Last weekend, I had the opportunity to dine at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The Willows Inn restaurant has been receiving nonstop accolades ever since Blaine Wetzel took over as head chef in 2010. The New York Times declared it one of ten restaurants worth a plane ride. Chef Wetzel, who is only in his mid-twenties, is widely regarded as a rising star in the American culinary scene. He was trained at the renowned Noma restaurant in Copenhagen which many say is the best restaurant in the world. At Willows Inn, Wetzel has combined his expert training with a near-obsessive focus on local, seasonal ingredients—with very few exceptions, everything served at the restaurant is foraged or grown on the island or very close by. Buzz like this is hard for a food fanatic like me to ignore–it was finally time to give Willows Inn a try.
Lummi Island is located about two hours north of Seattle. To get there, head north on I-5 to the Gooseberry Point ferry dock near Bellingham. For the best views, take scenic Chuckanut Drive (be sure to stop by Taylor Shellfish Farms on the way for a picnic lunch of fresh oysters). A brief but thrilling ride on the Whatcom Chief Ferry takes you across the bay to Lummi Island (note: the ferry is tiny & open to the elements–keep your windows rolled up to avoid getting hit with sea spray!). From the ferry dock, Willows Inn is just a short drive north around the tip of the island. You will be treated along the way to amazing views of the water, mountains and neighboring Orcas Island.
After checking into our suite a few miles down the road, we headed back to the main building for pre-dinner cocktails. The bar at Willows Inn is cozy and cute with limited seating. You can hang out there or do what most people do and take your drinks into the main lobby/living room/social area. Here you will find a crackling fireplace and a fantastic view of the water. Guests mingle with drinks in hand, anxiously waiting to be called in for dinner. The excitement in the air is palpable, and it gains in intensity as the dinner hour approaches. Sipping my Boulevardier Cocktail by the fire, chatting with friends, and looking out on the beautiful scenery–I was already having such a good time, if dinner ended up being a disappointment, I almost wouldn’t have minded. Of course, it wasn’t.
Immediately upon being seated, we were welcomed with champagne flutes of hard cider from nearby Friday Harbor. This cider was unlike any I’d had before—it was incredibly light and effervescent making it a great match for the food we were about to have. Moments later, the snacks started arriving, brought out to the table by the various chefs responsible for cooking the meal. Technically, dinner at the Willows Inn is five courses. However, you are provided with so many additional small bites, that the meal seems never-ending. We were served twenty separate treats throughout the evening. Early highlights included a crisp potato chip topped with homemade sauerkraut and buttery black cod and a kale “toast” with roasted porcini mushrooms and rye bread crumbs. A tiny cube of seared venison heart seasoned with red currant and rose was a delicious surprise. Naturally, given the setting, we were served smoked salmon. As expected, it was the best I’ve ever had—delicate, tender, smoky, and a bit sweet.
Entrees included hearty whole grains dressed in an impossibly green puree evocative of fresh grass in the springtime. This was topped with slices of geoduck which the chef oh-so-casually informed us had been “alive three seconds ago”. A nettle and fiddlehead fern salad was garnished with cheese so fresh that it was practically quivering. My favorite of the entrees was a seared steelhead trout garnished with foraged sea beans and house-pickled capers. The richness of the fish was nicely balanced by the briny sea beans and capers. Desserts were equally exquisite. Sweet and tart rose hip ice cream was followed by a cheese and venison prosciutto plate and a bite-sized caramel with flax seeds. The most exciting dessert was the gin candy! It was like a boozy, piney after dinner mint.
My dinner at the Willows Inn was one of the top five dining experiences of my life. You leave the restaurant with such a strong sense of what the island has to offer. Throughout the entire meal, the forest and the sea are front and center. A meal like this just wouldn’t be the same in the city. There is something about being surrounded by the things that you are eating that makes it taste so much better. As I was exploring the island the next day, I kept having different taste memories from the meal. A whiff of the briny sea reminded me of the pickled oysters with sorrel I’d just had. Stepping over a mound of damp, mossy earth, I couldn’t help but think of the earthy shiitake mushrooms, perfectly grilled and adorned with nothing but sea salt.
Dining at the Willows Inn is not cheap. You also have to factor in the cost of a ferry trip and a room on the island (believe me; you won’t want to have to drive back to Seattle after this meal). I could try and tell you that it is worth every penny, but that really depends on who you are and how far you are willing to go for a great meal. To my mind, the adventure and the meal is worth the cost, but it’s not something I’ll be able to do again any time soon. If you are looking to treat yourself to something unique and local and don’t mind splurging, then dinner at Willows Inn is worth checking out. When I strike it rich one day, I know where I’ll be celebrating!