LUMMI ISLAND, Wash. — The most acclaimed restaurant in the Pacific Northwest is not in Portland or Seattle, but on a remote island in the Salish Sea just 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
The Willows Inn was honored in 2015 as the Northwest’s best restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, just a year after its young chef, Blaine Wetzel, was honored as Beard’s national “rising star chef of the year.” The New York Times labeled the Willows Inn as “One of the 10 Restaurants (in the world) Worth a Plane Ride,” high praise for a destination that requires a drive and a ferry ride even after you get off the plane.
When my close friend Bruce Legas, a Seattle-area sports-bar owner, invited me to join him last month on a Lummi Island trip with his sister and brother-in-law, Laurie and Lonnie Schmidt, I jumped at the chance.
That opportunity wasn’t inexpensive, either in time or dollar investment. It required an eight- to nine-hour drive (barring urban rush-hour slowdowns) from Bend through Bellingham, the nearest city to the inn, along with meals and overnight lodging on the island. The Lummi Island portion itself cost me about $500. But the Willows’ isolation would make it foolish to plan otherwise. And it’s so difficult to get a table at the 25-seat restaurant — they are booked months in advance — that I wanted to truly savor the experience.
Legas, the Schmidts and I shared a spacious three-bedroom cabin a half mile down West Shore Drive from the inn at Loganita, adjacent to the vegetable and herb garden. Our view across Rosario Strait was dominated by Orcas Island, largest of the San Juan archipelago. Eight such out-buildings are managed by the Willows, which has another eight individual units on the main property along with the kitchen and dining room.
I arrived mid-afternoon, having spent the previous day in Bellingham, a university town of similar size to Bend. A 20-mile drive west, through the Lummi Indian Reservation, leads to the Gooseberry Point launch dock of the tiny Whatcom Chief ferry. The boat makes the six-minute crossing as many as three times an hour between 6 a.m. and midnight.
Lummi Island is 9 miles long and nowhere more than 1½ miles wide. A mere 816 people live here, a number that is proudly announced to new arrivals on a hand-painted sign opposite the general store. Most of them live in the rural acreage on the northern half of the island; heavily forested Lummi Peak, 1,665 feet high, dominates the southern portion.
A chef’s life
But this is the culinary domain of chef Wetzel, a 30-year-old wunderkind. Mild-mannered, self-assured, boyish-looking, he was only 24 when he arrived on this island in the summer of 2010, ready not to change the world but to develop a cuisine that would become synonymous with Puget Sound.
He has succeeded by sourcing nearly everything that he serves — the oysters and prawns, the dandelion stems and spruce tips, the nori seaweed and fern fiddleheads — from the local land and surrounding waters.
Born and raised in Olympia, Wetzel seems destined to become a great chef. He grew up next to an oyster farm, he told me when I sought him out in the kitchen on the afternoon of my arrival. His family made a habit of foraging trips for mushrooms and wild berries. The home cooking was better than good.
Wetzel said he was 14 when he got his first restaurant job. He was 18 when he went to Scottsdale, Arizona, for culinary school, and met a Paraguayan woman, Raquel Ruiz, who would become his life partner. After stops in Las Vegas and Carmel, California, he took a chance on the tiny Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, which was attracting worldwide attention with its Swedish chef, René Redzepi, who himself was then in his early 30s. Blaine was hired for a month. He stayed two years.
“Scandinavia presented me with a whole new vocabulary of wild plants and ocean creatures like sea urchins and decades-old clams,” he wrote in his book, “Sea and Smoke.” “Working there helped me define what I wanted to be doing, and the spirit I wanted to do it with.”
But he didn’t want to do it without Raquel, he said, who by now was running the front of the house at L’Auberge Carmel. And he missed the Pacific Northwest. On Seattle Craigslist, he answered an ad for a tiny island restaurant that was looking for a chef for six months.
Wetzel is still here. So is Ruiz. They have no intention of going anywhere else, at least not in the foreseeable future.
Our prix-fixe meal was 20 courses of seafood and vegetables, served over about 3½ hours in a single seating. The first four courses were served on the inn’s deck that faces toward Orcas: a crispy seaweed crepe, peppery and paper-thin, accompanied by salty char roe; savory doughnuts, stuffed with smoked black cod sprinkled with nori and served with a house-made vermouth; crispy kale chips shaped like origami cranes, with black truffles and rye crackers; roasted sunflower roots with a puree of sweet onions. The latter had a squash-like flavor.
After an intermezzo of rhubarb jam in large wooden spoons, we stepped to our tables inside the inn. Legas and I took seats facing the open kitchen, where we could watch as Wetzel and his team of more than a dozen cooks were preparing the balance of the meal. These culinary experts themselves often emerged to deliver dishes and describe, in details, exactly what it was that we were eating.
First came shellfish. Local oysters were poached in watercress oil. Scallops and clams, all in the shell, were presented in a separate dish with ground wasabi root. They were followed by roasted stems of dandelion, wild onion and wood sorrel in a fermented squid sauce, then rockfish, cured in a broth of its own bones with bull kelp seeds.
A tempura-battered collard leaf was offered with a selection of foraged and garden-fresh herb leaves. Silky Dungeness crab, in a puree of pine nuts, was delicious. A bite of asparagus topped with a tender young spruce tip floated in an asparagus broth with spruce oil.
Sauteed slices of geoduck clam came with crispy bread crumbs. Lightly poached spot prawns drawn from Legoe Bay, barely a mile down the road, sat in a light broth. Marbled king salmon, smoked for hours on green alder branches, had a candied quality. Perfectly cooked halibut, moist and flaky to the touch of a fork, was offered with sweet lovage leaves.
We were glad the house-baked wheat bread hadn’t been served at the start of the meal, or we might not have had room for every course. But the accompanying chicken pan drippings didn’t impress. Better was the warm birch-bark tea next offered as a digestive before dessert.
There were three finishers. My favorite was chilled goat’s milk with stinging nettles. It was followed by a serving of anise-hyssop ice cream with dried lavender foam, and finally with a fudge of pumpkin seeds and candied angelica.
“We just adapt to what’s around that day,” Wetzel told me the following morning, reporting that his staff had gathered fresh salmonberries and razor clams for dinner that night.
One might not suspect that so small an island could provide every ingredient that a skilled chef could want. But Blaine Wetzel is the ultimate locavore. No Sysco truck will ever be seen on the Whatcom Chief ferry, not so long as he controls the Willows Inn kitchen.
“Amazing flavor goes hand-in-hand with sustainable practices and local sourcing,” he told me. “It gets me excited as a chef to see all these great natural products and the culinary possibilities.”
Commercial fishermen work Lummi Island’s rocky coastline to provide a bounty of fish, crustaceans and mollusks to the inn. Legoe Bay, where select anglers still practice native reef-net fishing, is a prime example. Spring lamb, beef, goat and duck are produced at island ranches: “When local farmers need to trim the flock, we will have lamb on the menu,” Wetzel said.
The Loganita farm, managed by Mary von Krusenstiern, can harvest and deliver greens in the same day. She and Wetzel share a planting-and-harvest calendar to coordinate crop availability. When Mary tells Blaine something is ready, Wetzel jumps.
“We’re really oriented to quality,” Wetzel told me. “Our staff and our customers really appreciate what we do.
“It’s a constant learning process. It gets more and more unique as time goes by. So we’re going to continue what we’re doing, and do it better.”
For visiting foodies, there are plenty of other places worthy of a detour in the Bellingham area. Among my favorites is the Taylor Shellfish Farm on Chuckanut Drive, south of the city near the Whatcom-Skagit county line. Farming shellfish on 1,900 acres of Samish Bay tidal flats, the company raises five species of oysters, Manila clams and giant geoducks here for national and international markets.
Visitors are welcome to visit, for a seaside picnic or to purchase shellfish, including mussels and Dungeness crab, at the newly expanded retail store.
Nearby on scenic Chuckanut Drive, The Oyster Bar has been a coastline institution for more than 25 years. Owners Guy and Linda Colbert offer a list of fresh oysters on the half shell each day; on my last visit there were 10 different choices from Washington and British Columbia. Longtime chef Justin Gordon serves a lunch and dinner menu that may also include other Northwest seafood, as well as venison carpaccio and locally foraged mushrooms.
Northern Whatcom County has the dairy farmers who have made this area one of the national leaders in butter and cheese production. Among several outstanding craft cheese producers is Appel Farms in Ferndale, where I was especially impressed by a Dutch gouda variation called maasdammer. The farm has been here since 1967, but it was only two summers ago that the Appel family opened a cafe that combines a cheese and ice cream shop.
Near Lynden is Bellewood Acres, a prolific apple orchard that has expanded its production to include a distillery. In fact, Bellewood claims to be the first farm in Washington state to create spirits on-site from ingredients grown on the farm. Not surprisingly, apple brandy heads the product line, along with vodkas and gin.
The buzz in Bellingham is all about its brewpub scene, with nine craft breweries. Local industry leaders look to Bend, with its couple of dozen brewpubs, as a model for their future. The Bellingham Tap Trail (like the Bend Ale Trail) is a step in that direction, offering direction between such pubs as the Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro, the Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen and the Kulshan Brewing Company.
Perhaps the best new restaurant in the city is EAT, the joint effort of chefs Dominique Faury (a former Google corporate chef) and Eric Truglas (ex of the Semiahmoo Resort, on the Canadian border), along with hostess and sommelier Amberleigh Brownson. The bistro-style menu reflects a higher culinary sensibility (salmon carpaccio, duck confit cassoulet) than the casual ambience might suggest, and the selection of wines is better than any in the region — save the Willows Inn, of course.
My go-to place for lodging in Bellingham is the Fairhaven Village Inn, a 22-room boutique property in the historic Fairhaven neighborhood, not far from the Alaska ferry terminal. In addition to a private library, a dedicated breakfast room, guests-only parking and warm hospitality from the staff, the hotel is home to Magdalena’s Creperie, where breakfast and lunch pancakes, savory and sweet, are dished up by a woman who emigrated from Poland just seven years ago. It’s a touch of the Old World that Blaine Wetzel might appreciate.
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org .