A few bites into our meal at Willows Inn, Jer said, “Food shouldn’t be allowed to taste that good.” We weren’t even to the first course; the chef started everyone out with a few little ‘bites’ of delectable goodness: a small wooden box with two bites of luscious smoked salmon, tiny plates with fresh potato chips topped with black cod and naturally fermented sauerkraut (I asked the chef who brought it to us, it had been started in October) a piece of herb toast with browned butter and plum blossoms, and best of all, a pickled oyster. It was literally the best oyster I have ever had. And the evening had only begun.
According to the New York Times, the restaurant at Willows Inn is one of “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride”. We didn’t know this when we found the coupon on an online deal site. I checked out the description and loved the sound of the focus on local, sustainable ingredients, and the description of the Farmhouse Suite, equipped with a full kitchen that included a Wood Stone oven. I knew Jer would love the opportunity to use that oven to make pizza or bread, and I thought it was a great deal for a romantic weekend to celebrate the second anniversary of the day we met. So we booked the trip, packed our sourdough starter, and set out for Lummi Island, only a couple hours away.
We settled in to our suite and wandered around Nettles Farm, where most of the produce for Willows Inn is grown. The chickens were happy to have visitors, and we could see that the greenhouse was in use, and so looked forward to our meal. After a delicious cocktail we were seated and served our complimentary prosecco and starters. The waitress asked if we preferred the juice pairing or the wine pairing, and we decided to go with one of each. Best decision ever.
First course was simply tender young turnips in a pork jus. Oh, but the jus. It soaked into the breadcrumbs topping the turnips and exploded in your mouth, taking you by complete surprise with its delicate yet complex flavor. The Pinot Gris that accompanied mine was excellent, but the celery juice that Jer had was our first clue that this juice pairing idea was sheer brilliance. Somehow the flavor married perfectly, as did each successive juice-carrot with the scallops and cabbage, green apple with the winter squash and black truffle, lingonberry with the steelhead salmon, and elder flower with the apple sorbet (topped with buttermilk foam and slices of licorice root).
Each course built upon the last while being delicious in its own right. The man certainly knows his seafood-the scallops were perfect, and the steelhead was such a delicate piece of work, you almost forgot it was a salmon. At the end of that course, we thought that there was no way that any dessert could possibly follow up on the parade of dishes, but the intense yet perfectly balanced flavors of apple and licorice with the buttermilk and sprigs of dill was the perfect finish.
It is amazing that someone with such a command of flavor, technique, and presentation could be so young. The chef Blaine Wetzel, a native of Olympia, trained at Noma, named the best restaurant in the world for 2010, but he is completely approachable. We chatted with him afterwards about his technique with the bread served between courses, how much we like sourdough starters and hot ovens, and our mutual struggles using spelt. We even exchanged recipe ideas, with him giving me a technique for spelt rolls in a muffin tin, and me suggesting sourdough cookies, which he had never heard of before.
The next day, while eating a delicious sandwich at Taproot Café, the other excellent eatery at the inn, we overheard the proprietor explaining to another diner that while he “serves dinner, Blaine serves an experience.” Yes indeed-an amazing culinary experience that I will not soon forget.