Willows Inn – Part Deux

Crispy kale with truffle and toasted rye

Crispy kale with truffle and toasted rye

Craig was encouraging me to think about what I wanted to do to celebrate my birthday, even though it was months away. I always use it as an excuse to eat some great food, but this year was a milestone I wasn’t quite ready to admit to. So it required something extra special – preferably involving getting out of town – and Willows Inn seemed like the perfect choice to satisfy my criteria. It had been two years since we last dined there, and during that time Chef Blaine Wetzel picked up additional acclaim by winning the 2014 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Chef Wetzel was also a current nominee for Best Chef: Northwest, which he would win just days before our visit.

It felt like it was time to go back.

A leisurely drive north to Bellingham, followed by a quick ferry ride to Lummi Island on an unseasonably warm and sunny day in May, our first stop was Legoe Bay Winery on the island’s western side. This is a small, humble winery started in 2006 by Larry Smith and Karl Malling. The former, the principal winemaker at Legoe Bay Winery, is quite the character who loves to tell the story of how he learned to make wine as a young boy by his grandmother’s side. The last time we came to the island, we left with a case of red and a case of white. The wine is decent, and at just a few dollars a bottle it was a cost effective way to fill up our wine rack while supporting a local business. Well, business must be very good, because two years after that first visit the wine had nearly tripled in price; no doubt due to the additional traffic provided by Willows Inn. But I couldn’t blame Larry for raising his prices. A couple of his wines, including a 2010 un-oaked Chardonnay, have won recent awards. So despite the price hike, we once again came away with a case of red and a case of white. Exactly as we had planned.

After imbibing more than our fair share of afternoon wine, and with a big night still ahead of us, we checked into our room to relax for a bit. We stayed in one of the Inn’s off-site properties, the Skallaham Studio, located just a mile down the road. It has a great floor plan, modern finishes, and a lovely view of the Sound. I liked this studio so much that I was trying to convince Craig that we should live there permanently – something he didn’t disagree with.

Seating at Willows Inn starts at 6:30pm, but guests are encouraged to come earlier to have a drink and take in the view. It also makes for great people-watching as each new guest arrives, being that in the laid back Northwest you can never predict who is a foodie (oh, how I hate that term) with money to spend on an expensive tasting menu. With such an unexpected beautiful day, we were able to sit outside on the deck and bask in the sunshine with cocktails in hand. Last time here I had a vibrant green Douglas Fir cocktail called the Spotted Owl. This time, the drink menu was different, but another green cocktail  – thanks to the sorrel – was on the menu, so I selected that to maintain the theme.

Cocktails on the deck: The Elder

Cocktails on the deck: The Elder

Changing things up a bit, at 6:30pm the staff began serving snacks out on the deck instead of first bringing us inside. It was a welcome surprise; both because we were hungry, and it allowed us to continue to enjoy the sunshine and the view. We were served a couple of familiar favorites – including a perfectly smoked Shitake mushroom, and a delicate, crispy kale chip with truffle and toasted rye – in addition to several new-comers in the form of a savory donut filled with smoked black cod (which was one of my favorites of the night), grilled Pacific oysters served over hot rocks, and a crisp with charred smelt and a smear of roe. The snacks were paired with a local hard cider, which proved to be a lovely complement to the fishy, salty snacks, all of which tasted like they came directly out of the ocean. That’s why the snacks stand out the most. Each item tasted like the essence of what it is and where it’s from. Each had a sense of  purity, getting to the heart of what Chef Wetzel is trying to accomplish with the restaurant.

As the snacks were winding down diners were escorted table-by-table into the dining room. Previously, we were seated in a small room adjacent to the kitchen, but this time we were in the dining room proper. It had a busier, livelier vibe, but we missed the intimacy and the view of the kitchen that came with the smaller room.

Once inside and seated, we were served grilled razor clams with foraged beach peas, providing a perfect blend of earth and ocean. Asparagus broth with woodruff (a local groundcover) and spruce shoots tasted like the aftermath of a smoky forest fire, and yet was somehow still light and refreshing. Smoked rockfish, in a bone broth with seaweed, tasted buttery and rich, while smoked mussels in their own broth were simultaneously delicate and intense. All were delicious.

The entertainment of the night was watching nearby diners decide if they dare try to suck the heads of the spot prawns we were served. Delivered on a mound of rock salt, diners were encouraged to try the heads of these sophisticated peel ’em and eat ’em shrimp, and amidst lots of giggling and photos some did. A delicate sake was served with the prawns to wash them down and give an extra shot of courage.

We were next served a glass of house-infused vermouth with nettles and Shitake mushrooms, to accompany a familiar and beloved bite from last time: a piece of smoked Sockeye salmon; the most perfect salmon you can imagine. Finished with butter and brown sugar, it tasted like candy and was just as addictive. That was followed with a big glass of organic Chardonnay, accompanied by an even bigger knife. It seemed certain something meaty was next on the menu, despite the white wine; but alas, we were served a plate of tender but earthy mustard greens. Yes, they required a knife, but probably not one that could cause serious damage in a bar brawl.

A bread course came next, and while the whole wheat ancient grains were delicious, the broth of nettles didn’t compare to the chicken pan drippings we had last time.

Asparagus broth with woodruff and spruce shoots

The main courses followed, including delicate, fragrant crab in a puree of pine nuts; halibut with geoduck; and venison tartare with miner’s lettuce and rye. All were tasty, but missed the punch and excitement of everything that had led up to them. This was particularly true of the venison. So many of the dishes we were served tasted like the epitome of what each plate held; but I’m not sure I would have recognized the usual rich, gamey taste of venison. It seems not uncommon in tasting menus that the grand finale of the menu is sometimes the least interesting or successful, but there was something else going on as well. A distraction. The service had been well-orchestrated up to this point, but suddenly it seemed rushed and confused, and it hit us head-on when we realized we had three drinks a piece in front of us and could no longer focus on either the food or the beverages. The pacing had fallen apart and it felt that the imperative was simply to drink and eat – fast.

I recall the dessert course of dandelion ice cream, leaves, and merengue being good and keeping with the theme of earthy flavors with just a hint of sweetness, but I couldn’t really enjoy it, and when the Inn’s signature flax seed caramels came out with the bill it felt like anything but the leisurely grand meal we just spent a small fortune on. When I have a tasting menu, I expect some dishes will stand out more than others and some may downright fail, and I’m perfectly okay with that if I feel the chef is experimenting with new, creative ideas. But that wasn’t the real problem. It was the rushed service towards the end that made us feel like we overstayed our welcome, even as we were served more to eat and drink. For the money and effort that goes into an evening at Willows Inn, this should never, ever be an issue, and I’m hoping it was just a fluke. Perhaps it was because the watchful eye of Chef Wetzel was not there. (The chef was visiting his fiancée in her native Paraguay where she is slowly recuperating from a terrible hit and run accident.)

Another, albeit more minor, disappointment followed the next morning. The last time we stayed at Willows Inn, breakfast at the Beach Store Cafe was included with the price of the room. That perk is no longer offered. You can breakfast at either the Beach Store Cafe or at Willows Inn itself, but at your own expense. Because we wanted to sleep in the following morning, and we really wanted to go on the Loganita Farm tour (which we missed last time), we opted for a donut from the one and only store on the island to tide us over until after the tour. We met at the Inn’s reception desk, where a group of six of us were led by the Inn’s operations manager on a fifteen minute walk up the road to Loganita Farm, which exclusively provides Willows Inn with all manner of vegetables and other edibles for their kitchen. It was a quiet Sunday morning at the farm and a pleasant walk through the vegetable beds tasting sorrel leaves and hearing that, despite all the zucchini plants they were growing, they never use an actual zucchini in their menu. It’s grown only for its blossoms.

Busy, busy bee

Busy, busy bee

After the tour and a walk back to our car, it was finally time for breakfast. Willows Inn was no longer serving so we went to the Beach Store Café, which we remembered being quite good the last time we ate there. Since coming under new ownership, the reviews have been especially glowing. Unfortunately, we both really wanted breakfast and despite the fact that we were so close to breakfast service that our waitress had to check with the kitchen to see if we could still get it, the answer was a firm “no.”  We made due with the lunch menu, since we had no other options, but it was a final disappointment to mark the end of our trip.

While our visit to the island wasn’t perfect, I have no regrets. Things happen in life that help put disappointments in perspective. I knew this milestone birthday would be challenging for me, but what I didn’t know at the time we made reservations was that my birthday would be less than six weeks following the death of my mother, and that it would fall on Mother’s Day to boot. I didn’t know back then why my birthday would truly be so difficult, and the reality was that the number itself no longer mattered. But this isn’t a story about my mom and her passing. Nor is it meant to focus on the rushed service and escalated prices at Willows Inn. The real story is about the pure joy that food can bring, even if fleeting. Food can bring us comfort, adventure, pleasure, and even transcendence. So while my birthday came with a heavy dose of sadness and loss, as well as a few frustrations, what I will remember most is a night filled with giddiness, smiles, pleasure, and sunshine. And I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how my mom would have wanted me to spend this day.

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