When life gets busy, there is a tempo that begins to increasingly and steadily, rise. We tend to work harder and play less, until, slowly, yet suddenly, we aren’t playing at all. In short order, we drive ourselves to forget what it means to recharge. We forget to feed our inspiration with the sites, with the sounds. Feed our imagination with the tastes and the smells that renew our creative flow; the things that remind us why we keep going in this world. The spectacular, yet mundane things. Things, such as a beautiful vessel, from which to drink, a plate of food, edited to the essentials (the most needed, yet most clearly defined). As you view the world around you, you are present and of the moment noticing: a fence, made entirely of twigs; a sound so splendid, it can only come from that in nature; or you can’t help but stand happily (and stupidly) watching your dogs, sniff every corner of an unfamiliar room or lot before settling into that perfect spot.
Life is about the experiences. Driving down a country lane, the sun drenching our skin, with a soft breeze cooling the sting of it away, we have arrived on-island. We are surrounded by dense evergreen forest that is dappled with rocky hillsides and pastures. The water is sparkling and inviting to our right, and the road is long and welcoming as we forge ahead into an adventurous unknown (to us). It has been far too long since we have gotten away.
Pouring a cocktail into an unfamiliar glass, while sitting on a deck that overlooks the water, we breath in. Sipping that drink as bald eagles glide effortlessly overhead, we smile, and toast “us4”, but not before toasting Paula and Jeff for having the incredible instinct and huge heart to offer us a splendid and most generous, restorative gift.
My husband came home, several months ago (has it been that long?) with a piece of paper announcing the opening dining season of The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. On the paper, was a handwritten note asking us to pick a day to get up there, on them (Paula & Jeff). I couldn’t believe what I saw. For those of you that don’t know about Blaine Wetzel, the young chef who grew up in the Northwest and came home after tutelage under Rene Redzepi of Noma, you need to look him up. He has helped form a true treasure on Lummi Island as a partner at The Willows Inn. Unpretentious and real, The Willows Inn captures time, slowed to the perfect pace. Unlike other restaurants of the same ilk, drawing travelers from all over the world, this is a place that honors the casual, spectacular NW setting which surrounds it and leaves all the pretension where it belongs – nowhere to be found.
This is a “bucket list” dining experience; one I had been longing to try. Now I do in-fact realize this was meant to restore my husband, after working under high-pressure and much stress (but he loves it) alongside Paula and Jeff (who are under far more high-pressure and stress), but here I was though, a ridiculously-happy bystander who also benefited from their generous gift. Paula is thoughtful that way though; she knows we love to eat and are crazy for especially good food. She knows we wallow in the minutest of details (and allowing without criticism, for Tom to photograph all meals and menus on business travel to share with me) and that we appreciate the whole experience from anticipation to culmination…
…and she knows and appreciates that we prefer to be in the company of Ginger and Buddy too.
So only two hours, including a ten minute ferry ride, from our front door, we checked in at reception, collected our room key/lay of the land before popping our head into the Taproot (immediately adjacent to the front steps) to see what the little breakfast spot would hold for us in the morning. The grotto-esque space was rustic romantic with a small area for sitting; eating or mindless contemplation. The cold case was filled with bottles, jars and tidbits that required further exploration and purchase prior to our departure the next day. The pastry case, well… the pastry case, oh my. I was intoxicated by the baked goods, when I am usually not even that enticed by a case full of baked goods; no offense to the goods that are baked. I am typically a partaker in the meatier offerings instead. However, this particular case had me stunned. I wanted to purchase each one (the goods, not the case). The buttermilk biscuits called out to me most of all (Tom’s eye was on the glazed buns). Never had I seen biscuits so fluffy and golden and perfect. So perfect in fact, I made up my mind; I would purchase a dozen to bring home (for Paula and Jeff) and a few extras for ourselves. The friendly chap behind the counter said they were the best he had ever had. My gut instinct was to take them away right then, but I was assured there would be plenty to last through the next day. The moral of this story is to always follow your gut instinct; the next morning, there were none to be found.
We resisted (sadly, it turned out) buying anything that day, but did ask for a bucket of ice before departing to walk up the path, through the bocci ball court, to our cottage. It was tucked up away from the main lodge with a large, wildly-landscaped front yard and steps up to an old-fashioned front porch the length of the structure. Inside from the full-length porch was a small sitting area with a wood stove, a wet bar hosting tasty amenities for purchase, and a fluffy queen size bed beyond. The bathroom had a claw-foot tub, and although rather small, was welcoming and quaint, with lovely organic soaps/lotions. We loved it all, and perfect for island living.
Being overly cautious (per usual) about having all the comforts we might need, our car was emptied of it’s contents, including our spontaneously-packed sack full of snacks (read: quickly thrown in random cheeses/crackers/veggies from the ‘fridge) to enjoy with our gin and tonic before cocktails and dinner at the Inn. A fresh piece of mint and lemon verbena were a welcome addition to our drinks (freshly-foraged just steps from our front door).
Buddy and Ginger were amply rewarded as well. They sipped water al fresco while sniffing out vermin (none sniffed, or at least none were caught, except themselves). They then dined on raw bison (foraged from our freezer and released into their clever new travel bowls) before tucking in for the night, awaiting our return from dinner.On arrival, happy pups? Quite (and yes, they are stuck, tethered together, yet don’t seem to care).
Anticipation mounted as the air filled with an essence of wood-fired food, mysteriously smoking behind the door to a small little shed.
We made our way to the bar where we were greeted with sunshine and graciousness. I ordered the Spotted Owl, a gin, douglas fir + nettles concoction.
It was a beautiful shade of green, refreshingly balanced and textured just perfectly by fluffed egg white.
Tom had the woodruff martini, refreshing as well, and the best vodka martini he’s ever had (which says a lot as he’s a gin drinker).
A nibble of fresh turnip, roasted carrots and slices of rhubarb dusted in verbena sugar were a nice foil to translucent sheets of cured pork cheek to nibble with our drinks.
Part of the experience comes not only from the food but from the cast of characters as well as the scene, so we couldn’t help but notice the people who occupied the other tables and the staff as they came out and went inside (and of course, I had to peak into the kitchen). The deck where we were sitting was one that could be amped up with more character but the setting and view, undeniably divine. The sun was unseasonably warm that night, which made the cocktail that much more refreshing. Most of the others were quiet as if something audible other than a whisper would disrupt the hum of the nature we could all feel. There was one couple seated near us that were friendly and chatty; the man reminded me of someone I knew. We found out it was their 40th anniversary, which made me smile and begin to imagine what their life together had been like when they were young. It is our 16th wedding anniversary just one week later from this adventure. Happy anniversary LoveBug (21 years together… if you’re still counting)!
As they began to seat people for dinner at 6:30, Tom and I happily sipped on a glass of sparkling rosé and took in our surroundings as we wandered to the wooded shade. We were the last to be sat, which was fine with us since we like to draw out our meals. Once seated, a cool glass of hard cider was poured (Eaglemount semi-sweet, from Port Townsend, WA) and while this is something I would not have thought to order myself, it was the perfect accompaniment to a series of “snacks” that began arriving, one after the other, yet appropriately timed.
First came the single, pristine mussel, billowing essence of smoke and presenting itself in a wooden box, under lid as if a small gift of jewelry. This was followed by a shiitake mushroom, roasted over fire, completing the flavor left from the delicate mussel. Oops, already gone before a shot was fired.
Salmon roe crêpe rolls were cleverly plated over a nestle of straw as if awaiting incubation in our mouths; flavor exploded and we were eager for more. Next, momentarily transferred to a beach haven, we nibbled black truffle “mollusks” from crispy kale leaves and sucked on rolled halibut skin, filled with a most clever concoction of halibut mousse and Manila clams sprinkled with seaweed. This was like eating delicate truffle brittle kissed by the ocean.The white cone is made from the skin of the belly, the dark is made from skin of the back.
Whew… this was already better than the French Laundry and our “first” menued course, had yet to begin. The dining room was cozy, yet vibrant from the transporting of treasures from kitchen to table by the handsome staff donning rigid, but beautiful, hand-crafted heavy leather aprons (poor souls in the heat) and sincere smiles. The evening was so warm though, that we longed to be dining outside. However improbable, our perfect evening, escalated exponentially when we were granted permission to continue our meal on the deck. It was our own private dining room for two in the woods, overlooking the water at sunset, magical.
We chose the wine pairing menu which turned out to be wise; the bottle is left at your table or more is brought if you are needing of more. After the hard cider came a refreshing pinot blanc by Ross Andrew of Walla Walla, to kick off our meal (as if we hadn’t already a frolicking start). First came delicate scallops with horseradish in cream, then roasted sunflower root with a silken, sweet onion purée for which to dip.
The grilled mustard greens sported herring row on kelp from the beach; an artful display.
The spot prawns, poached in their roe were succulent and cleansing after sipping the last of our wine just in time to switch gears.
Next up was an IPA from Boundary Bay (in nearby Bellingham, WA), a welcome partner to the next course of smoked fish.Tom had been anticipating this course all day, visions of that smokehouse billowing in his head (and clearly dove in early).
There was smoked black cod and of course, smoked salmon from off-shore. The pristine quality, sustainable fishing methods and locality of the fish make for an ethereal treat. The perfect combination of smoke, succulence and sea are a product of the thoughtfulness put into every detail and result in what, we think, is the best smoked fish ever produced.
The same pristine quality applies to everything served, but this becomes especially evident when we get into raw meat. Being a big fan of tartare, it was to my pleasant surprise to receive a bowl full of venison tartare served alongside rye crisps and wild lettuces.
We enjoyed them with the last of our IPA, the sunset, and the changing of the guard to Cameron “Abbey Ridge” Pinot Noir from Oregon.
Welcome, my dear friend Porcini. So thinly sliced and bathed in a broth of itself, so delicate, mild and flavorful. Regardless of Tom’s affinity (or lack thereof, and he loved it) to mushrooms, this elegantly humble dish was a comforting end to the raw meeeet of the tartare.
<Loving the sun on the water, our table, the wonderful staff, and the jealous guests.
In sneaks a razor clam, roasted over fire and changing our pre-conception of a tough muscle that won’t yield to our palette. This meaty delicacy harvested from Quinault, WA, is a sweet morsel that was roasted to perfection, leaving us with a memory of happy discovery.
Bread is now served, where it should be served, alongside a shallow, glazed pottery dish of fresh butter and (Tom’s favorite) another of pan drippings of roasted chicken, near the end of meal, to sop up the alcohol slightly and cleanse for the pure, grass-fed lamb topped with fresh grasses, soon to come. The grains are from island and the bread is a revelation rather than just filler.
With the bread on the table, our lamb (one of my favorite meats) was then served and the earthy purity of flavor was both a light and satisfying end to the savory foods for the night.
…the night is still young. The final wine was a late harvest Riesling, Brooks ‘Tethys’ from Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. Not a “typical” fan of dessert, the next dish set in front of us was exploding in color, flavor and scent. The best dessert ever (period).
Salmon berries with rosé granita and edible rose petals.
I savored each, delightfully aromatic and magical bite.
With our steaming cappuccino, hazelnut and chestnut gelato slipped easily down.
…but wait, there’s more, flaxseed… caramels, DIVINE!
How high the moon?
Back at the “ranch” (cottage), two little bears, were sleeping. Buddy awoke, the outhouse was needed.“I think I can”.
Sometimes it is the very things that happen to you that end up happening in your favor. Take the biscuits, now I wanted one I surely did. I dreamt of them and can still picture that spectacular case displaying them alongside the most lustrous of scones. I wanted them but knew they needed to wait until morning. Morning came, and went; we lingered and enjoyed the view, the coffee, our company, our solace.
Without the biscuit(s), we still enjoyed a beautiful and memorable morning… cappuccino, sticky bun, water view and sun… Paula and Jeff, you can thank Kimberly for the baked goods since the biscuits were AWOL. We promise you some when we come back for more!
Then off to the beach to spend more memorable time before heading “down the road”, back to our busy lives. Down by the water, there is something about walking over rocks, driftwood and sand, along beachside, that brings us alive. Buddy and Ginger, who walk slowly beside us at home, roam free, prancing quickly ahead, sniffing, looking, feeling; life is grand.
We are rejuvenated, not only us but Ginger and Buddy as well. Buddy came home rested with rekindled orneriness that hasn’t been kindled in over a year; he is tip-toeing through the tulips (which in our yard is only grass). He is well-rested, he is onfire. Tonight, he is virile and alive!! Spit and vinegar, happy as a clam. Pouncing, barking, he is sniffing feverishly at our surroundings and keenly aware of all the passers-by, butterfly, spider, strolling dogs… neighbors, stangers, friends. There is something about Buddy…
A big thanks to Raquel, Phaedra, Britney, Ashley, Nick, Kimberly, Blaine, and whomever we mis-named or did not know their names that were part of the wonderful crew at The Willows Inn (it was an overwhelming experience).
Of course, a most extra-special thanks to Paula and Jeff (+ sweet pooch Coach); we still owe you duck (though it will not be Willows Inn, but a wild yard and critters awaits).
And without saying, there is something about Ginger too. Until next time, the (blissful) end.