Inside a handcrafted and traditional native cedar box lay a bed of kelp set below a baked sunflower root prepared as the natives once did. When we came back a week later, the same cedar box lay before me and I was expecting much of the same. But instead, the box’s contents were primarily composed of a piece of pemmican, another traditional native dish similar to a granola bar. There is a lot to learn from the native people of the Pacific Northwest, the people who have occupied and lived off this region for thousands of years. And when it comes to the incorporation of native teachings into their own cuisine, there is no better student than the Willows Inn.
Like the native people of the Pacific Northwest, the Willows Inn on Lummi Island has a deep and highly significant relationship to both the land and sea of the region. Living off the land from fished, foraged and farmed ingredients is more than just a tagline to appeal to the locavore or put on branded assets such as the security tint of their envelopes. Here at the Willows Inn, it’s their modus operandi.
As previously noted, we visited the Willows Inn twice within a week’s span, at the end of March and beginning of April. The staff acknowledged our succeeding visits and we were served a slightly different menu on each occasion. Each visit showcased Chef Blaine Wetzel’s attempts to bring out the region’s bounty through ostensible simplicity, restraint and control, which in turn allowed the ingredients and the scenery to bestow its natural complexity onto our palates and into our senses, creating in its own way, a very unique yet quintessential Pacific Northwest experience. For the purpose of this blog post, I will refer to both visits as one.
Once seated and with the sun setting in the background, a glass of Westcott Bay apple cider from San Juan Island was served as an apéritif. Thereafter, a number of bite sized snacks came one after another. Beginning with the traditional native contents of the handcrafted cedar box mentioned earlier, the baked sunflower root produced a chewy consistency and naturally sweet flavour similar to that of a sweet potato. The pemmican, on the other hand, contained various textural contrasts from the mix of grains. Combined with the chewy and sweet nature of the berries, it produced a playful bite-size snack filled with sustenance.
An edible bouquet of vegetables that followed, titled Forager’s Basket, was an overwhelming surprise. What initially seemed like just a bouquet of greens, was joined at the bottom by various preserved and salted seeds from the plants in and around the area. A very light, somewhat salty, extremely unique and delightful dish. I particularly enjoyed the clean and refreshing flavours from the different greens, as well as the playful use of our leafy edible friends as rope to hold the entire bouquet together at the bottom.
The grilled shiitake mushrooms were S’ absolute favourite. Topped off with a sprinkling of salt, the mushroom’s natural complexity was completely brought out. Though small, it gave off a strong earthy aroma which was definitely a pleasant surprise to our olfactory system.
When it comes to oysters, I have a personal affinity for the small and shallow variations. Though the shigoku oysters were small, it was extremely deep and dense in consistency. Similar in size to my all time favourite kushi oysters, its main differentiator is in its depth. Comparable to an ice cream scooper, its depth is attributed to the tumbling process that causes the oyster to push against its shell as it grows. The overriding vinegar flavour of the shigoku oyster came from the pickling and it was topped off with some green onions and followed by a hit of tapioca balls. Pristine.
The highlight of the meal for me came from two scallop dishes. Both the weathervane and singing scallops served had a very subtle refinement to it. So rich, so creamy, so sweet and most notably, so smooth. The singing scallops, known for their locomotive popping sounds, however, differed from the weathervane scallops mainly in its more gelatinous consistency.
In retrospect, there is not one bite-size snack I would care to fault. Some, I would prefer more than others but staying true to their culinary philosophy and paying homage to the land’s diverse natural offerings, each dish offered their own distinct and unique taste that lusciously played with the various regions of my palate.
Since we started this gastronomic hobby of ours, I have only seen S eat copious amounts of bread on two occasions: once at a restaurant in Spain called Etxebarri, and here at the Willows Inn. Not that the hearth bread served to us was overly special, but its success is attributed to simply being the vessel to bring the dip into our mouths. The bread’s dip came from chicken pan drippings and various herbs. It was the heartiest item on the evening’s menu and tasted like liquid roasted chicken.
Caught sustainably using a traditional native reefnetting technique, the smoked sockeye salmon is a staple on their menu. As many tribes of the Pacific Northwest have done for thousands of years, the Willows Inn salmon is smoked for several hours. While the native people smoke their salmon as a means of preservation, the Willows Inn serves theirs immediately after its removal from the smokehouse. The flavour was extremely similar to the prevalent cold smoked salmon of the Pacific Northwest. But in addition to being served warm, the main difference was in its extremely dense consistency and distinctive outer crust which when eaten with our hands, completely held its shape. Impressive.
A dish that smiled at me was the grilled squid. A childhood favourite of mine, there are very few times I see squid done justice. The tender and creamy grilled squid was partnered with charred onions and subtle acidic notes. And though not done on purpose, a horizontal view of the plate yielded a playful rendition of a facial expression. A smile through a plate, literally and figuratively.
Not to be outdone, the green onions with grilled mussels, smiled at me just as much. Though not literally this time around, the light outer caramelized crust of these grilled bivalves was complimented by sweet wild green onions. I do not know what, if any, could have been done to make these two dishes any better.
Sablefish concluded our savoury experience at the Willows Inn. Served with an obsidian knife crafted from locally sourced stone, the sablefish was cooked to perfection – tender, flaky and buttery smooth – it was finished off with a layer of crushed herbs and black trumpet mushrooms.
The goat’s milk and wheatgrass palate cleanser brought us back to the Gammel Dansk course we had at Noma this past September. Slightly tangy from the ice cream-like goat’s milk and mineraly from the wheatgrass, it had us ready to go for a marathon of more dishes.
As a whole, the prix fixe menu at the Willows Inn was light, vibrant and not overdone with meat courses or doused with rich ingredients and sauces. Instead, a healthy dose of seafood, vegetables and acidic flavours were used to truly showcase the prevalent offerings of the region. And true to form, we were served only one meat course composed of a few slices of aged venison accompanied by a honking piece of escarole.
Just like the menu, the juices were so pure, pristine and natural. Although we had both the wine and juice pairings, the juice pairings were definitely the beverage stars of the evenings. Two in particular stood out, the carrot and grape. The carrot juice, served with dessert, was sweet and smooth. While the grape juice was surprisingly crisp and not overly sweet like its over the shelf counterparts.
The Willows Inn has been a long time coming for us, but patience is a virtue they say and I am thankful to no longer be taunted by exit 260 on the I-5 highway. Somehow when we took the six minute ride on the Whatcom Chief from the mainland, disembarked and drove down the two lane road that wraps around Lummi Island, I could not help but feel peaceful. Mailboxes, driveways and trees lined one after the other were playfully decorated to the backdrop of the Salish Sea. And ever so often, when an oncoming driver or a resident walking their dog would waive at us from a distance only to realize shortly thereafter we were not from here, a friendly smile would nevertheless come our way. Island life, Chef Jason Franey of Canlis called it. I could not agree more.
And to top that sensation with a gustatory experience that uses the region’s bounty to so wonderfully tie in applications of the first people with that of the new and modern of the world, makes it quite easy to say that the Willows Inn on Yummi Island is the epitome of the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks for reading,
C & S