Before coming to Lummi Island's the Willows, Blaine Wetzel cooked for two years at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. Noma was ranked No. 1 on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list this year and last.
VERY FEW places on this earth offer you the chance to savor spot-prawn pizzas and a five-course dinner prepared by a world-class chef, then fall asleep in a yurt or an Architectural Digest-worthy beach house while the sound of gentle waves lulls you to sleep.
But such are the quirky delights of the Willows Inn on laid-back Lummi Island, a two-hour drive and short ferry trip from Seattle.
The inn has offered beds and breakfasts to guests since 1910. Riley Starks and Judy Olsen, who bought the property in 2001, have operated Nettles Farm just up the hill since 1992 and championed farm-to-table, locally inspired cooking since day one.
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But it wasn’t until the arrival of young Blaine Wetzel in August 2010, along with kudos from major publications, that the Willows Inn rose to international fame.
The collaboration between Starks and Wetzel, who grew up in Olympia, seems destined from the start.
Now just 25, Wetzel started cooking when he was 14, cutting a swath through leading restaurants and spending a year in culinary school.
Just before coming to the Willows, Wetzel cooked for two years at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. This year and last, Noma was ranked No. 1 on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Its chef/owner, René Redzepi, authored an award-winning book, “NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine” (Phaidon Press, $50).
The food at Noma and weather in Copenhagen, Wetzel says, are similar to here. “The feel of the place really resonated with me.” But he yearned to move back to the Northwest to be closer to his family.
Wetzel interviewed at a venerable white-tablecloth restaurant, but things didn’t click.
Meanwhile, Starks was in search of a chef and decided to advertise on craigslist.
“That was when we met, though it took a year to get him here,” he says.
Like many modern-day matches, Starks wooed Wetzel over the Internet, interviewing via Skype and sending photographs from his computer. But Starks didn’t offer up sunset views over the San Juan Islands. Instead, he sent shots of Lummi Island’s indigenous ingredients — halibut, salmon and spot prawns. That impressed Wetzel.
Their philosophies jibed as well. The inn’s biodynamic farm and greenhouse supply the produce and herbs for the restaurant, along with Rhode Island Red laying hens, turkeys, Mangalitsa pigs and even beehives for honey.
Every summer Starks reefnets for Fraser River sockeye salmon in nearby Lepoe Bay and buys the entire catch of a local fisherman. Add to that the foraging possibilities for fresh pine shoots, raw seaweed and edible flowers just outside the restaurant’s door, and Wetzel was sold.
Starks describes Wetzel’s style of cooking as “precise, but all about what is happening in the landscape.”
After a mid-June dinner, I couldn’t agree more.
The dining room, which seats 30 and operates Wednesday through Sunday, reminded me of the simply decorated restaurants we dined in last summer in Denmark. Birchwood-colored tablecloths are covered in butcher-block paper; mismatched antique silverware is precisely set; island agates weigh down the napkins.
The five-course, prix-fixe, chef’s-tasting menu costs $105 plus tax and tip. For another $65 you get four thoughtfully paired Northwest wines plus Piemontese Prosecco. The juice pairings ($40 for five) include huckleberry and elderflower.
Six chefs, five servers and two full-time farmers make up the staff. Wetzel and the other chefs deliver plates to each table, while proudly professing the local provender. We learned that Quinault and Lummi tribal members harvested the clams and spot prawns; mussels hail from Totten Inlet; grass-fed lamb once roamed Lummi Island’s Baker Mountain Ranch.
Diners are treated to six “snacks” — like little works of art — before the tasting menu even begins. Open a small cedar-wood box to unveil two bite-sized cubes of perfectly smoked salmon.
“Eat it with your fingers,” Wetzel urges, as the kindling underneath wafts an aromatic trail.
Two Penn Cove oysters — lovingly layered over a blanket of tapioca — perch atop smooth island rocks (frozen, of course).
A miniature flowerpot filled with “wild herb emulsion” accompanies a small basket stacked with baby lettuce leaves, tender turnips and jewel-like radishes. The leaves are sprinkled with hazelnut-and-malt-flour “dirt” that adds a pleasantly bitter/salty/crunchy note to the dish.
Next up? Wisps of fresh herbs — lemon verbena, dill — and a dusting of sweet “vinegar powder” ride atop the thinnest undulating cracker, not unlike a fine French pastry.
After more “snacks,” our first course featured three types of local clam — geoduck, Manila and razor — artfully arranged in a dill sauce with a generous shaving of horseradish “snow” and a vivid assortment of purslane, sea beans, pea vines and nasturtium petals.
Slow-Roasted Leg of Lamb with Morels and Salmonberries starred as the main course. Since I prefer seafood, Wetzel graciously substituted his “play on subtle spices” — Wild Salmon with Grain-Mustard Sauce, Cider Vinaigrette and White Turnip.
Dessert was the coup de grâce, with 10 types of Lummi Island wildflowers riding roughshod atop Wild-Rose Ice Cream and Lemon-Verbena Granité.
Somehow, plate after plate, Wetzel and crew magically mirrored the stunning scenery outside. Never before have I experienced a meal where the food not only comes from the place — it is the place.
“We have spent the past 20 years trying to teach our guests about sustainable, organic and eating for one’s landscape,” Starks says. “Hallelu that we are succeeding in our message.”
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.