Friday, July 12, 2013
The Willows Inn on Lummi Island – Off the Chain Good!
I have lived in the Bellingham area for over 30 years and although Lummi Island is known to be a beautiful, peaceful place there has never really been any reason to go out there. The whole state is filled with beautiful, peaceful places so why go out there? Well, owner John Gibb and Chef Blaine Wetzel are offering some pretty compelling reasons to make the trip.
The Willows Inn across the bay from Bellingham, WA on Lummi Island has garnered a great culinary reputation, and although I have been wanting to try Chef Blaine Wetzel’s food for several years now, I never got around to making the trip to the island…my loss. I have the great fortune of being able to go out three or four times a year with a few of my bosses to “wine and dine” as we R & D local (Seattle and north) restaurants. We have to pay for the wine (and other alcoholic indulgences!), but our employer picks up the food portion of the bill. I chose the Willows Inn for our most recent R & D exploration. It’s days like this that I especially love my job!
I had seen a sample menu for Willows Inn online and was therefore under the assumption that this would be about a five or six course dinner. And when we were presented with the evening’s menu (a Prix Fixe menu so there are no choices here, you get what the Chef serves) it also showed only five courses. However, when the first course arrived sous chef Nick said that they would be bringing out a number of “pre” courses before the actual menu courses started. By evening’s end we had reveled our way through 16 courses! 17 if you count that awesome bread with the chicken drippings. Of course, with 16 dishes there were some courses which we didn’t appreciate quite as well as others. But this was a matter of choosing a distinction between “off the f__king chain awesome!”, or simply “really damn good”. I found all of the courses to be simple and pure in flavor, yet executed in such a perfect way as to be truly a culinary delight.
This is the kind of gig which every chef would love to have. A small restaurant with about 40 seats, service staff of three, and a kitchen staff of 7 talented cooks, 1 intern and 1 estage’ along with a dishwasher to serve those 40 guests. The guests hang out in a separate area having cocktails while they wait to be seated for the one and only 7 o’clock seating. The Chef controls the timing as to when different guests are sat, he knows exactly what the menu is, and he gets to set the pace. No multiple seatings, no getting slammed followed by lulls in service followed by getting slammed again, no scrambling to prep more of that one item which everyone and their brother wants tonight. Just one smooth flowing machine serving incredible bites to your guests.
But, that doesn’t mean that this is an easy job. I heard that the cook’s average shift is about 14 hours, including some time foraging the island for some of today’s menu items. And level of execution on these dishes shows the highest degree of commitment to consistency, quality, presentation, and flavor. No second rate stuff here, nothing which is simply “good enough”.
For a little history on Chef Wetzel and the Willow Inn follow this link.
Click on the images for a larger photo. The full menu is listed below.
Willows Inn Menu July 10, 2013
A beautiful small wooden box was presented at the table by sous chef Nick with the comment that we would receive several “pre” courses before the actual dinner menu. When I opened the wooden lid, a puff of wood smoke and the fragrant aroma of roasted mussel greeted me. And, to my surprised delight, the mussel opened before my eyes as I removed the lid! This was sooooo cool! I was an instant fan of the Willows!
served on crisp rye with savory and fennel fronds
While the presentation on the mussel dish delighted me, the flavor of this dish made me smile ear to ear and was one of my favorites of the evening.
Crispy Crepe with Steelhead Roe
The roe was folded into whip cream and stuffed into golden brown brik dough rings. The ends were then touched into fines herbs and served. You got the crunch of the brik dough followed by the delightful “pop” of the roe… freakin awesome!
Kale with Black Truffle and Rye
Crispy leaf of kale spiked with truffle and rye
Crispy Halibut Skin
Talk about an innovative way to utilize every part of the fish, this concept had us talking. Filled I think with a clam farce, this had a wonderful crunch and flavorful center. It was also lightly dusted with…sorry, don’t remember. Was it fishy? Not at all.
Singing Pink Scallops with Watercress
Light and refreshing, this reminded me of a ceviche.
Turnips steamed in Whey
A flavorful broth, tender turnips with just the right amount of “bite” or “chew”.
The shiitakes were very tender and had a light smokiness to them. They were also very moist as if they had been marinated. I found a separate recipe by Chef Wetzel for confit shiitakes and think that is how these were prepared. Very nice.
Charred Kohlrabi with Red Currants and Coriander
served with a quenelle of mussel cream
This was warm as if right out of the smoker. The salmon was rich and lightly salty (which suggests they used a brining process) with a mild sweetness which I thought was maple.
Wild Seaweeds braised with Dungeness Crab & Brown Butter
Local seaweeds are harvested from the Lummi Island beaches and utilized. It’s not “a looker” but it sure tasted good. The crab meat was fresh and moist.
Dried Beets glazed with Lingonberries served with Bone Marrow
I love the intense, earthy, mildly sweet flavor of beets, and with the lingonberry glaze these puppies were worth fighting for! They made a nice counter point to the richness of the marrow which added its own decadence to the dish. Loved it!
King Salmon with summer squash and Nasturtiums
Locally caught king salmon with a perfectly crispy skin yet juicy-tender flesh…this crew knows how to cook salmon for Pacific Northwesterners!
Strawberries and Pineapple Weed granita
The first of three dessert courses, fresh local strawberries with their pure taste of summer coupled with the refreshing pineapple weed (never used it before) shaved ice.
Blueberries with Woodruff and Malt
The malt was turned into a kind of “dirt” for this presentation with the blueberries scattered throughout. It offered a nice crunch to go along with the berries. And the woodruff was made into either a cream or panna cotta quenelle.
The parting gift was caramel cube with flax seeds. It was “just sweet enough” and made for a great ending to a fantastic dining experience.