The Willows Inn on Lummi Island – Off the Chain Good!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Willows Inn on Lummi Island – Off the Chain Good!

Chef Blaine Wetzel - The Willows InnI 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’s 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. Buy evenings 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 photos

Smoked Mussel Venison Tartar Steelhead Roe Dried Kale Crisp Halibut Skin Scallop Turnip Shiitake Mushroom plate-up Charred Kohlrabi Smoked Sockeye Wild Seaweeds Bone Marrow King Salmon Strawberries Blueberries Parting Gift Sunset at the Willows

 

Willows Inn Menu July 10, 2013

Smoked Mussel

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!

Venison Tartar

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”.

Grilled Shiitake

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

Smoked Sockeye

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.

Flax Bites

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.

 

Posted In:Restaurant Review


Les Nomades Chicago Review

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Les Nomades Chicago Review

Les Nomades jpg

Chef Brent Clarkson and I attended a three day culinary seminar in Chicago and of course we had to try some Chicago restaurants when we were not in class.  I had no idea that Chicago was such a huge foodie town; I needed another $3000 and 2 weeks to eat my way through this town!

Our first day there we had a fabulous dinner at Les Nomades in Chicago, a highly rated restaurant I found using the Zagat Reviews. They have maintained a Mobile 4 star rating from 2001-2009.  I made the reservations a month in advance.  When the manager learned that we were chefs she passed that info on to Chef Chris Nugent who offered us his Twelve Course Dugustation Menu.  We also chose a five-course wine pairing and after a few questions from the Sommelier about our preferences we left the wine selections up to him.

From the moment we arrived we were treated like special guests.  The service was very professional, all the plates were perfectly presented (6 o’clock position was always correctly placed), waters never got more than half empty, staff was attentive but not intrusive.  Exceptional service and food all the way around.

Les Nomades Review – Twelve Course Degustation Menu

Sunchoke soup, truffle foam, gougere

Sunchoke Soup jpg

The Sunchoke soup was satiny smooth with good flavor.  The foam had a nice texture with good elevation, not the “spit bubble” foam which is also popular but which I find unpleasant to look at. The gougere added a contrasting texture to the dish… I think it was filled with greyere?

 

 

 

Three preparations of smoked salmon, celery root, fennel, preserved Meyer lemon

This was a conceptually cool plate presentation.  Loved the three presentations on one plate.  Up front is a lox style smoked salmon over parsley pesto.  Next is a tartar variation. And in the dish is square-cut smoked salmon.

Salmon Trio 1 jpg     Salmon Trio 2 jpg

 

 

Roasted quail, spiced beluga lentils, grain mustard, locally grown apple

Quail jpg

This dish is my favorite presentation. The main components are set slightly off-center leaving a lot of white space on the right. You have a disk shape and a line… simple yet elegant.  I’ve already played with a duo of King Salmon and Lamb Chop presented in a somewhat similar manner.

 

 

 

Butter poached Maine lobster, sweet corn ragout, sea beans, tarragon lobster jus

Poached Maine Lobster jpg

Butter poached lobster must be cooked correctly so as to not make it tough (over-cooked). This dish was perfectly prepared, tender and sweet.  Sea beans can be very salty with a natural sea water flavor. These were lightly cooked which decreased their natural salinity making them a nice match for this dish.

 

 

 

Veal sweetbreads, wild mushroom risotto

Sweetbreads jpg

Wonderful caramelization on the Sweetbreads, making them crunchy on the outside but tender on the inside giving it a wonderful contrast of texture.  Just enough risotto to complement the dish but not bulk it up with unnecessary starch.

 

 

 

Heirloom tomato salad, fennel, mache, Roquefort cheese, Minus 8 vinaigrette

Heirloom Salad jpg

Three or four varieties of heirlooms were used in this salad along with Minus 8 vinaigrette. I hadn’t heard of Minus 8 before so here’s the story in brief.  It is produced in Niagara, Ontario Canada and is named for the temperature at which the grapes are harvested; -8 Celsius. Their marketing states, “Minus 8 Vinegar is characterized by mouth-watering acidity, natural sweetness, balance in taste, ripe fruit and wine flavors, and a roundness and depth from years of aging in French Oak.”  Chefs who use it on their menus include Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, and Tom Colicchio.  You can purchase Minus 8 from Amazaon.com  Minus 8 Vinegar (6.76 ounce)

 

 

Loup de mer, lobster ragout, preserved Meyer lemon, Cognac jus

Loup de Mer jpg

Loup de mer usually refers to Sea Bass which can be a generic name for several white fleshed, mild flavored fish but I’m not sure which variety was used.  This was yet another well balanced course, the fish was tender and juicy and the flavors combined well to elevate the entire dish.  The Parisian vegetables added a nice visual contrast.

 

 

 

Roasted venison

Venison jpg

Look at the way the venison is cooked… a perfect circle of doneness all the way around and beautifully rare-medium rare in the center.  It is presented over Israeli cous cous and I think it was a parsley pesto in the center with roasted red & yellow bell peppers.

 

 

Artisan Cheeses

I overlooked getting a picture of this course!

 

Fresh fruit soup

Fruit Soup jpg

I remember the fruit soup being refreshing, but I don’t remember the flavor profiles! We were about 3 1/2 hours into dinner and had consumed a fair amount of wine and bourbon by this point. I had pretty much gone into full indulgence of culinary pleasures, screw everything else!

 

 

 

Pastry Assortment chocolate mousse cone, lemon tart, coconut crème brulee and caramel ice cream

WTH! I didn’t get a picture of the dessert course either!  I saw it and dove right in… it was delicious.

 

 

Petits fours

Petit Fours jpg

Finally, back on track! For the closing to the dinner we were presented an assortment of house-made petit fours.  In American culture, this seems like dessert twice and is not part of most menus.  But in classic European restaurant service, this course is served after dinner with tea, coffee, cordials or dessert wines.

It took us four hours to complete dinner at a leisurely pace.  We met a wonderful “foodie couple” who were professional musicians in the orchestra and they shared some info about Chicago.  We enjoyed conversation with them through-out the night and they actually called a chef friend of theirs to arrange dinner for us if we had time the following night, but unfortunately this  didn’t work into our schedule.

I very much enjoyed my experience at Les Nomades and would recommend it to anyone.  I’m not sure if the 12 Course Degustation Menu is always available but of course they have a regular ala carte menu.

Our total bill for two before tax and tip: $506.50

Food:                 $350.00
Wine Pairing:     $130.00
Bourbon:            $26.50