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.