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Willows Inn on Lummi Island - Extreme NW Regionalism

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It looks like it's been awhile since there's been a recent post on Willows Inn on Lummi Island so I thought I'd start a new discussion. I'd been dropping hints to my husband about how much I wanted to go there and apparently he was paying attention because he surprised me with reservations for my birthday. Really amazing and fun experience starting with the road trip from Seattle along Chuckanut Drive, the quick ferry ride, exploring the island, lounging on the deck with cocktails before dinner, and of course the meal itself. And I have to add, the overnight stay. I've read about people driving back to Seattle, but I highly recommend staying on the island so you don't have to worry about limiting your drinks or watching the clock so you don't miss the ferry.

I'm not going to list and describe each and every dish in detail (please see blog link below for that including photos) but I'll focus on the experience and mood. The food is Pacific Northwest regionalism to an extreme with everything farmed, foraged and fished within the 9 miles of Lummi Island and its surrounding waters. There are many good NW restaurants in the region - some exceptionally so - but this brings our regional cuisine to a world-class level.

There are five "official" courses with many more bites and snacks in-between. Each taste brought out the essence not only of the thing itself, but where it's from. The oyster tasted like the ocean; the shitake mushroom tasted like the forest floor. Everything was about an absolute purity of flavor and any additional ingredients served to highlight or complement that flavor. Some of the dishes served were not particularly unusual or some may have not sounded that exceptional - but then you took a bite and magic happened. We've all had smoked salmon before, but never like this. I can't really describe it because it was so experiential but it was a perfect balance of the meaty fish, smoke and wood. The crab hidden beneath the seaweed was the sweetest, most delicate crab I could imagine. The single smoked mussel was perfection. All the dishes were beautifully presented and elegantly represented the season.

I also appreciated that the dessert courses weren't overly sweet and at odds with the rest of the dishes; they really kept with the concept of the overall meal. The cocktails before dinner were delicious - try the Spotted Owl and you'll feel like you're drinking the forest. We also did the wine pairings - a bit pricey but were a nice complement to the food and I recommend the pairing (and they have juice pairings for non-drinkers.)

The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious, yet it's clear everyone knows there is something very special going on. The service was friendly and several courses are served by the kitchen staff including Chef Wetzel himself who almost appeared surprised when we complemented him on the meal. At just 27 years old, Chef Wetzel has an incredible future ahead of him. He is now a part owner of Willows Inn so hopefully that means he's going to stick around for awhile. I really hope to go back again in different seasons to see how the menu changes. It's an expensive weekend especially if you stay overnight, but it's a fabulous experience worth saving up for.

http://kimpluscraig.com/2013/07/24/wi...

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  1. To be "Extreme NW", maybe something 'way out on the corner of Marine Drive in Point Roberts? ;;

    2 Replies
    1. re: kaleokahu

      That ought to do it ......

      http://binged.it/13JTXlD

      1. re: LotusRapper

        No, you'd have to be about 10 miles west of there, in the middle of the Strait of Georgia.

    2. Good write up!
      I love it too.

      1 Reply
      1. re: sedimental

        Thanks Sedimental! Really hope to get back there soon.

      2. Did they serve the gravlax and rye toast for breakfast? And the fresh pressed apple juice? As amazing as the dinners are, I think about the breakfasts almost as much later. Last year we had the most amazing potato-lovage dish that I still crave.

        13 Replies
        1. re: christy319

          We didn't have breakfast at Willows Inn per se - I don't believe that was an option. We had a very good breakfast at the Beach House Cafe which is owned by Willows Inn.

          1. re: ksyoung

            Breakfast is included for hotel guests. Honestly I think it's worth going just for breakfast. You must have stayed off site?

            1. re: christy319

              We did stay off-site because the Inn itself was full (although it was booked by Willows Inn). Our stay included breakfast at the The Beach House. Recognized several people there from dinner the night before but maybe they were also staying off-site.

              1. re: ksyoung

                My wife and I stayed and ate at the Willows Inn last weekend -- not much to add, other than the meal was probably in the top three we've ever had.

                We asked about the breakfast situation: turns out they no longer do breakfasts at the Willows itself; instead, you're provided with a voucher for a breakfast entre and drink at the Beach House Café (owned by the Willows Inn).

                The reason for the change was that breakfast service would tend to go until 11:00am or so, but the dinner staff would usually need to start prepping at around 10:00am. It was too cumbersome to work both sets of staff in the same (relatively small) kitchen for that overlapping hour.

                1. re: ghague

                  Thanks for the update, ghague. I thought the breakfast at the Beach House was great and thoroughly enjoyed it. Curious if Willows Inn is in your top three, what are the other two?

                  1. re: ksyoung

                    Hi ksyoung -- hmm, good question. I don't think I could really rank my other favourites, except for number 1, which I'm pretty sure I'd say was Le Chateaubriand in Paris.

                    Others up there would be the Willows Inn, WD-50 in New York, and Cinc Sentits in Barcelona.

                    Next tier down, I suppose, would probably be Book Bindery, Sitka & Spruce, and Cascina Spinasse in Seattle, The Ledbury and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, Le Bernardin in New York, and L'Atalier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas.

                    I notice my "top four" were all large tasting-menu experiences -- guess that's what I'm really drawn to in a great meal!

                    ~Geoff

                    1. re: ghague

                      Your list makes me hungry and I haven't been to any of them although a few are on my list! I love tasting menus too - fun to try lots of different things and put yourself in the chef's hands.

                  2. re: ghague

                    Oh this is terrible news! Breakfast has been almost as memorable IMO as dinner. Unless we will be getting the same quality at the Beach House. I still dream about the gravlax. I haven't had any that came close to what I got at Willows for breakfast before or since.

                    1. re: christy319

                      The beach house cafe is not a great breakfast. I have had better at IHOP. There is no comparison. It is not terrible, but nothing special.

                      1. re: sedimental

                        Since we have an upcoming stay I called about the breakfast situation. They now don't give you a voucher for anything, and DO have breakfast at the Inn...but for $25/pp. Yikes. I thought breakfast was extraordinary but since dinner prices went up to $165/pp, another $50 for breakfast seems too much. I though Willows was a great value the past few years, with dinner $125 and such an amazing breakfast included, but it looks like they wised up. I expressed my disappointment to the reservationist but I imagine with all the accolades and bookings, they can do what they want. Boo.

                        1. re: christy319

                          :-(

                          How far out do they accept bookings for the restaurant part ? I'm thinking of Labor Day long weekend for a dinner and a night's stay.

                          1. re: LotusRapper

                            That's less that 5 months out--I've made reservations more than 6 months in advance before. They have a reservation tool on their website so you can check right now.

                            1. re: christy319

                              They were on Opentable for a very brief time back in late 2012 and I managed to secure a rez for a solo diner (minus a hotel stay) during Christmas week. Of course, the hype has grown tremendously since then... but how I do wish they'd offer maybe one or two dinner tables online.

          2. They're re-opening for the Spring starting March 13:

            http://www.willows-inn.com/march-2014/

            1. I just got back from an event that the Willows and Village books sponsored. It was meeting an author and a private dinner ( with the author). The dinner was held at the Beach Cafe, it was closed and set up for us with a decorated table and candles in the middle of the cafe. The Willows chefs created a 4 course meal.

              We had foraged nettle soup (really great) one of the chefs said he uses smoked butter to finish it. Followed with a mixed greens salad. Then I chose the Parisian gnocchi. It was gnocchi floating in an onion foam, with mushrooms, topped with interesting greens with little buds. Then the dessert course was a poached pear in chamomile with tarragon oil and topped with candied almonds.

              It was nice to have a private dinner (only 7 of us) and get to taste some creative smaller scale preps from the Willows chefs. It was fun to watch them work and get to ask them questions. I highly recommend going to an event they sponsor.

              2 Replies
              1. re: sedimental

                Very cool. So is it first-come, first-serve reservation of the event that you do with VB ?

                I would have liked to be at the ones with Rick Steves and Steven Raichlen.

                http://www.willows-inn.com/events/

                What would be *really* cool, IMHO, if they got Rick Bayless or Thomas Keller. 'Course the line to buy those tix would stretch from VB all the way down to the Alaskan Ferry Terminal ......

                1. re: LotusRapper

                  I actually went to the "cooking school" BBQ with Steven Raichlen and posted about it on CH (with photos) here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/906481
                  He designated me as the "fire Marshall" to get all the grills burning correctly for the class because he had a cough from all the recent smoke inhalations from events he had been doing. Again, it is an intimate way to connect with a favorite author and swap emails, tell stories and drink some wine,etc...

                  You need to buy tickets in advance for these things. They are very small gatherings (and I hope they stay that way!). I took a few of my office staff to it as a "spring treat" so there were 4 of us, so there were only three other people at this event! They start the events early, and you need to plan for the ferry, etc. so I think that keeps them limited in who attends. I really like them!

              2. Some months ago I booked a room and dinner for two for an upcoming wedding anniversary. Our challenge will be to see what they can feed my husband who is allergic to scaled fish. His reaction to all of this will be interesting. I did lunch at the French Laundry with the Chowhounds (Melanie Wong and others) almost a decade ago, but he didn't go with.