Head to Langley and Coupeville on Whidbey Island for culinary bounty, much of it locally sourced.
Let me start with a confession: I went to Whidbey Island for two days and didn’t eat a single Penn Cove mussel.
I meant to, I really did, and there was no dearth of opportunity. Whidbey being the place those sleek, black bivalves call home, they appear on just about every menu. I plead procrastination. After all, Penn Cove mussels aren’t exactly scarce in Seattle either, and there were so many other things I wanted to eat instead.
Whidbey is an island of plenty for the gastronomic wanderer.
“We have several farmers markets, with 40 to 45 full-time growers and backyard farmers in peak season,” Matt Costello told a rapt dining room at The Inn at Langley, where he has been chef and general manager since 2003. “They raise kid, lamb and geese. They deliver eggs to my door. There are fruit preserves and cheese makers. Morels grow in my neighbor’s backyard. Spot prawns, smelt and crab are harvested just off the inn’s decks.
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“A ton of people contributed to dinner tonight,” Costello concluded. “Take a second to appreciate the sense of place.”
Whether you are seated at the communal table in front of the exhibition kitchen or around the perimeter of the relaxed, art-filled dining room, the three-hour Inn at Langley dining experience feels like an intimate celebration. Each component of Costello’s multicourse tasting menu is as carefully crafted as the cherry tables, made by local woodworker David Gray.
Costello uses modernist touches in the best way, to amplify flavors and vary textures. A creamy cardamom “fluff,” for example, played up the inherent sweetness of spring peas, onions and carrot foam surrounding halibut filet.
Every dish had secrets to reveal, from the first bites — kumquats brimming with bourbon, chevre and ground hazelnuts capped with swirling beet meringue, and a hollowed eggshell cradling lush green garlic custard and foamy parsnip — to a finale of frozen whipped chocolate with crunchy toffee that exploded like Pop Rocks in the mouth.
The Inn at Langley is the apotheosis of dining on Whidbey, but at $120 per person, plus $85 for optional wine pairings, it’s a destination for serious eaters with serious money. For those without the money or inclination, there are many other ways to savor Whidbey.
Comfort and charmin Langley
It was pouring rain and dark as dusk on the mid-April morning my pal and I landed in Clinton. Ten minutes after driving off the ferry we were in the little town of Langley hugging mugs of strong coffee at The Braeburn, a daytime cafe full of tchotchkes and country charm. Tables up front near a potbellied stove fill up first on days like this, but there’s a charming, dog-friendly garden in back that looks ideal for sipping mimosas in summer.
Owner Lisa Morrill, who once waited tables here, bought the cafe in November 2010. She persuaded us to try the seared oatmeal, a treat as decadent as any pastry. Sweetened, cinnamon-scented oatmeal is cooled, sliced and seared on the flattop. Then it’s lavished with brown butter and garnished with brittle leaves of fried mint.
The Food Network fussed over The Braeburn’s corned-beef mash — an enormous portion of meat and potatoes topped with three fried eggs and Dubliner cheese. But I fell for the veggie hash, a peperoncini-sparked jumble of farm fresh kale and root vegetables from local gardens, along with artichoke hearts, olives and black beans.
The morning scene is much quirkier next door at Useless Bay Coffee Company, where the coffee cake is house made and the coffee beans house roasted. Try the Smuggler’s Cove blend, which approximates the after-dinner roast they make exclusively for The Inn at Langley.
A sedate town looking east across Saratoga Passage, Langley is chockablock with galleries and rare book shops.
“Are you from America?” asked David Gregor, whose shop specializes in first editions and books about Paris in the 1920s. He emigrated to Whidbey from “America” (i.e. the mainland) after marrying Priscilla Lowry-Gregor, whose own antiquarian shop, devoted to The Age of Discovery, is two blocks away.
The town’s commercial hub is The Star Store, a grocery and mercantile where you can shop for kitchenware, clothing, charcuterie or shoes. Upstairs at Prima Bistro, Sieb Jurriaans’ wide-ranging menu offers both Penn Cove oysters and mussels. I’ll have them in Coupeville, I thought, ordering the special instead: a vividly orange curried carrot soup and white king salmon with braised endive.
Coupeville is a 25-mile drive north from Langley with many diversions along the way, including Bayview Corner, where you’ll find a farmers market Saturdays from April to October. A bit farther along Highway 525 at Thompson Road, the Tilth Farmers Market operates on Sundays.
A don’t-miss stop between Langley and Coupeville is Greenbank Farm for the loganberry pie at Whidbey Pies Café. Built in 1906, the former dairy farm was once the largest loganberry grower in the country. When the 522 fertile acres became ripe for developers’ picking in the mid-1990s, locals succeeded in preserving the property. The red-and-white cluster of barns and buildings includes a wine-tasting room where a genial Brit poured samples ($1 each) from boutique wineries around Puget Sound.
Coupeville’s cafes and history
Like many grand dames, Coupeville likes to brag about its age. The second-oldest town in Washington was founded in 1852 by New England sea captains and named after one of them: Captain Coupe. The town sits astride Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, 22 square miles of farmland, beaches, parks, trails and historic structures.
Coupeville’s well-preserved Victorian architecture includes many buildings listed on the National Historic Register. On picturesque Front Street, markers commemorate the original occupants: The former Elkhorn Saloon (established in 1883) is now an antique shop; “Coupecakes” are for sale at Mariti Chocolate Company, site of a former law office (dating to 1909).
Front Street overlooks a wharf built in 1905 for the Mosquito Fleet, the little passenger/freight boats that brought supplies to the settlers and hauled off the island’s abundant agricultural output.
Today that local produce is more likely to be sold at Whidbey markets or restaurants such as Mosquito Fleet Chili and Pies. There Rita Tomayko uses Willowood Farm’s Rockwell beans in her minestrone, and her husband, Chris Tomayko, makes chili with grass-fed beef from Three Sisters, a century-old family farm in Oak Harbor.
The entrance to their inviting cafe is down a flight of steps. It was past 3 p.m. and they were closed, but Chris was still in the kitchen.
“If my wife were here she’d give you something,” he said, handing us two chewy, cranberry-oatmeal cookies. We took a menu and vowed to come back the next day for some chili and Rita’s mussel chowder.
Which is why, that night, I didn’t have The Oystercatcher’s Penn Cove mussels — steamed in white wine with herbs, butter and lemon — though almost every other table did. Instead we enjoyed crispy sweetbreads in mustard sauce, and celery root soup dotted with chopped apple and pistachio oil. Butter-crisped crepes followed, served with lemony braised leeks and a chimichurri-like green sauce. The special tempted us, too: delicate salt cod fritters with spinach and sunchokes in a cream sauce tinted green with nettles picked from proprietors’ Joe Scott and Jamie Sastre’s own backyard.
The husband-and-wife team took over and expanded The Oystercatcher in late 2007, creating an airy space painted a soothing butter yellow smartly accented with cream and black. Sastre’s desserts include an elegant hazelnut chocolate torte with salted caramel sauce. Savvy service and a globe-trotting wine list added to the pleasure.
After dinner we skirted Penn Cove along Madrona Way, catching glimpses of the mussel rafts on mirror-still water between the trees. Then we drove west, past freshly tilled fields and an old cemetery, chasing the sunset to Fort Ebey State Park where Admiralty Inlet meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In Coupeville the next morning there were no empty seats at the Knead & Feed, a fixture for nearly 40 years. We bought a giant marionberry bear claw to-go, then browsed at Bayleaf, a must-stop shop for the culinary tourist. Proprietor Elizabeth Graves had just cut some very fragrant cheese and the musky scent hung in the air as we ogled boldly colored French linens, fine European wines, La Quercia and Fra’ Mani meats, and a small collection of cookbooks by authorities as diverse as David Chang and the Coupeville Garden Club.
Back at Mosquito Fleet Chili and Pies we met Rita Tomayko, who said she hadn’t gotten around to making mussel chowder that day, but persuaded us to try her wild salmon chowder instead. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t serve it.”
We loved it. Cream cheese is the secret ingredient, but otherwise it’s a classic chowder bright with citrus zest. With it came slabs of Chris Tomayko’s rustic bread, lightly toasted, almost cakelike in texture and studded with pimento-stuffed Spanish olives. Excellent cornbread accompanied the chili, chunky with red and black beans, corn kernels and little rosemary-flavored meatballs.
Chris Tomayko’s spiraling cinnamon rolls disappear all too quickly from the bakery case. It sits next to an old safe, too heavy to move, that has been incorporated into the haphazard décor, along with antique kitchenware, native art, vintage books, photos, old saw blades and seashells.
We could have spent hours in the cafe, but a hungry line of customers was forming and we had a ferry to catch.
Providence Cicerois The Seattle Times’ restaurant critic. Contact her at email@example.com