San Juan Island Trip Report including Willows Inn on Lummi Island (longish)
Thank you to the posters (especially mmadsen) who gave advice to this SoCal food enthusiast for a first visit to your beautiful islands.
On Orcas we stayed at Rosario and dined at Inn at Ship Bay and Allium, along with two breakfasts at Rose's.
Rosario was just what we wanted: clean, unfancy, inexpensive accommodations. You need a car to stay at this resort as it's 15 or more miles from the ferry landing, but only about a 12 minute drive from Eastsound, where all the good restaurants seem to be.
Rose's got unanimous, enthusiastic praise on this board and it is one of those rare places where sky high expectations were easily met. I knew when I ordered a dish with a potato nest that I was in the right place when I heard the potato being grated from the open kitchen. Made to order food made from scratch and of the highest quality. Only slight issue here was the lack of friendliness of the staff in the retail deli portion of the business, but I'm sure it's been a long season for them. Wait staff in the restaurant were very efficient and friendly.
The restaurant at Ship Bay Inn was excellent. We enjoyed cocktails first on the outside patio with a wonderful view of the Bay. Then dinner in the comfortable dining room. Waitress was very competent. We had a smoked gnocchi app that was one of the highlights of the trip. I had Bouillabaise and my wife ordered the filet. Unfortunately, after we'd ordered and opened a half bottle of red wine for her to enjoy with the filet, and several minutes after ordering, we were informed they were out of beef filet and the chef was substituting veal. Would that be OK? Well, not really, but we were on vacation, didn't want issues, so acquiesced to the veal. Both entrees were quite good, and the fish in my bouillabaisse was especially delectable and fresh.
Allium struck us as a restaurant that was once king of the hill on the island, but was now living somewhat on its rep. Our meal there was competent, but nothing really was memorable or impressive. Salmon for her, chicken for me. Comfort food, really, with gourmet prices. Excellent salad greens no doubt picked that day. Wonderful setting out on the front patio with an expansive water view and bringing blankets to cover our laps and legs was a nice touch once it got cold. Long waits between courses. Probably wouldn't go back.
If you are serious about creative cuisine prepared by a young chef with equal parts passion and culinary breeding, and if you don't mind eating a few things you've never eaten before, then you must try the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. A memorable dining experience in all respects. We learned of Chef Blaine Weitzel in a recent edition of Food and Wine magazine where he was honored as one of America's ten rising stars of the kitchen. He is a devotee of the "slow food" movement which at Willows means sourcing nearly everything from within the tiny confines of the island or just off its shores, and creating (mostly) small dishes in creative ways we've not seen before. We had 15 separate courses; of those, I would say all but three were absolute home runs, two were just really good and one was sort of meh. I'm no veggie lover but apart from the absolute best piece of smoked salmon I've ever sunk teeth into, I remember best a toasted leaf of kale (yes, kale!) with rye and black truffle. A combination that truly showed the genius of this young man. There were roasted shitakes, baked sunflower root, crispy halibut skin and pickled oysters with sorrel, just to name a few. We passed on the wine pairing and just ordered bottles of Champagne and a California Pinot Noir, both of which were on the table throughout the meal and which we enjoyed as the dish would dictate. Out the door, including wine, tax and tip we spent $550, and as someone without a whole lot of $$ and who has a bad habit (I'm told) of partly evaluating a dining experience by what it cost me, I can say this nearly 3 hour extravaganza was worth every penny.
Oh, and the chef himself presented and described several of the dishes. Highly recommend the Willows Inn on Lummi Island.