October 3, 2010

The Willows Inn on Lummi Island

Thanks to a tip in Seattle Magazine, yesterday we found ourselves on a tiny island watching a beautiful sunset, enjoying a fantastic meal of pristine local ingredients. And the team preparing the meal? Led by a young and talented chef, Blaine Wetzel, returning to Washington after 18 months as a sous chef at none other than Noma, Copenhagen's gastronomic icon of intensely local and indigenous food, to lead the kitchen at the Willows Inn.

Why was this one of the most exciting meals we've had in recent memory? Maybe it was the spectacular setting of the property... the amazing sourcing of ingredients from the gardens adjacent to the property and from the waters viewable from deck... or the techniques and flavor combinations expressed in the dishes we enjoyed... perhaps the time taken by Chef Blaine, his sous chef Jason, and Riley Stark (the proprietor of the inn) to hang out after the meal to talk about what they are trying to accomplish with the food at the inn.

What I do know is that the first bite of each dish had a bit of revelation, sparking an interest and anticipation for what might be coming next.

The following are some initial impressions of the meal we enjoyed.

Garden radishes in "soil". This is one of the signature preparations from Noma Chef René Redzepi. Chef Wetzel pulled baby radishes and broccolini from the garden, "planting" them in a terra cotta pot in an edible "soil" made of sweetened and dehydrated hazelnut and an herbed mayonnaise. A perfect way to start the meal, a visual metaphor for the origins of the ingredients for the meal, with a delicious purity of flavor.

Totten inlet mussels with potatoes and horseradish. Supremely fresh mussels. A light broth evocative of the ocean. Clean and refreshing cucumber. The surprise of horseradish-flavored "snow". Temperature manipulating the strength of flavor.

Nettles farm heirloom tomatoes with fresh herbs. Yes, we've been eating terrific tomatoes from our garden nonstop for the last two weeks. But here, the tarragon puree created a new flavor profile for enjoying these supremely sweet heirlooms, complex with an intensely deep flavor profile. Full of umami, but fresh and bright at the same time.

Chanterelle mushrooms with woodruff and fresh cheese. Beautiful chanterelles and other mushrooms foraged from Lummi Island, both cooked and raw. The rich pork broth unifying the dish, spiked with tiny flavor accents of sweetly herbaceous woodruff.

Reefnet caught coho salmon with turnips, celery and mustard. Here's a great example of what this restaurant is about. The menu for the evening originally had lamb conceived for this course. But that day, the restaurant received two perfect coho salmon from the waters adjacent to the property. Immediate menu change. Superbly cooked, just to the point of enabling the salmon to flake, but no more. Amazing freshness, flavor and texture. Total respect for the product.

Salmon belly with roasted beet, apple and watercress puree. An additional unplanned course added to the menu to take advantage of the freshness of the remaining salmon belly. Remarkable roasted beet. Each ingredient in this preparation had such primary flavors working together in a lovely combination.

Honey ice cream with walnuts and wild plums. A simple ice cream with floral-scented honey, with rich walnuts and light granola adding texture. The sauce was a reduction of wild plums from the island, giving a nicely tart finish.

There is so much potential for how the bounty of ingredients truly local and indigenous to the area can be expressed in the hands of Chef Wetzel and his team. The inn has cultivated some amazing partnerships to source their products, and each season holds the promise of new experiences. We look forward to coming back and seeing the development and evolution of the cuisine.

If you're near Seattle or Vancouver, BC, go experience this place. It's easily worth the trip, and you might just leave with a different perspective of food in this area.

The Willows on Urbanspoon

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