Sea and Smoke — The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington
It started with a beguiling book, discovered by chance by Christina at Joseph Fox Books on Sansom Street. Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest by Blaine Wetzel, chef-founder of a restaurant at the Willows Inn, on tiny Lummi Island.
Sea and Smoke became a Christmas gift for our son Noah, and ultimately inspiration for a two-week twenty-six restaurant father-son binge this past August. (See annotated list below.) Noah is Executive Sous Chef at The Modern in New York where a kitchen renovation freed up an unusual amount of vacation time. (Side note: Frog’s Executive Chef, Chris Greway, was Noah’s first kitchen boss when Noah worked for Chris at Morimoto.) Sadly, work and family responsibilities kept Christina at home.
Lummi Island is located midway between Vancouver, where we began our journey, and Seattle. Our trip ended in Portland for me while Noah spent the final weekend in Las Vegas. Noah’s girlfriend Kelly, Pastry Sous Chef at The Modern, joined us in Vancouver.
I turn seventy at the end of October. (How did that happen?!) and have had what I think of as a highly indulged dining life. I will remember our Willows Inn dinner as one of a handful of great dining experiences. Most people who dine at the Willows Inn stay overnight. We arrived mid-afternoon, checked in, and headed to the kitchen to say hello to Chef Wetzel. Kelly had worked with a veteran Willows Inn server so they were expecting us.
While this restaurant occupies rarefied space in the world’s restaurant firmament, Chef Wetzel and his dedicated band of merry cooks could not have been more down-to-earth. For me, a good day is one that starts and ends in shorts. As Blaine showed us around the kitchen, assorted pantries and larders, the total lack of pretense belayed any concern that I would have to “dress for dinner.”
The Willows Inn is comfortably modest and naturally beautiful. The restaurant seats about thirty-five guests for a single dinner service. The nightly menu is hyper-local, based upon what is available on the island and the surrounding waters. Their farm garden is integral as is foraging in Lummi Island’s woods and fields.
Dinner guests are invited for cocktails to the porch overlooking the water around 5 p.m. By 6, food begins to arrive. First, just a shared bowl of wild huckleberries. Next, spice-dusted raw chanterelles, followed by planks of crisped kale with an emulsion of local black truffles and rye crumbs, little savory donuts stuffed with smoked whitefish, and thin pastry cylinders with cured trout roe. As the fading midsummer sun moved toward the sea’s horizon, we were invited into the dining room.
The continuing parade of exquisite “tastes”—a feast for all the senses. To begin, a shared bowl of unadorned sliced red and green plums, nectarines and grapes.
Next, raw Hamachi on crushed ice with a little grated horseradish and peeled wedges of tomatillos. A sultry broth of albacore dotted with poblano oil. Folded petals of shaved salt-roasted crimson beets. A breathtaking and delicious disk of mustard greens tempura and pureed oysters, topped with a still-life of tiny flowers and herbs.
An oversized zucchini bowl containing a few chunks of steamed zucchini.
Crab soaked in pine nut milk. Smoked and charred mussels. Grilled cod collars from cod delivered that afternoon by the inn’s fisherman. Just-baked bread from heirloom wheat with chicken pan drippings. A small bit of venison. Then a digestive tea from toasted birch branches. Desserts: A sorbet of anise hyssop and lavender. Perfect figs. And pumpkin seed fudge. Wow!
We also had the beverage pairing that began with an Eaglemount Rhubarb Cider from Port Townsend, Washington. Next came a Maurice Viognier/Marsanne blend from Walla Walla, Washington, a Big Table Fram Chardonnay from Willamette Valley, Oregon, then a house-made botanical vermouth, a Cavatappi “Maddalena” Nebbiolo from Columbia Valley, Washington, and a Teutonic “Medici Vineyard” Riesling, from Willamette Valley, Oregon.
As a final trace of sun perched on the horizon, I retreated back to the porch for a calvados while Noah and Kelly joined the revelry that ensued in the kitchen, fortified by a case of beer Noah and Kelly brought with them.
Great dining ideally combines welcoming warmth in the servers’ every gesture and food that expresses a specific place and time, with clear flavors artfully yet approachably presented. Good wine helps, too. That said, it’s hard to compare the magic of Willows Inn and Lummi Island with other restaurants. There’s the anticipation of reserving months in advance and the sensory richness of the place. A staff both humble and proud. The reflected glow of the setting sun in the dining room marking the passage of dinner’s time in a way that no clock could. It was all a part of what made dining at the Willows Inn such a deliciously joyous and memorable experience.
Advance reservations are critical but if you’re in the neighborhood, give them a call. You never know. Dinner is $195 per person. The optional wine pairing is $90. Accommodations begin around $400. The inn closes for several months in the winter.
Pacific Northwest Dine Around List
Here’s where Noah and I ate over our two weeks with our reviews. We carefully researched our choices and there was not a bad meal among them. They are ordered here by preference. Note: most got two ** which is not to mean they were not quite good—just that we have very high standards.
Dining at twenty-six really good and some great restaurants over two weeks provided an interesting perspective on what makes for a really good dining experience. We are food-driven and select based on our food expectations. But often what distinguished good from great was the quality of the service—a belief, earned moment-to-moment over the entire course of the meal, that we were actually cared for and about—not pampered or gushed over. A key part of that experience is some personal connection made with the server. Too often even really good restaurants leave you with the feeling that you were processed.
Anna Leena**** Modern regional and great design. Check out the BearBricks – an edgy cartoon-like representation of a bear made by Japanese toy company Medicom.
Phnom Penh *** Cambodian/Vietnamese in “Chinatown” – spectacular beef carpaccio, beef soup, chicken and frog legs
Cincin** Italian—pretty traditional but good
Miku** Very upscale Japanese on the harbor. Bustling. Some unusual presentations.
Meat & Bread** Artisanal lunch sandwiches
Royal Dinette** Modern regional with interesting drink program
Willows Inn **** Extraordinary, hyper local, unpretentious and among the world’s great dining experiences. As Noah wryly states, it’s “the best place on the island”—of course, it is virtually the only restaurant on the island.
Rachawadee *** Terrific Thai food with lots of spice at a lunch counter en route to Seattle
Il Corvo**** Monday to Friday, lunch only and no reservations. Stand in line for just four simple but outstanding pastas daily with some antipasti.
The Barnacle Bar*** Attached to The Walrus & The Carpenter and its waiting area with a short enhanced snack menu. It gets our nod as the best bar of our trip.
Mashiko*** Unpretentious, super sushi
Salumi *** Mostly to-go sandwiches based on their artisanal salumi –with a few seats
The Walrus & The Carpenter** Seafood trendsetter
Salare** Modern regional – fine but forgettable
Stateside** Pan Asian with local accents
Bob a Bok** Korean fried chicken – what could be bad?
Langbaan**** Thai for “back room” and located behind Paadee. Two prix-fixe dinner seatings for about a dozen small courses. Unusual and excellent, but the service is not memorable.
Le Pigeon **** Modern regional and very small. Really excellent, but again, not memorable service.
Ox*** Argentinian-inspired with strong seasonal/regional accents. Christina and I visited Ox two years ago and wanted Noah to experience it. Along with the Willows Inn, Ox was what inspired our trip.
SuperBite*** Ox’s sister restaurant featuring small plates
Lardo *** Artisanal sandwiches and amazing fries with two locations on the north and south of the river.
Olympia Provisions** Sandwiches and charcuterie
Pok Pok** The granddaddy of super authentic non-Thai-run Thai restaurants focused on the food of the northern region of the country. The wings are its most famous menu item but hardly indicative of all they offer. A branch has opened in Brooklyn.
Bamboo Sushi** Hip, popular and quite good, offering traditional sushi plus some unusual twists
Poke Man** Hawaiian-inspired poke bowls of rice and raw fish served from a counter
Tina’s ** (In Dundee) Good lunch in wine country