There are certain meals in your life that will always be remembered (a milestone birthday at Eleven Madison Park a number of years ago comes to mind, for example). It’s not necessarily a fancy meal at a restaurant that makes an evening memorable–—so many factors can make a meal special, but this summer we were fortunate enough to dine at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Mark’s family had been talking about this restaurant for years, and we decided that this summer would be the year that we finally make a reservation. While the food was spectacular, the location was equally special, and the company even more so. It’s the sort of trip that our family will be remembering for years.
22 courses (!) may sound overwhelming, but each course was like a little gem. Some of the plates allowed a single ingredient to shine, while others featured the contrast and harmony between different flavors and textures. A chef’s tasting menu is all about the element of surprise and the anticipation and mystery of what’s next. I think it’s my favorite way to eat. A single mussel, for example, is presented in a cedar box after being smoked over alder on the grounds of the restaurant. A little precious? Maybe. But what makes the Willow’s Inn special is that much of the food and ingredients that make it to your table is foraged, caught, or grown right on the island. The connection between the food and the land is very evident here and it makes you really thoughtful about what you’re eating and how’s it’s prepared.
Although it’s been some time since I’ve eaten at any kind of fine dining restaurant, I’ve been to number of places here in NYC in the past, and what I appreciated about the Willows Inn was how relaxed our dinner was. While the location right on the water in what feels like the edge of the world had everything to do with it (and dress was fairly casual––this is Washington state after all!) I loved that the kitchen staff, including head chef Blaine Wentzel himself, emerged from the kitchen to serve each course to the diners. It gave us an opportunity to talk with the chef and the cooks. Guests are even invited to take a tour of the kitchen and gardens where many of the vegetables are grown. It certainly makes you think (at least during the meal) that this slow idyllic island life is the only thing that makes sense. Why aren’t we all living this way?
Lummi is tiny island located near the San Juan Islands on the edge of Washington, close to Canada. It has a population of roughly 1000 people and everybody waves to each other when they pass by. There isn’t much to do on the island–—not a lot of shops or restaurants––but that’s part of the charm. We spent 3 quiet days in a rented log cabin-like house with a view of the water not far from the Inn. Vacations in a rented house with family are the type of vacations that the girls love most. We cook, we read, watch movies and play lots of games. We’ve been doing a mini-trip within our annual summer travels to Washington for years now and it helps to make our trips to the Northwest feel like a vacation, rather than annual visits to family. We don’t travel a lot, but we do value family time and this a way to satisfy everyone.
So about our dinner party…I get the impression that large parties like ours isn’t really the typical reservation at the Inn (we were 8 and I believe the total seats in the restaurant is about 26). Everyone else was paired off in intimate tables (it seems like a perfect place to celebrate a special anniversary). I don’t know if many kids dine at the Inn either, and we did have many conversations about it before we made our reservation. As you may have guessed, the price of the tasting menu is expensive (and it would certainly make this a once-in-a-lifetime kind of dining experience). Initially, we were going to have both kids stay back at our rented house, but we decided about a month before our dinner to include our 13 year old because she is such a good eater and a food person, and we knew that she would love the experience. As it turns out, she did appreciate the meal as much (and maybe even more!) as any of us. We decided that our (pickier) 10 year old would not join us for dinner, but would stay in the room at the Inn that we reserved for that night while our party was downstairs in the dining room. We loaded up a bag full of drawing supplies, food, snacks, and an iPad, but she was allowed to stay for some of the beginning courses (called pre-dinner cocktail snacks) and join in on some of the dessert courses at the end of our meal. Given that this dinner is going to be such a collective memory for us all, we’re really happy that she got to experience some of the evening with us.
It’s hard to pick a favorite course when you have 22 fantastic ones to choose from, but if I had to pick one, it would be the one above––mostly because I’d never eaten anything quite like it before: a beautiful arrangement of edible flowers and herbs on top of a oyster cream sauce on a crispy tempura-fried mustard leaf. What I loved most, other than the fact that it was totally delightful and surprising, was that each bite was different from the next because of the all the different type of herbs. It’s something that I want to eat again and again, and one that I’ll want to try and recreate. But I know that even if we could get all the ingredients and recreate a close version, a big part of the magic of that dish will always stay on the island.