An extremely long winter plagued the Pacific Northwest this past year. Intermittent snow fell well into March, temperatures remained at single or low double digits through May and halfway through June the sun continued to maintain its elusiveness. The last ten months have been a relentless stretch of cold and wet that at times seemed to have no end in sight.
It just so happened that a visit to Lummi Island on the Victoria Day long weekend in May gave us a momentary reprieve from the doom and gloom. The very first weekend of sun in recent memory brought the heat to our skin and gave us a shot of much needed serotonin into our bodies. As we drank a few libations under a growing blanket of wisteria on the deck of the Willows Inn and made our way to the beach, it felt like the perfect spring day everyone in the Pacific Northwest was ready for.
Including the team at the Willows Inn. Held back by the restrictions of the cold winter months it was as if the team at the Willows’ chains were finally broken. Our time here brought us a gustatory, tactile and visual abundance of riches and reminded us with every bite the privilege of living in such a place.
It started with an onslaught of snacks that came storming in from the kitchen. Toasted kale chips with truffles and savoury doughnuts made its regular appearance. Sidestripe praws and octopus made its debut. But the singing scallops were a pleasant surprise we did not expect to be reacquainted with. Having missed our dear old friends since our second visit to this restaurant four years ago we never thought we would see them again. Refreshing and silky smooth, some things never change.
A few small bites of rhubarb, beach peas and oysters later and the manifestation of all that had been built and nourished during the winter brought a meal unlike any other we have had at the Willows with a steady stream of stand-out dishes coming one after the other. Cured rockfish in a broth of grilled bones was a very light yet meaty paradox. A serving of geoduck accompanied by breadcumbs and lard had a wonderful grilled smoky flavour with a contrast of chewy and crunchy textures. And one could never find fault in the smoked mussels that followed.
Although we miss the cedar box that used to open the meal with a puff of smoke and tools such as the obsidian (AKA dragon glass for the Game of Thrones fans) knife, we enjoyed a more primal and involved form of eating this time around – with our hands. A pleasant reminder that dining never has to be taken so seriously. Communally sharing almost a foot long smoked salmon instead of individual pieces reminded us of that. Or the aged venison with truffles eaten off of a faux tree branch in kebab-like fashion. One could not help but feel excited at the prospect of diving into this oil-dripping beauty.
Or stopping the meal in its entirety to admire the sunset. When the fiery orange sky began to blind us from the west, the patio called us. It may be one of the most unique aspects of a spring or summer dinner at this restaurant. To completely and randomly halt the meal and change the pace of service to go outside and admire the view is something we do not do at any other dining establishment. When we returned to our seat one could see the staff waiting at the wings ready at any second to serve the piping hot grilled fermented green garlic wrapped in a crispy crepe. In true Willows fashion, its ostensible simplicity was neither bereft of depth or flavour.
The only sight more visually appealing than the sunset that evening came from the herb tostada. Another contradiction on a plate. With the herbs and flowers on the top blocking the diner’s view from what lay beneath it is easy to be surprised by the heaviness of it all. Brought about by its deep fried base glued to the fauna by a puree of oysters. It was perhaps the pièce de résistance of the evening.
Dungeness crab soaked in pine nuts followed shortly thereafter, serving as a precursor to one of the biggest deviations from the staples of the Willows of the night. Gone were the rich buttery pan chicken drippings. Instead replaced with crab brain goodness for our bread to soak in and absorb. We hope its not too much to ask to make this a permanent replacement on the menu.
As the sun set on the day we opted to finish the meal as we started – outside on the patio. With a friend in tow no matter how much one wanted to stay inside the numbers were in the opposition`s favour. Within an hour of sitting outside the sun had disappeared and the patio blankets brought another type of warmth. Cold birch tea marked the completion of the savoury courses while quince and candied rosemary cleansed the palette.
Having prefaced our dining companion with the statement that dessert was historically a weaker point at the Willows (barring the last two winters where they served us ice cream – something that can never let you down) the finale was a surprising end to a superb meal. A combination of woodruff and nettles that formed a healthy version of cookies and cream.
Looking back at the most number of courses we have had at the Willows, our only longing would have been for larger quantities. But alas, we should know by now that to dine at the Willows is not to gorge but to appreciate a variety of impeccable ingredients and techniques brought about in small and precise quantities.
Resided to the fact that we would miss the 10 p.m. ferry ride back to the mainland, we relaxed with our stomachs pleased and our minds refreshed from a good meal accompanied by good conversation.
It had been four years since we ate a spring meal at the Willows Inn and it is a true delight for us to see the growth and development of the team and the restaurant. Although time has a way of making one forget, there is very little doubt in our minds that after seven visits to this restaurant, this meal was the culmination of all our visits.
We now look back at this fleeting meal as both playful and extraordinary. It very well may have been a dream. A dream of spring. Reality or fantasy, after the turbulent winter we just had, literally and figuratively, we deserved this one.
To view pictures of this meal in its entirety and previous visits, please click on the links below:
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny
Note: The title of this post is taken from George RR Martin’s planned title for the seventh installment in the Song of Ice and Fire series.