April was a tough month for us starting off with a bunch of high moments and then a crushing downer that our regular readers will be familiar with from posts over the past few weeks. So we resolved to change our mojo, clear our heads and then try and figure out what to do next. We bought a new car and then KMJ surprised me one afternoon with a hold on my calendar for the following weekend simply saying “Willows Inn”.
I had heard of Willows Inn, in fact one of the collection of smaller anniversary gifts I had given KMJ last August was an IOU for dinner there and Mark and I had been talking about a surprising the girls with dinner one weekend this summer. If you haven’t heard of the Willows Inn yet, you will soon. The NY Times included it on a list of Ten Restaurants worth a plane ride about a year ago which put the Inn up there with establishments in Europe and even Australia and no doubt also put it on the bucket list for hordes of foodies.
The Willows Inn is a small B&B located on Lummi Island and you get there via a really small 20 car ferry that you catch just north of Bellingham. Lummi is one of the smaller San Juan islands and upon arrival at the Inn you have a great view of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island with Clark, Matia, Patos and Sucia islands off in the distance and farther off the coast of British Columbia and the city of Richmond. As the story goes they put an ad out on Craigs List a few years ago looking for a chef to take over their kitchen and create a menu focused on local products. A local chef named Blaine Wetzel had just moved back to the area after spending some several years working in kitchens in the US and Europe, notably at Noma in Copenhagen which has been on the top of the 50 best Restaurants in the World list for the past couple years and he happened to see the ad and came on up to Lummi Island and the rest is history still in the making.
After a leisurely day of driving through the Skagit Valley, a couple of quick attempts to see the Tulips, lunch at Tweets and some obligatory baked goods from Bow Edison we finally found our way to the ferry and took the quick 10 minute ride across to Lummi Island. Like I said, the ferry is really small, in fact you can’t get out the car which for whatever reason is usually not great for me but it was a calm day and we crossed without any incident. After that a quick 10 minute drive and we arrived at the Inn which Is situated overlooking the beach and Puget Sound on the west side of the island.
We were staying the night which seemed like a good idea given the large meal and wine that we were anticipating having later that night. In fact most of the year it’s about the only way to get a dinner reservation, the restaurant only seats about 25 people and the majority of reservations are held for guests at the Inn. After a couple hours of walking on the beach and relaxing we changed and headed downstairs for a pre-dinner cocktail. There’s only one seating for dinner each night promptly at 6:30 so we didn’t want to be late.
We sat out on the deck enjoying the evening pre-sunset and had a couple of their signature cocktails to start things off. I had a Corpse Reviver which was gin, lillet, and a few other things; very refreshing actually with some nice citrus and KMJ had a Spotted Owl which included some reductions of pine needle and nettles and though it sounded a bit earthy was also on the citrusy side and pretty good.
At 6:30 pretty much on the nose we were invited to come take a seat in the small dining room and begin our journey. The menu was simply wrapped in rustic leather and offered up five courses which we knew would be intermingled with a series of “snacks” though we had no idea exactly how many we were in store for.
The Somiler came around and offered up a dry hard cider to start off the night and then the server, actually one of the Chefs who all do double duty both preparing and serving each course came around with our first snack of the night.
This simple wooden box was left for us to open and with a puff of alder smoke revealed a slow smoked sun-choke root that had been slowly cooked in the smoker along with some moss for about two days prior. It was of course smokey and chewy and quite good showing what you can do with bits that most people would probably just add to a compost pile.
Our next two snacks were a crispy fried crepe filled with cream fraiche, scallion and trout roe, crispy an creamy with a fresh snap of the roe and then a house made potato ship with smoked halibut (caught just up the road) and house made sauerkraut which was a great balance of texture and flavor with the smokey fish, salty chip and just the right amount of pickle on the kraut.
Our next snack was this beautifully plated oyster dish comprised of fresh local oyster lightly pickled in sauerkraut brine served with shallot and scallion on a bed of frozen rocks encased in ice. The presentation was really clever and accentuated the flavors, a fantastic oyster though not KMJ’s favorite thing she did try it J. This was followed with a crispy kale with black truffle and rye crumbs, an odd combination I thought but it really worked well. Just the right amount of truffle and that played nicely off the kale and crispy rye.
More snacks kept arriving and all throughout the Chef that delivered the plates to the table told us about the origin and preparation of each dish, these two were a locally harvested scallop with fresh cream and tarragon followed by a lightly grilled bite of the scallop roe. The scallop was a great match with the cream and the herbs just helped bring it all together. The roe was warm and semi-soft with a nice salty richness to it.
Finally the first course of grains with a puree of watercress and thinly sliced geoduck arrived just as the sun made what turned out to be it’s final appearance of the day so we lost out on the sunset but quickly forgot as we dove into the first course. It was great, I keep saying that and I mean it. This was really good food all around and the flavor and texture combinations of the chewy clam with the softer grain and fresh greens was so fresh and just delicious.
More snacks arrived next, a locally foraged and lightly grilled mushroom with a great smokey slightly dry texture on the outside and juicy, meaty inside just a perfectly cooked mushroom. Again, not KMJ’s favorite but she ate and I think enjoyed it. Just outside the dining room there’s a large wood fired grill and vertical smokehouse and we watched all night as the cooks ran back and forth preparing grilled dishes and pulling racks out of the smoker. This next snack was a locally caught Coho Salmon they had smoked over the alder and served slightly warm with the instruction to eat with our fingers. We dove right into a perfectly smoked piece of salmon and it rapidly vanished from the table leaving us hungry for more.
The second course of locally caught (of course) squid with Kohlrabi arrived next and was as you might guess delicious. Just a little char on the squid and the nice crunch of the kohlrabi. This was followed with a house baked bread (sourdough starter with some rye) and homemade butter, both of these were excellent and we ended up getting a refill on the bread.
In what was becoming a trend more snacks were delivered, first a braised octopus with a scallion puree with some herbs and black pepper. The octopus was perfectly cooked, soft and moist, slightly sticky with none of the rubbery texture you so commonly find and that scallion puree was just the perfect accent. Our other snack was a ceviche, mine was made from venison heart and KMJ who had requested a pescetarian menu got a kohlrabi ceviche. Organ meats can be hit or miss and this one was a hit for me though had I not been told it was venison heart I would have guessed it was seafood, the flavors were predominantly of citrus and spice with the slightly chewy texture of the heart making a good substitute for the usual fish in this dish.
The third course was a wilted nettle salad with edible flowers and fresh cheese and of all of the courses and snacks I thought this was the weakest. That said it was quite good but we both thought it needed some more texture, maybe a bread crumb or something else to give it a bit more crunch since the nettles and chees were just chewy and soft.
Back to the snacks, our next offerings were a crispy, puffy halibut skin with razor clams, excellent! Next up was a grilled oyster served with a sage-brown butter sauce with a bit of tequila and this was my favorite dish of the night. The oyster was just perfectly cooked, the sauce was outstanding and I could have eaten a dozen of these easily. Fortunatly for me KMJ opted to skip this oyster so I got an extra one. It was around this time when they brought out more of the delicious bread along with a small bowl of chicken drippings to use a dipping sauce. Sometimes the simple things are just the best and this was certainly one of those times.
Our fourth course arrived and mine was a grilled lamb and for KMJ fresh razor clams (the first of the season we were told) and both came with grilled scallion and homemade ricotta. Really well cooked, delicious and simple, enjoyed both courses and looked onward to towards desert.
Our desert started off with a snack which was a thin candy like shell filled with the same Spotted Owl cocktail that KMJ had started off the night with, it was as she found out a bit delicate and the first one exploded in her hand, but the brought another right away and it was a nice but potent palate cleanser to transition onto the sweeter side of things. The final course from the menu was a sorbet of rosehips with sweet herbs and like the other courses was quite good with several different textures and flavors blending together to create a nice conclusion to the meal or so we thought.
The final snacks were a firm goat cheese made just for the Inn by a creamery on San Juan island and a flax seed caramel made on site. The cheese was *really* great, wish I could have bought some to bring home and the caramel was just the right balance of sweet and chewy without being overly sticky and sugary. For anyone keeping score the dinner ended up being five main courses and seventeen snacks spread out over almost four hours.
We ordered a couple post dinner drinks to help digest and retired upstairs to our room where we promptly passed out for the night. One of the many great things about the Willows Inn is having the rooms literally right above the kitchen, no need to stagger that far to fall asleep to the sound of the crickets and distant waves on the beach.
We woke up the next morning right around our usual 7:00 AM thanks to the dedicated training of our cats who ensure we never oversleep their usual feeding time and lounged around before heading down to breakfast. I had pretty much forgotten that in addition to being a great dinner spot this was also at it’s heart a bed and breakfast so back to the dining room we went.
Breakfast started with a homemade muesli over the top of some yogurt and topped with strawberries, excellent. The main course was a fresh poached egg over a slice of alder smoked pork loin with a side of potatoes and a raisin scone. KMJ gave me her egg which was really good with a dark orange yolk and the pork was delicious. Now totally stuffed we packed up and took a quick drive around the island before heading back on the slightly choppier ferry ride back to the mainland and the drive home feeling like our mojo had indeed changed for the better.