Unless you live on Lummi Island, a small island among the San Juans between Seattle and the Canadian border, a meal at the Willows Inn is as much a pilgrimage as it is just a dinner.
The tasting menu restaurant is nestled among a tangle of wooden cabins where you can stay the night, or you can take the ferry across from the mainland for dinner, which is what I did on a recent weekend. The Willows has had a restaurant for 100 years, but these days, thanks to chef Blaine Wetzel (Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2012, James Beard Best Chef Northwest in 2015) and his team, it’s the 20-plus-dish tasting menu that draws folks across the water.
Wetzel is a native of Olympia, Wash., and an alum of Noma, René Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant, and you can read both allegiances on his plates. These begin arriving while you’re sitting outside on a wooden deck overlooking the ocean. The camp blankets, candles, patio furniture and soundtrack of the waves lapping far below are a deceptively low-key setting for the high-wire act to follow. You almost expect the black-clad server to hand you a s’more instead of the first plate of a world-class tasting menu.
And then the procession: local black truffles and toasted rye on crispy kale leaves; smoked, caramelized oysters in their shells; savory doughnuts filled with smoked black cod; a long dagger of smoked sockeye salmon, caught just down the shore with reef nets. There are live fires inside the kitchen as well as outside, on a nearby patio that also houses a well-used smoker, hung with boughs of drying crown dill.
“It’s the rain that gets you. Wear a jacket and hope for the best,” said one of the cooks earlier in the evening while he was grilling geoduck clams outside. That geoduck showed up next, impaled on a metal skewer with panko and cured pork fat. Two more skewers arrived — threaded with nubs of octopus and venison — like part of a tiny armory.
As the temperature drops with the sun, you’re ushered to your table inside, where a series of ceviches (rockfish, scallop, oysters) are chased by more beautifully articulated plates: a tostada made with crispy mustard greens and edible flowers; roasted Cinderella pumpkin (welcome to fall!) matched with pumpkin miso, toasted pumpkin seeds and salt made with the dill dried outside; albacore tuna (top loin, belly, head meat, skin) and a series of roasted peppers and chiles jigsawed onto the plate like a Miró painting.
Unlike many tasting menu restaurants, where the duration of the dinner can rival an extra-innings baseball game, the pacing here is timely, neither lead-footed nor rushed. The dishes are served and briefly explained by a series of servers, cooks and chefs, including Wetzel himself; you can see them working through the dining room doors, in the meandering light of the wood-fired oven.
Dessert arrives before you’re too tired or too sated, and showcases a wealth of local fruit: house-made jam in wooden spoons; fire-blistered plums and a bowl of fig leaf cream; anise hyssop and lavender ice cream. The minimalism seems almost a reprieve after the many courses that have led up to this, but some desserts seem almost too DIY. The plate of beautiful grapes, the tiny crescents of apples and pears arranged on ice, could be accomplished by anyone with access to an excellent fruit tree, a grape arbor and a bag of ice. Maybe I was just anxious that the spell the restaurant casts was coming to an end.
Although the provenance of the produce and seafood is clearly delineated and the plates look like woodsy still lifes, the end is a deeply satisfying meal, not a precious statement from the Cult of Foragers. Wetzel is translating his environment to the plate not unlike Redzepi at Noma and Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken, using the ground cherries and beech plums, the scallops and chanterelles, with a mixture of art and pragmatism. And when he’s talking about his food at your table, he seems more like a guy who just blew in through the back door with a load of blackberries and lemon verbena than a chef who made it to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
On the drive back to the ferry — the inn has a van that will take you if the car ferry is in dry dock, as it recently was — you pass some deer, and the 2-acre farm from which much of your dinner was sourced. You have a little canvas bag with a small loaf of bread made with local grain, plus a jar of currant jam, your dinner menu and a card cheerily signed by the kitchen staff. It’s a homey parting gift, like something your mother would tuck into your bag for the trip home.
This is an occasional feature that highlights a recent meal outside Los Angeles.