When a gastronome travels to Lummi Island through the fertile Skagit Valley, it’s not so much a road trip as it is culinary foreplay. Ditch I-5 north of Burlington to follow State Route 11 through Bow-Edison—a connoisseur’s dream of apple orchards and artisan cheesemakers and aromatic bakeries—to arrive at the ferry dock via the oyster-bedded Chuckanut Drive.
A person could work up a serious appetite driving to the Willows, the renovated inn and dinner house on sleepy Lummi Island. The place sits a bucolic 10 minutes from the ferry dock, along a road fringed with snowberries and rosehips and blissfully underpopulated with cars (whose occupants, perhaps from sheer novelty, wave at everyone who passes). It has housed guests under various ownership for a century, but finally seized a planet’s attention last winter when The New York Times declared it one of the world’s “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride.” The reason was chef—and new co-owner—Blaine Wetzel, the 26-year-old wunderkind who apprenticed at Noma in Copenhagen, which San Pellegrino named the World’s Best Restaurant the last two years running.
We parked bags in our charming farmhouse guestroom and returned to the lobby to warm ourselves by its oversize fireplace. Once settled in the view dining room, out came the great chef himself to personally deliver our first course. It’s startling; he looks more like an apple-cheeked kid from Olympia than a world-class gastronome. As it turns out, he’s both.
Wetzel placed a cedar box before us, shyly describing the sustainable reefnet fishing methods of a local boat that yielded the contents, then swung open the lid to unleash a cloud of savory smoke from buttery slabs of smoked salmon. Mellow and rich, they rounded into sweetness on the palate; a luscious kickoff to the parade of eight or so unbilled Northwest “snacks” Wetzel has become so famous for.
A little plate of salmon roe, cured in house and served on a crispy crepe. Island-foraged shoots and herbs and island-harvested carrots and radishes served in a garden basket whimsically filled with “dirt” of hazelnut crumbles and toasted malt. Spot prawns dredged from the sea out the window, topped with a tart currant granita and a balancer of bitter greens from the beach across the road. Two quivering Shigoku oysters from Samish Bay—the bay you gaped at from Chuckanut—delivered in their smooth, deep cups on a bed of cold rocks beneath tender tears of lemony sorrel, that prolific Northwest weed.
If the ancients slurped their oysters while foraging the forest floor, they tasted this very combination. As in a few rare places and moments in time—the seaside Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, the Herbfarm’s original garden shed in Woodinville—dining at the Willows imbues diners with the heady illusion that they are not simply eating Northwest bounty; they are merging with its essence.
And we hadn’t even started in on dinner yet.
Two hours, five courses. Oh, the rods of roasted celery root with hazelnuts and horseradish mousse, the steaky braised radicchio with winter stems and bread salad, the slow-roasted Skagit River Ranch beef cheek with grilled onions and green onion sauce. Two unbilled pauses for bread and cheese and five expertly matched wines later, we understood the hype. This blushing chef not only landscapes each plate with the edible soul of Cascadia—by way of the smoked fish and pickled vegetables of Scandinavia—he does so with the instinct for balance and composition that marks the great ones. The remodel that closed the inn for most of this spring has brought a renovated kitchen and a new outdoor stone hearth and grill.
As we licked the last drops of rose hip ice cream from our spoons, a diner across the room leapt to his feet and burst into applause. Never in nearly 30 years of reviewing restaurants have I seen that. After, I pulled Wetzel aside to ask him about it; he replied with vague humility that it almost never happens.
“Oh, Blaine gets a standing ovation at least once a week,” the wine steward confided later. I’d call that worth a plane ride. I’d even call it worth a road trip.
Side Trip: Nettles Farm
Nettles Farm A short uphill trek from the restaurant is one of the farms operated by the inn that feeds the Willows table. Kales and cabbages, leeks and herbs, squawking chickens and dormant beehives—it’s all there, along with “forage with the sous chef” outings for inn guests, at no extra charge. 4300 Matia View Dr, Lummi Island, 360-758-7616; nettlesfarm.com