*WARNING: this is a long post. I let myself go — geeked out and talked about the whole meal. For this once in a life time experience, I want this to be a record for myself too. Enjoy.
My friend told me how wonderful their dinner was at the Willows Inn, I was 100% sure that one day I would make it there.
Then, their chef, ,Blaine Wetzel, won the James Beard award for Rising Star Chef in 2014; I knew I was 150% sure I was going to the Willows Inn very soon.
Before food, there were a few hurdles to conquer.
First, to stay or not to stay?
I did not spawn to action immediately chasing after this promising food adventure because the journey was going to be long for 1 meal.
The Willows Inn is located on Lummi Island, a very small island that is closer to Victoria BC than Seattle; it takes a 2-hour drive, follow by ferry ride and another short drive to get there.
It was difficult to justify driving 5 hours roundtrip for a dinner, especially to DH.
I had briefly considered staying at the Inn as a small get-away — it will make driving much easier to stomach particularly after 3-hour of slow food outing.
As it turned out, staying at the inn was very expensive, and other accommodation on Lummi Island, whether through air bnb or vrbo, were also pricey.
Luckily, we were able to stay at our friend’s house in Bellingham, which drastically reduced return trip time by 2 hours.
Once getting-there logistics was ironed out, second hurdle: reservation.
Their website detailed that inn guests has priority to dinner reservation, others who are not staying at the inn can only reserve 2 weeks ahead of time.
We decided to try on a Saturday, and I called exactly 2 weeks ahead while I was in Texas in an attempt to secure my reservation.
At first, no luck. Saturday was completely booked.
I was grateful that our schedule was flexible, and immediately asked for Sunday (which was technically 2 weeks plus 1 day ahead) — and my wish was granted.
The big day finally came and we drove 2 hours to the smallest ferry terminal I had ever encountered.
In fact, there was no structure, just the dock, ready for this tiny, perhaps enough space for 16-car, car ferry.
The ferry ticket was full of nostalgia – paper ticket with hole punches.
After the short 5-minute ferry ride, it was another 10-minute drive to the inn.
The place was small and cozy, with their lobby opened up to the dining room, which only seat about 24 people.
No wonder reservation was much needed.
Dinners were price-fix tasting menu only, and we were greeted at the lobby with a really interesting cocktail menu.
I went for something called spotted owl because it had Douglas fir in it.
The delicious drink was bright green and was amazingly woodsy and creamy from the usage of egg white.
While we were enjoying the cozy fireplace ambience at the lobby, small appetizers arrived.
Sweet and fresh oysters, spicy and fatty cured meats, sweet pear and slight burnt brussels sprouts were presented beautifully.
I had very high hope for dinner.
Libation continued on when we sat down; a locally brewed, dangerously sweet and full of juicy apple characters apple cider was poured.
It was dry enough to accompany the dishes, and yet sweet enough to be enjoyed on its own.
Plates started flowing one after another, and every dish was a delight representing the land and the sea, and highlighted the best local food our region had to offer.
Actual dinner plates and snacks were mixed in serving order.
My absolute favorite was the halibut skin wrap.
Visually deceiving, they looked like little gray stones; the skin was completely crispy with soft and chewy seaweed and clam meat inside.
The most stunning dish of all was the smoked mussels which was plump and juicy: it literally came in a box still smoldering; I took in a big whiff of the smoke and was transported outdoor near a campfire.
Many seafood was used in our meal.
There was the juicy and plump smoked salmon,
buttery fresh spot prawns with sour cream,
and this bite-size, firm, buttery-textured black cod flesh wrapped in smoky flavored-chard: melted in my mouth and absolutely delicate.
Rolls of crispy crepe wrapped chives and supposedly char roes clearly demonstrated the extreme in crisp and soft texture.
This was my first time eating cooked raddichio in our squid dish.
Still not my vegetable of choice, it was however, a new eating experience.
From the land, we had lamb and venison, and a myriad of vegetables.
We were introduced to something called elderberry capers in our lamb dish.
The elderberries were harvested locally and pickled as capers; the sourness gave a nice lift to the deep lamb flavor.
The venison was a bewilderment — I was not expecting a venison tartare!
The meat itself was aromatically gamey, yet that quality curiously absent in the mouth, leaving behind unmistakably bloody red meat flavor.
A nutty, toasty, rustic rye bread was the vehicle for the venison with wild lettuce that was lemony in nature, the flavors were simple yet unique; and the chewy and tendony texture of the meat was completely enjoyable.
Two dishes that night was just exemplary and witty.
First, there was the scallop with matsutake mushroom — the sea was the master with the earth in the background; the scallop was fresh and sweet, yet the most fascinating was the savory matsutake juice/broth accompanying the scallop that I really wanted an entire bowl to eat.
Then, the role was reversed with the earth in the foreground and the sea as the back-up singer: rutabaga with broth of seared razor clam
Horseradish was added to the broth which gave pungency to the dish.
I had never seen the usage of razor clam broth this way, and again, a bowl of the broth to consume would be on my wish list!
For vegetables, beautiful dried kale chip with truffle, completely to die for;
simply salted grilled shiitake mushrooms on maple giving a smoky, woodsy scent;
caramelized Jerusalem artichoke that was soft like mashed potatoes inside and crisp outside,
and caramelized pear with a quince paste that was almost cheesy.
Their freshly baked bread with local grains was amazing: warm, pillowy fluffy inside, it had nutty and wheaty flavor, sweet and oozing out comfort, I kept eating it with the excellent pan drippings even though I was full.
I just could not help it!
Something stunningly bright green showed up and it was one of our desserts!
Made with grass, the sauce was unmistakably fresh grass-like — certainly an acquired flavor and daringly different.
With a hint of sweetness and citrus flavor, the green sauce accompanied the sorbet-like goat ice milk exceptionally well.
The second dessert was a perfectly cooked delicata squash with pine flavored cream, it was quintessentially Northwest, communicated the abundance we had in late Fall with a tribute to our evergreens.
All good things came to an end.
The meal was rounded up with small roasted flax-seed caramel squares that were delicately runnier and softer than usual caramel.
Another delight, 2 loaves of bread were given to us to take home!
With similar price points, many has compared the Willows Inn to Herb Farm.
I found them to be completely different experience.
The Willows Inn was very short distance farm-to-table (their website said “fished, farmed and foraged daily”); seasonality and freshness of ingredients are key, rustic yet delicate.
Some dishes above were simply but elegantly prepared as not to overshadow the greatness of the ingredients.
Herb Farm was about themes based on great ingredients from the Pacific Northwest.
To me, it was fancier, with seemingly more complicated preparation, and wine pairing already included in the whole experience.
The preference between the 2 places is highly subjective; as if one is asking whether I like someone who is down to earth and elegant more than someone who is fun and fancy.
Both places were absolutely enjoyable and excellent — places that are eye-opening for any foodie to admire.