Dinner at the Willows Inn

I've been up to Lummi Island a few times, to celebrate a birthday with a particular friend of mine. Usually it would involve driving up to Bellingham, hopping the ferry to Lummi, and driving straight to his house. This time I took in a whole weekend on Lummi, drove extensively (i.e. 9 miles) around the island, and got to dine at the headlining attraction on the island: The Willows Inn.

 
This is the view from the deck. 

This is the view from the deck. 

As someone who partakes in about every episode of whatever Anthony Bourdain's show is called now, as well as big fan of Mind of a Chef, my first big fancy tasting meal was probably long overdue. The hype on this place is huge: James Beard, New York Times, etc etc etc.

Let me walk you through our evening.

We arrived for cocktails, mine was a gin, snap pea and cucumber drink (which is eerily similar to the color of Cucumber Lime Gatorade). It was crisp, refreshing, and damned if it didn't have the aroma of snap peas.

Gin, Snap pea and cucumber cocktail: "The Matia" (named after a nearby island)

Gin, Snap pea and cucumber cocktail: "The Matia" (named after a nearby island)

Oysters from Samish Bay, peas with some sort of dust, lamb proscuitto and cherry tomatoes.

Oysters from Samish Bay, peas with some sort of dust, lamb proscuitto and cherry tomatoes.

Cocktails of course have no prices listed on the beverage menu, which is a little concerning, but even more concerning when the plate of snacks arrive (which you don't order - it's just brought to you). No explanation other than, these are snacks. 

The oysters were perfectly tender and expertly shucked, leaving all the not-too-salty liquor inside. The peas had this sweet sugar dust on them, and the cherry tomatoes were perfectly ripe. Check that presentation: oysters perched not on a platter of ice or rock salt, but on rocks, just like you'd see on the beach. It's at this moment where you start to realize that yes - this dinner is going to be something special. 

The dinner is timed with the sunset, so you're ushered in just as the sun is coming down. The head server grabs everyone from the cocktail deck one party at a time. There looks to be two dining rooms, one in the back and the other in the main area. You sit down. 

There was a mussel in there.

There was a mussel in there.

You sit down and a few moments later, someone brings you this warm, smoking box. They pour you a champagne flute worth of local hard cider (from Eaglemount Cider just across the Sound). You open the box and realize that the mussel inside which had obviously just come off the smoker is opening and pushing the lid of the box open on its own. The mussel didn't last long enough for the picture, but it was tender and perfect. 

Then a few moments later they bring you the plate of flowers, along with a remoulade sort of sauce to dip the flowers in. These aren't fried or stuffed blossoms, they're just flowers. 

Flowers and dipping sauce.

Flowers and dipping sauce.

The staff is ever attentive. You start to see that other tables are ahead of you, some are behind. Your table is cleared and a new treat is dropped off. Next it's a kale chip with black truffles. Kale, the evil cousin of lettuce, has a slightly bitter taste that goes perfectly with the dollops of truffle.

Crispy Kale and Black truffle

Crispy Kale and Black truffle

We're still in the "snacks" portion of the evening by the way. While you're waiting to finish your second bite of kale, the Crispy crepe with steelhead roe arrives. The server tells you to do one big bite and he's right - it's luscious and creamy inside. It reminded me of one of those ham/cream cheese roll ups from awful party platters, except delicious in every way. They follow that with halibut skin with a halibut mouse of some sort tucked inside. 

Crispy Crepe with Steelhead Roe

Crispy Crepe with Steelhead Roe

Halibut skin, Chicharrón style. Darker is from the belly. 

Halibut skin, Chicharrón style. Darker is from the belly. 

Suddenly, it's dinner time. You don't really notice the big change but it's your first non-snack, a raw slice of local albacore, in a semi-gelatenous broth made from the smoked bones. There's a hint of horseradish, and the bites of fish taste like the best sushi you've never had. The smokey broth brings the right amount of salt and flavor to the delicate fish. 

Albacore

Albacore

Then they bring you a fire roasted shiitake, which if you are facing out the south side of the dining room, you'll see someone roasting and then running into the kitchen just a few minutes before it arrives on your table.

Shiitake and salt

Shiitake and salt

Soon after they brought us beets which were baked in salt, with a spoon full of some kind of yogurt sauce. The beets weren't too sweet, had the residual salt from the baking process, and it balanced well.

Then it was on to some meat. An aged venison tartar, some fresh baked rye crackers, and a sprig of purslane. The instructions were to spoon some venison on the cracker, top it with some purslane, and then devour. We did that.

Aged venison, cracker and purslane.

Aged venison, cracker and purslane.

The assembled venison taco thing.

The assembled venison taco thing.

We ate the crackers and venison, but ended up with about one spoon left of venison, but short a cracker. The staff offered us another cracker, and instead brought a whole new set. Then another came out and said the crackers looked too lonely, so he brought another crock of venison as well. These were amazing. the purslane went with the tartar perfectly, and the crackers' buttery richness paired with the venison as well.

Then we went back to the smoker, this time fish again. A bright red wild sockeye filet caught on Lummi Island, coated in a sweet glaze, and a buttery piece of cod.

Sockeye and Cod, fresh from the smoker.

Sockeye and Cod, fresh from the smoker.

I apparently neglected to get a photo of the wild seaweeds braised with Dungeness crab. It was subtle and sweet, briny from the seaweed and delicious. It didn't last long on the table. 

A box of bread was brought out, fresh from the oven, served along salted butter and chicken drippings (think the liquid in the tray under the rotisserie chicken you get from the store).

Bread, butter, and chicken drippings.

Bread, butter, and chicken drippings.

The butter was soft and fresh, the bread was a bit rough around the edges but soft and warm. The chicken drippings were an interesting choice. They're super rich, which is a big contrast to the lightness of the rest of the meal. We recently dined at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, which has bread that apparently is worth writing about as well, but I don't know if either are anything you need to be overly concerned about. Put it this way, don't go all the way to Lummi Island or San Francisco for bread. 

What's this?

What's this?

Rockfish steamed in parsley and lovage.

Rockfish steamed in parsley and lovage.

The rockfish came out next in its very fancy container. This was the least favorite dish of the night. The fish was perfectly steamed, but the greens were just a little too pungent. It over powered your sense of the fish with the noxious sort of greens smell (think, over cooked spinach from your childhood).

The sun will be about here at this point in the meal. Looking west towards Orcas, Matia and Sucia islands.

The sun will be about here at this point in the meal. Looking west towards Orcas, Matia and Sucia islands.

If there was going to be a main dish for the night, this is it. The slow roasted leg of lamb, cooked en papillote (which means 'in parchment' en Francias). 

Slow roasted leg of lamb.

Slow roasted leg of lamb.

Served with cherries, a fresh herb topping, and parsnips from the garden, this thing was delectable. The meat was deep in flavor, and the cherries balanced out the sweetness. The meat was incredibly tender, flavorful, and an amazing finish to this tour de cuisine.

Then it was pre-desert (a concept I'd like to see more widely adopted), which was fine for me, but my dining companion's least favorite of the night.

Local berries in a grass broth.

Local berries in a grass broth.

The berries ranged in ripeness and tartness, but to me seemed to balance with the natural sweetness in the grass broth. Yes, grass broth. A little like the wheat grass you try once at Jamba Juice, but paired with these berries, it seemed to go together well.

Then it was actual dessert: warm blueberries with woodruff and malt. 

Blueberries and malt. Dollops of merengue-ish and ice cream I think they said was lovage, possibly purslane again.

Blueberries and malt. Dollops of merengue-ish and ice cream I think they said was lovage, possibly purslane again.

The final dessert had the sweetness from blueberries, balanced with the malt crumble. It was not overly sweet but had the freshness and lightness that carried through the whole meal.

It was an incredible experience. I'll probably never have food like this again, so I'm glad I got to enjoy it here. Everyone at my friend's party asked me if it was worth the cost (which was a lot) and we all said it was - once.

It was the embodiment of years of watching Top Chef and Bourdain and David Chang on television.  It was fun to be at the whim of a chef, able to execute his vision of the meal from start to finish. This kind of experience isn't something I'm likely to see again for quite some time, so I am glad that it was incredibly enjoyable.

All told it was two and a half hours of a dinner unlike any other. I don't know if you should fly to Lummi just to eat there, but if you're in the neighborhood and have any interest whatsoever in this, you won't be disappointed. And you'll eat a bunch of flowers.

Momofuku Milk Bar Apple Pie Layer Cake

My family is gathering for a delayed Christmas, and so I decided I'd make a cake. I decided on the Momofuku Milk Bar Apple Pie Layer Cake, from the cookbook of the same name. 

It's a complex recipe, and required some special equipment from Amazon to get everything in the pan. Essentially it's a brown butter cake, layered with liquid cheese cake and apple pie filling, along with pie crumb (pie crumb is to pie crust what Dippin' Dots is to ice cream) and frosting. It was a two day baking affair, with most of the components made the night before the day before we were going to eat the cake. 

Liquid cheesecake ingredients

Liquid cheesecake ingredients

First up was the liquid cheesecake. The cookbook says this is like cheesecake, but liquid and pliable. That's fairly accurate. It's basically cheesecake, but you bake it just a little bit so it's not quite a complete custard, but more of cheesecake goo. It's a pretty damn fine tasting cheesecake. 

Blending liquid cheesecake.

Blending liquid cheesecake.

If you make anything Momofuku, you'll quickly learn that accurate measurements are important. Hence the digital kitchen scale - probably one of the most important things to have in the modern kitchen. 

Measured out for liquid cheesecake.

Measured out for liquid cheesecake.

This is how they said to bake it. I was skeptical.

This is how they said to bake it. I was skeptical.

You bake the cheesecake liquid in a contraption that won't make a lot of sense. It's plastic wrap in the oven. Now, maybe I didn't use the right kind of bakeware, but hey that's my problem. But, the plastic didn't melt as much as I feared it might, and it just sort of will shrink wrap itself to the glass. All the plastic was accounted for at the end of the baking.

You only can tell it's done based on kinetic jiggling tests. If it jiggles a little in the middle but not on the edges it's done. I guess.

It's done, but it may not look that done. But it is done, because I was done with it. 

It's done, but it may not look that done. But it is done, because I was done with it. 

Next up was the apple pie filling. It's a pretty standard apple pie filling, made from apples and pie filling. First you cut up apples. 

These strange shapes used to be apples (a fruit).

These strange shapes used to be apples (a fruit).

The recipe calls for a little lemon water soak for the pieces of apple, which prevents browning (due to the acid in the lemons). It doesn't impact the flavor at all, so don't worry you dummy. 

Grab yer apples, add them to sugar and butter then apply heat. Deliciousness ensues.

Grab yer apples, add them to sugar and butter then apply heat. Deliciousness ensues.

Apparently I didn't grab any photos of the making of the pie crumb. But basically, you're mixing up flour and salt with some melted butter. It forms little clusters, and then you put 'em in the oven. That hardens them. And makes them warmer.

The pie crumb, taken out of the oven.

The pie crumb, taken out of the oven.

Once they cool they get put somewhere (your choice) and then half of them end up in the frosting, half end up in the cake. But more on them later. 

That was all I made the night before. The pie crumb can stay out at room temp, but the other stuff took a slumber in the fridge. The next day it was on to the cake, and most importantly the final assembly.

Again, accuracy is your friend. And also your other friends are your friends too. 

Again, accuracy is your friend. And also your other friends are your friends too. 

The brown butter cake involves some brown butter (which they have you do in a microwave, which is pretty crazy. It starts popping and sounding like an explosion, but sure enough it browns. The cake takes a  pretty standard creaming method, but then it adds in buttermilk, eggs, vanilla. It's a lot of liquid. But the cake flour balances it out.

Creaming action shot. Or mixing action shot. Hard to tell. 

Creaming action shot. Or mixing action shot. Hard to tell. 

The cake goes into a quarter sheet pan, which was one of the special equipment bits I had to purchase. I think it was about $6 on Amazon. So if you want to make this cake, you should plan in advance. 

It's a piece of cake to bake a pretty cake.

It's a piece of cake to bake a pretty cake.

Next up I made the frosting. But I neglected to take any pictures of it. Here's what you should know about the frosting: you blend the pie crumb with some milk to turn it into a paste of sorts. It all sounds crazy, I know. But it turns out to be a nice frosting with a lot of salty/sweet balance. The frosting is made with sugar and butter. Duh. 

The last component I needed to make was the apple cider soak, which is made from apple cider and soak. It was for adding to the cake layers in the final assembly. A little extra dose of magic sauce.

It's apple cider, a pinch of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of brown sugar how come you taste so good?

It's apple cider, a pinch of cinnamon, and a teaspoon of brown sugar how come you taste so good?

Now it's on to final assembly. The cake has cooled, I turned it out on to the counter and then cut out the two rounds that will be layers 2 and 3.

The six inch cake ring was special equipment piece #2, and makes perfect six inch cake circles.

The six inch cake ring was special equipment piece #2, and makes perfect six inch cake circles.

Where did the rest of the cake go?!

Where did the rest of the cake go?!

The magic cake ring is then placed on a sheet pan with parchment, and then you take the non-circular bits of cake and assemble them into a round layer that would make any geometry teacher proud. 

The quarter sheet pan makes two six-inch circles of cake and one six-inch mess of cake.

The quarter sheet pan makes two six-inch circles of cake and one six-inch mess of cake.

Next the soak was added, brushed on delicately and sweetly. Then it's half the liquid cheesecake, topped with 1/3 of the remaining pie crumb. 

That's pie crumb on top of liquid cheesecake.

That's pie crumb on top of liquid cheesecake.

That's apple pie filling on top of pie crumb on top of liquid cheesecake.

That's apple pie filling on top of pie crumb on top of liquid cheesecake.

The other magic equipment in the recipe is acetate. What's acetate? Well, some call it cake collars. I call it overhead projector sheets, which is what I had to order because the proper cake collars wouldn't arrive in time. I cut the 8.5x11 sheets into long strips and had to use two strips on each layer of acetate, but I think it worked alright.

The acetate superstructure for the cake.

The acetate superstructure for the cake.

That's basically one layer of cake. Then it's repeated with the first of the proper cake layers, which is then soaked, liquid cheesecaked, and apple pie fillinged.

Soak the cake.

Soak the cake.

Add that liquid cheesecake.

Add that liquid cheesecake.

Eventually, you'll run out of things to put as layers in your cake. This is intentional and a good thing. Because cakes must end at some vertical point.

Hey that's why you had that other layer of cake!

Hey that's why you had that other layer of cake!

Add the frosting to the top of the cake

Add the frosting to the top of the cake

Finally, the cake is topped with the remaining pie crumb. If you do it the way you're supposed to, it'll go around the edge in a nice looking circle. If you're like me and forgot about that, you can put it all across the top of the cake and it's just fine.

A crumbed and frosted tower of cake

A crumbed and frosted tower of cake

When that's all on there, and all the layers are stacked. It heads to the freezer. That's right. It's been nearly 24 hours since I started making this cake and I still have another day before I get to eat any of it. 

Good night, sweet prince.

Good night, sweet prince.

At some point, I'll taste the cake. I can assure you the individual components are quite amazing on their own. The cake is some kind of magic unto itself. Very fluffy and light. The cheesecake is great too. 

So this thing freezes, then we have to thaw it before serving (which is about 17 hours from now). It's been a fun project, and I think if nothing else kind of solidifies the magic that cooking can provide. Each step along the way makes very little sense in the abstract. But eventually, it comes together and makes a pile of delicious things that you put in yoru freezer and wait another day to taste. 

America Elect

A few months ago I had the pleasure of talking with Andrew Kim, a designer who over the course of the last year got a lot of (well deserved) attention for a project he did proposing a massive redesign for Microsoft.

His latest project, America Elect, was to take a designers eye to the American electoral system. It's a fascinating look at updating a system that is kind of vestigial - in the sense that since the shift to voting by mail, we haven't really looked at changing ballot design (and in some cases are just filling out the same kind of old ballots).

It's a really beautiful project, and I have a feeling this won't be the last time we see some big ideas from him.

Hawaii Video

Late last year after the election, I went with my family to Hawaii, specifically to Kauai and Oahu. It was a scenic wonder of a trip.

The video was shot with my iPhone 5, which thrives in the bright sun. 

Music Video Montage

Sometimes, I'll hit the road (or the skies) and end up shooting some video and stitching it together with a song I like, and then I post it up.

Such as:

1) The time I drove up to British Columbia, saw a Canucks game (I'm a big hockey fan now), and explored north of the city for the first time.

2) The time I went flying with my friend Tony, up to Port Angeles out of Olympia and saw a lot of the Olympics

3) The time I went out on a boat in Union, WA on Hood Canal with my family and heard tales of the people who moved up there in the '30's to start the next San Francisco

I have another video of my trip to Hawaii last year that I need to post up sometime as well. It's a bit longer, and coincidentally much warmer and causes yearning to get back out to Hawaii at the earliest chance.

So that makes her... you?

I saw this movie in a local theatre this Summer. I got the Blu-ray in the mail a few weeks ago but then I went on vacation so I finally watched it again last night.

your-sister-s-sister06.jpg

There's something about the movie that draws me in. I have a fondness for the San Juan Islands, and especially so during the fall/winter -- it's possible they're just preying upon that connection -- but I think I'm equally fond of this movie.

It's a strange premise (TLDW: guy sleeps with his dead brother's girlfriend's sister, antics ensue) but it's such a simple construction - not a lot of music, basic camera work - the only thing that throws me is that he bikes back from Orcas Island to what I believe to be Burien in the span of a morning.

It showcases the beauty of that corner of the world and the complications of modern friendships. It feels very PNW-ish and very real.

A fussy way to make coffee

It has been said that achieving greatness comes down to just three things:

  1. A clicky Keyboard
  2. A Soda Stream
  3. A fussy way to make coffee

This post focuses on number three. Every morning I can, I make myself a batch of coffee in as fussy of a way that I know. How do I achieve this? It comes down to just two things: Aeropress and Tonx

First let me tell you about the Aeropress, or at least show you how it works.

Please note, this is not a real commercial - yes, that's really how it works; no, the video it wasn't made by Aeropress (it was made by a classy gentleman called Adam Lisagor).

You grind your beans, you add some water, you steep it, you plunge it, you get rid of the grounds, then you dilute it, and then you enjoy it. Hands down it is the easiest way to make great coffee I've ever experience.

"But Chase!" you may be thinking. "What about a French Press? That's how real fussy coffee is made!"

No.

The French Press is fine in theory, but let me assure you - it has two downfalls: one is the filter and the other is the clean up. On a press pot, the wire mesh lets too much crap through. Crap in your coffee is not good. 

Clean up is also a complete pain in the ass. If you pour out all the coffee, the grounds are compressed at the end of the glass container, and you're either left scooping it out or trying to pour them down the drain. It stinks.

Enter... the Aeropress. First, it's the basic principle of the press pot. But they ad a syringe-style plunger (which creates serious air pressure) and the cleanliness of a paper filter. You measure out your grounds, add hot water, steep, press. That's it. Clean up? Unscrew the filter assembly and plunge further and your grounds and filter go into the garbage (which automatically wipes clean the cylinder). A quick rinse and you're set for a nice, gentle air dry. 

I love the Aeropress. I love it more than any automatic machine I've had, and more than french press. It's the best way to make fussy coffee. It also costs about $30 bucks for the device and about two years worth of filters.

Now, the fussy machine is only as useful as its fussy raw materials, which in my case is Tonx. This is a subscription service. They send me a bag of really nice coffee every other week (which means I never go without) and it's been delicious every single time. 

The beans and the notes. 

The beans and the notes. 

Think of it as a one-off delivery of some great fresh roasted beans every two weeks. This way you can get a wide variety of great beans and don't have to worry about finding one certain producer you like (which usually costs more at my fancy local fussy coffee place) and are constantly delighted with treats from around the world. 

They sent one two weeks ago that was amazing. I also can't wait to try this week's. They roast every other Sunday in LA and get them in the mail on Monday. By the time they arrive at your door (which is usually Thursday for me) the beans have gotten enough time to be awesome. 

My fussy coffee setup

My fussy coffee setup

So try Tonx. (Seriously - if you sign up with this link you'll get a free sample). Then get an Aeropress.

You'll be 1/3 of the way to greatness.

Fanboy

It is often that I am accused of being a fanboy. First it was for Nintendo (which may have been true) but now what seems like quite often I'm accused of being an Apple fanboy. Ex: 

There are more, but that'd involve a lot of digging through Facebook to comments of mine on posts where people ask "What kind of phone/laptop should I buy?" and I answer honestly: an iPhone/MacBook and then get replies of "SHUT UP FANBOY!"

It was easier for a while – people could just say "No I don't want an iPhone - I'm on Verizon." Oops. There went that argument. "I use Gmail" is another one I've heard. Yep - you can't use one of the world's most popular email services on one of the world's most popular phones (for now).

Now, I'm not trying to cast myself as the Apple martyr - there are plenty of others who will take far more heat than I ever will - but for whatever reason, in my social circle (used in the least corporate sense possible) I constantly find myself the center of the fanboy name-calling, which is fine. 

But the thing is - I'm not wrong.

I've been wrong in the past - I purchased a Virtual Boy on clearance when I was in Middle School - but right now I'm not. If a friend asks me what kind of laptop to buy, what kind of phone to get, I'm yet to see something that's made by not-Apple that beats the Apple counterpart.

I wasn't always this way. For me, my first Apple purchase was an iPod (which I had to struggle to get to work with my custom built PC in 2003) and then another iPod and then another one.

Then it was one morning January of 2007 and I knew that my sleek and fashionable (story of my life) RAZR was about to hit the garbage heap. Back then, the damn thing had no apps - just internet, email, and phone. It was modern, elegant and seemingly magical. But I remember back to the first time I saw the video of it in action, and I remember what blew me away the most: the phone. 

Yes, the phone. You could slide through your contacts. You got your voicemail in an inbox. You tapped a button to put someone on hold or add a call or do whatever you wanted. It made sense. I distinctly remember thinking that apart from everything else - this is the best phone I've ever seen on a phone. 

Then of course when it came time to get a laptop, I went with a MacBook Pro. And then a new iPhone (and another, and another). Then an iPad (and another one). And I think that's pretty much fine.

I don't feel compelled to defend a company, to purchase things from a company, or to do anything except enjoy the technology.

There was a quote in a "movie" I watched a few weeks back that talked about scientists tracking energy efficiency in animals in terms of their distance ability. They saw a cheetah was able to use its energy better than a cat, for example. A human was only halfway up the chart. But then they graphed a human on a bicycle - number one by the proverbial mile.

That's what's exciting about where we are right now. We're able to do things that sounded like science fiction on devices so small they seem impossible. It so happens that there is a company that makes some of those devices that I own and use that seems to be doing it better than others, and I like them. 

I don't think that's fanboy. I don't think that's shilling. I don't think that's the cartoon Calvin peeing on a Chevy logo. I think it's recognizing where we are and what we do  with our money, our technology and our creativity. 

The stage is open for someone else to come along and take the spotlight, and I would love to see every company in the tech world come out with something great and crowd Apple off the stage with the new thing that is going to change everything.

I'll be waiting.