People often ask me what was the best meal I’ve ever had. Without missing a beat, I always say The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. For me, Washington’s San Juan Islands have always held a special allure. Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, I’m no stranger to lush green forests and rocky coastlines but pictures I saw of the island chain made it seem almost exotic, that is, in the mossy, ferny way you only find in the Pacific Northwest. It was just far enough away that getting there required some effort and for many years it took a backseat to other destinations I had on my list.
In January 2011 came the news that young chef Blaine Wetzel, who studied under chef Rene Redzepi at Copenhagen’s Noma— widely considered the best restaurant in the world, was taking the helm of the kitchen at the Willows. I knew I had to go. I thought of the perfect excuse. I was getting married in August, Justin and I would go for two nights post wedding to unwind. August rolled around and we spent three amazing days on Lummi Island kayaking, hiking, blissfully “sleeping”– all capped off by our amazing dinner at the Willows.
The multi-course meal was great fun and included delicious “snacks” to start like kale chips with black truffle. The main dish– a perfectly cooked piece of poppy-red king salmon was simple in preparation, and echoed the color of the sunset that seemed to linger throughout the meal. The peachy, pink tones engulfed not only the sky, but the endless expanse of ocean outside. It was absolutely unforgettable. I remember remarking how I’ve never eaten a meal where you can so acutely taste your surroundings– the earth, the air, the water, in every bite.
My husband and I had so much fun, I knew someday we’d go back. We got our chance sooner than I thought. My dad was turning 60. We wanted to surprise him with a special weekend getaway. My family arrived to find a Willows Inn that had undergone the types of changes that typically happen when a restaurant or hotel has gotten just a little too popular. Rooms were now spread out in different properties around the island. The cozy room we stayed in adjacent to the main lobby had been turned into a gift shop. A larger bar had been put in place. Originally drawn to the Inn’s rustic and unpretentious feel, I was a little disappointed, however we still had that amazing meal to look forward to. I assured everyone it would be delicious.
On the second night of our stay, our party of eight sat down for dinner. Shortly after taking our seats an army of wait staff presented each one of us with our first “snack”– a cedar box containing a single piece of baked sunflower root on a bed of local moss. It was smoky and sweet, unlike anything I had ever tasted. One of our servers informed us 80 percent of our meal would be coming from the Inn’s garden, the other 20 percent, the sea and other local meat sources. What followed were a slough of “snacks” and four main courses– 23 plates in all, at least double what we had on our first visit. Back was the crispy truffle kale chip I had remembered so fondly, but everything else was new. The presentation, from a creamy, thinly sliced scallop with arugula served in its own opaque shell to a grilled oyster served atop local stones frozen in ice can only be described as inspired.
Watching the chefs at work in the Willows Inn kitchen is like watching ballet. Everyone moves in sync, there is not a motion made without purpose. The fine dance takes place around a large island in the simple, but immaculate kitchen visible from the main dining area. Everyone is working extremely hard. It’s clear Wetzel, while still in his 20’s, has honed his skills. His kitchen has now become a training ground for talented young chefs just like Noma and The French Laundry.
Perhaps unusual for a restaurant of this caliber, the head chef himself served us many of our dishes. I watched as he set to work on one in the kitchen. He appeared to be shoveling some sort of white substance out of a large metal bowl into the little cedar boxes the restaurant is fond of using. When the dish was brought to each one of us, I understood. Poking out of the salt was a single, beautiful, locally caught spot prawn. With the brown box serving as a frame– it was truly a work of art. Our waiter told us this was the first time they had served this preparation of the dish. The prawns were placed in the boxes and then covered with hot rock salt. Spot prawns taste like a cross between shrimp and lobster and the sweet white meat had been cooked to perfection. This dish, from conception to presentation, was truly on a level all its own.
Later in the meal, we were brought what the menu noted as “spotted owl”. Thankfully it was not the rare species but a white and black egg shaped “candy.” The waiter told us we would be enjoying a cocktail. We were instructed to handle each one very gently and place it directly in our mouths. What followed was an explosion of gin and herbs.—truly a candy/cocktail. I still don’t know how they did that.
As our meal wound down, I looked at the faces around the table and new this was not something we would soon forget. From a tender piece of lamb with shaved fresh rhubarb from the Willow’s own garden, to stinging nettles cooked down and served with fresh cheese, even rich pan drippings from roasted chicken served with nutty whole wheat bread, just like before, the essence of Lummi Island was everywhere. It’s true, the sunset was not as beautiful as my original visit, but who can even look out the window when there is so much wonder to behold on the plate in front of you?
2579 West Shore Drive
Lummi Island, WA 98262