over ice.
Wetzel's parade of snacks serve as his opening salvo: More than just intellectual exercises or appetite stimulants, he wants these noshes to ground his diners in the place and the moment. Servers have their dish intros down just right — you'll know the huckleberries were foraged that morning, and that the fishermen delivered the shrimp to the kitchen door that day — and mercifully stop short of delivering full lectures.
Wetzel has given himself entirely over to this sliver of the world. His food tastes of dedication, of commitment, of submission.
This, the beginning of the meal, is the part of dinner that most palpably demonstrates Wetzel's time spent with Redzepi and Noma. There's his obvious reverence for the land and sea, but also an austerity, a studied starkness, to many of the flavors. (Though at Noma, the shrimp would have been served over ice, still wriggling.) Chefs like Redzepi and Wetzel want their food to taste close and connected to the source; they strive to convey the earth's utter edibility.But for restaurants so place-driven, the difference in their locations makes for entirely different eating experiences. Scandinavia is one the planet's harsher climates; part of the pleasure of the Noma experience, particularly beyond the summer months, lies in the surprise of discovery, learning as a diner what's actually available and enjoyable to eat. Lummi Island, on the other hand, is a lush and mild sanctuary. The temperatures hover somewhere between the 50s and 70s for more than half the year, and the inn closes during chilly January and February. As our meal unfolded, that initial austerity gave way to a warmth in the cooking style that felt distinctly American.
For all its geographic isolation, trending ideas do still reach Lummi's shores. Wetzel presented a take on the now-ubiquitous beet and dairy salad, salt-roasting the beets, cutting them into thick batons, rolling them through the seeds of many herbs (fennel, lovage, sorrel, and dill, among others), and then adding a dollop of yogurt given a juniper nip from locally distilled gin. House-infused vermouth, part of the beverage pairing, amplified the dish's whirl of botanical flavors.
The evening's most sculptural splendor was a signature dish that Wetzel calls the "herb tostada." It's a mustard leaf fried in a batter of mustard flour and sauerkraut and mustard green juices, spread with a puree of oysters and parsley, and then arranged with herbs and edible flowers. As strange and pungent as all that sounds, it comes together spectacularly — a riff on oysters Rockefeller from a parallel universe. A later course brought a more ominous kind of beauty: Cod collars were grilled between lightly fermented black currant leaves, imparting a tang that softly mimicked miso. The cod fins had been left attached; sticking out from under the leaves, they resembled the wings of fallen ravens.
As strange and pungent as all that sounds, it comes together spectacularly, a riff on oysters Rockefeller from a parallel universe.
The next two courses, in contrast, brought serious comfort. Wetzel and his crew grow and mill their own wheat for baking bread daily (of course). Thick slices cut from dark, rye-flecked loaves arrived alongside shallow bowls filled with rich, salty pan drippings from roasted chickens. Up to this point in the meal, barely any grains had made an appearance, and we lunged for the bread now with animal ferocity. While we were licking up the crumbs, a server brought a platter bearing lamb shoulders that we had watched Wetzel grilling earlier in the day. He had marinated the meat with a paste that included fermented and dried green garlic, dried chive blossoms, fermented chanterelle juice, and butter, before delivering them to the grill where they were turned and basted for five hours. We ended up attacking the meat with our hands as well.
Dinner lasted over four hours, and during that time a few minor misses did cross the table: some gritty smoked mussels, a course of cubed raw summer squash with a smooth nasturtium sauce that came off as overly astringent, and a crumbly fudge made of pumpkin seeds that ended the meal. The dessert that preceded the fudge — roasted green honey figs with toasted fig leaf ice cream, the fruit's echoing flavors deep and melodic — would have made for a more than poetic finale.
None of the blips ultimately blemished the meal; if anything, by their contrast they helped emphasize the high standard of the kitchen's extraordinary precision. Even in a time when American fine-dining chefs, more than ever before, prize the notion of expressing the terroir of the regions where they cook, Wetzel pulls off the sense-of-place tour de force with a profundity that to me is unmatched at any other restaurant in the country, including the upscale blockbusters in the famously abundant Bay Area. It isn't just Willow's rusticity, with its knotty woods and flickering fireplace, or the postcard sunset illuminating the misty islands in the distance. It's that Wetzel has given himself entirely over to this sliver of the world. His food tastes of dedication — of commitment, of submission — to this place and this time.
Imagine the standard hotel breakfast — eggs, fruit, lox, pancakes — but prepared with such freshness and care that it borders on hallucinatory, and you have a picture of the spread that greeted us in the same dining room the next morning. This meal, in its own framework, transported me as much as dinner.
Every table received the same array. It began when a sunny server whizzed by with coffee and plum juice — made from the same wild plums we had been served as snacks the evening before. Fruit came from nearby orchards and fields: white raspberries, doughnut peaches pitted and halved, tart black huckleberries, magnificent tiny wild strawberries that would cost a fortune in Europe. Hazelnut butter enriched a bowl of yogurt. A jumble of kale had been wilted and charred (I was so grateful it wasn't raw). Another server dropped off soft-boiled eggs with yolks the color of orange marmalade, while volunteering that the kitchen would be happy to cook additional eggs any other way we might prefer them. A stack of warm buckwheat crepes, floppy and irresistible, arrived last.
"How do we eat all this?" I overheard a guest ask one of the chefs, Siiri Sampson, as she gestured at the spread.
"Any way you want!" Sampson replied.
"Great, so I guess we just sort of paint with it," said the guest.
That comment stayed with me as my friends and I drove back toward the ferry that would return us to the mainland, bearing us home sleepy and sated. That's how Wetzel and his team approach all the ridiculous bounty of this island: They paint with it. Talking about restaurant cooking and art in the same breath can be a slippery practice. Mostly I subscribe to the notion that restaurant cooking, however lofty, is a craft. But it's hard to take in this culinary landscape — admire the colors, experience the textures, note the impermanence of nature and how, in its constant flux, a meal here will never quite be repeated the same way — and reject the idea that Wetzel is working with his chosen artistic medium. In mastering his subject at Willows Inn, he's created the truest definition of a destination restaurant in America.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
ABOUT THE WILLOWS INN
2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island, (360) 758-2620, willows-inn.com
Dinner is $195 per person (excluding tax and gratuity). Optional wine pairing costs $90; corkage fee is $35.
Lunch is served from noon to 4 p.m. The midday menu, including six or so items, changes frequently; most dishes are priced between $15 and $25.
Breakfast is served between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. and costs $25 per person.