On a small island off the coast of Washington State, award-winning chef and Noma alum Blaine Wetzel brings the forage-focused fine dining experience to Willows Inn, where locally harvested ingredients take center stage.
LUMMI ISLAND, Washington — I'm standing on Gooseberry Point looking out at Lummi Island's strange terrain. The southern half of the nearly ten-square-mile island is ominously mountainous; the northern half is flat and mostly forest, broken up by vast stretches of open meadows and quaint, picturesque lots where residents live year-round in cottages. After a six-minute ferry ride and some time spent exploring, I notice that many of the gardens and fields are growing small patches of wild grains, fruits, and vegetables that will soon be harvested, prepared, and plated for one of the most memorable, unconventional dining experiences in North America.
Considered by many to be one of the best kept secrets in all of Washington, Lummi Island and the nearby San Juan archipelago mark the northwestern-most corner of the contiguous United States, where the country ends and the vastness of the Pacific begins. I flew halfway across the country, rented a car, and drove more than three hours from Seattle to get to Willows Inn on Lummi Island —for one meal.
Established in 1910, Willows Inn has a long tradition of hospitality, with a much more pronounced, albeit briefer, history serving meticulously local cuisine. The chef, Blaine Wetzel, is a quietly confident Washington native who worked under chef René Redzepi at world-famous and doubly Michelin-starred Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, named The World's Best Restaurant four times since 2010. Following Redzepi's attention to quality and simplicity, the restaurant at Willows Inn is primarily forage-focused. (The island's temperate weather and rich soil make for excellent farming conditions and resulting heirloom varieties.) Wetzel's access to such a bounty means he can deliver a true dining experience with a sense of place.
Throughout the evening's 22-course meal, the staff at Willows Inn introduced each dish by proudly noting the origins of every ingredient. Fish, crab, oyster, prawn, clam, and mussels are claimed from the surrounding waters. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts are grown on the island. It's an understandably tedious process to source such an abundant array of ingredients hyper-locally, which is why the rotating wait staff, including Wetzel himself, describe each dish with unrelenting pride and reverence.
The fare, conspicuously seasonal, does have its limitations —the restaurant hibernates for the winter season, making this once-in-a-lifetime dining experience even more difficult to come by. For Wetzel and his team, time off allows for exploration of new places and new cuisines in preparation for the coming year.
Expect elegant plating and unexpected dishes at every turn. Some of the most painstakingly simple-sounding items — island-grown cucumbers, melons, plums — ;are superlative versions of produce. I ended up eating a fish-filled doughnut, lightly-cured rockfish served in a broth of its own bones, and albacore with caraflex cabbage, topped with a bright display of delicious, dried flowers. Edible works of art.
Although the restaurant is the main attraction in this geographically isolated place, Willows Inn is fantastic on its own. Located on the west side of the island, it sits perched above an untouched pebble beach. Brilliant pieces of driftwood adorn the gray, rocky shoreline. Just north of the inn, a small army of seals can be found casually lounging on a stone island a short distance from the shore.
Beachside guest houses and secluded cabins provide quiet and privacy, while cozy accommodations on the main grounds offer guests an inside look at the exhaustive preparation that goes into every meal: While some sous chefs hustle in and out of the most immaculate “pantry” that's ever existed, others chop timber for the wood-fired grill and the impressive stone fireplace inside.
Lummi Island has more to offer than breathtaking views and an awe-inspiring restaurant: its population is made up of artists, foragers, fisherman, and farmers who all seem to cherish life on their tiny little island in this corner of the globe, a world away from the frenzy of the cities that most of their patrons hail from. It's a quiet, secluded, and enviable life that makes a weekend visit that much more meaningful.
About halfway through my 22-course dinner, while chewing on a grilled geoduck clam pulled from local waters just hours ago, I had no divine revelation, only reflection and gratitude. When you're trying to get away from it all, Lummi Island is as good a place to go.