I’ve got a story. It starts with me sitting on the deck of a two-bedroom beach house watching a convocation of American Bald Eagles. It ends with a spoonful of tart fruit swimming in grassy greens (among other taste treats). It’s the story of a grateful guest experiencing the authentic lifestyle of a small island in the Pacific Northwest on a sunny summer’s day. It’s the story of my getaway to The Willows Inn on Lummi Island.
It’s hard for a Californian like me to admit, but the hottest restaurant on the West Coast right now is in Washington state. It’s not in Seattle however, which may surprise you. In fact it’s a scenic two-hour roadtrip north of the city to Lummi Island. A place the New York Times said is one of 10 restaurants worth a plane ride (plus a car and a boat). It’s far enough north that you really start to wonder if you’ve wandered into Canadian territory. Not quite, but technically you’ve left the United States proper and entered the Lummi Indian Reservation. The Lummi Indians at Gooseberry Point are the gatekeepers of Lummi Island.
The Reservation may be the end of the road in these parts, but that’s not quite as far as you need to go. The last leg of any trip to Lummi Island takes place on a ferry. The Whatcom Chief is a small, open-air vessel with an erratic schedule. Other than by private boat it’s the only way to get to Lummi Island. So call ahead (360–676-6692) and make sure the ferry is running before you arrive at the dock. The Lummi Reservation is a beautiful little isthmus jutting out between Lummi Bay and Bellingham Bay, but there’s not a lot to do there. We arrived just as the ferry was undergoing some “scheduled” maintenance and spent a rather lazy two hours tossing rocks into the channel (pocketing the prettiest) while waiting to be taken to our destination, The Willows Inn.
Though skipping stones on a pebble beach while enjoying a picnic is a wonderful way for lifelong friends to spend quality time together– I have to admit I was anxious to get this adventure going. I knew that a two-bedroom beach house on the edge of the Puget Sound was waiting for us. It’s the only two-bedroom accommodation at The Willows Inn (which is the only hotel on the island). So I knew a very special getaway was in store.
Just as I’m contemplating my beach pebbles and my good luck, the Whatcom Chief suddenly blasts its horn and begins to load cars for the 10 minute crossing. We gather the remnants of our lunch and lurch for our vehicle. We had been first in line for the ferry, but barely managed to be the last car loaded. When the Whatcom Chief sounds its horn, it’s serious about immediate embarkation!
Happily (luckily) we were among the dozen or so cars and their passengers that made that first post-maintenance ferry ride. It was considerably later than scheduled, but much earlier than estimated. In other words our come-what-may adventure was officially underway and I was ready– come-what-may. In my world surprise is a potent force. When something novel occurs, I pay attention. I appreciate the experience or circumstance, and strive to remember it. That’s exactly what I have in mind for this short chug across the channel, and whatever lies beyond. There’s something special about arriving by ferry in my opinion. I suppose folks in this part of the world take it in stride. I, however, like to roll the window down and take in the sway of the sea and sting of salt-tinged air– full face.
Once arrived on Lummi Island, the low-key vibe of the place is immediately clear. 816 inhabitants call this picture-perfect place home. It’s small enough (9 sq miles) to have only one main road. So without even asking for directions, we make a quick right turn along the lovage-skirted, berry-brambled main road. We quickly arrive at The Willows Inn, a charming wood-paneled bungalow set in a garden just above Sunset Beach (one of the few public beaches on the island).
Since 1910, The Willows Inn on Lummi Island has been a peacefully verdant destination on this the smallest of the populated San Juan Islands. The inn itself has been gorgeously refurbished by the new owner, fisherman Riley Starks. He’s maintained the rustic delight of the property’s rooms, suites, cottages, and a couple of nearby beach houses (including the one we stayed in). There’s even a yurt available.
The island has always been a destination for well-informed Pacific Northwesterners. However, these days there’s a new energy bringing far-flung guests like me to The Willows Inn. Twenty-something Chef Blaine Wetzel has been getting world-wide attention for his Noma-inspired, hyper-local, constantly changing menus. The considerable chatter has made The Willows Inn dining room on little Lummi Island a culinary destination. It’s also made him the co-winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. Before the meal and before that meeting with a convocation of eagles, there was a bike ride along the west shore to Legoe Bay to see a place where a style of Native American fishing is still in practice.
Chef Wetzel is well-known for his use of local ingredients, including the salmon for his signature Smoked Fishes dish. I was determined to see for myself just where my dinner came from. Lummi Island is one of the few places that still employ reefnet fishing. Reef netting is among the most environmentally safe methods for gathering salmon in the world. It’s also the traditional fishing technique used by the Native Americans of this area. Reef netting is practiced by stringing out a net between the path of migrating salmon and letting them swim into it. I’ve read that this centuries-old tradition is one of the things that attracted Chef Wetzel to Lummi Island in the first place. So I knew I wanted to see this part of the island. I wasn’t disappointed. Legoe Bay is dotted with small, shingled shacks adorned with buoys of every color. There are railroad-style tracks crossing the road to aid in the launch of the special vessels required for reef netting. It’s the most sight-worthy site on the island for this seafood lover.
The night I was there, the “Smoked Fishes” course included both the above pictured salmon as well as black cod. They’re both simply prepared, in fact I’d bet the smoking process is a lot quicker than most of the smoked fish you’ve had in your life. The result is a succulent texture and just a whiff of good charred wood. Chef Wetzel lets the ingredients do their best all on their own. This requires impeccable ingredients and solid technique– yet doesn’t explain how the fish tasted almost exactly like candy.
The experience of the place is as fantastic as the food. The dining room is lined with windows overlooking the water. Summer dinners are timed to enjoy the sunset views. Which are spectacular.
The restaurant can best be described as a North American Noma, an internationally renowned restaurant in Denmark known for its strict dedication to local products and traditions. Which is no coincidence. Chef Wetzel spent several years at Noma and has brought both the philosophy and the theatrics to Lummi Island. Dishes come to the table on slabs of stone, piles of grass, pieces of driftwood, and other extraordinary vessels. First up is a “snack” (as the collection of amuse-bouches are labeled) of smoked mussel served in a simple cedar box. Once opened, live smoke is released– enveloping your face in the very same sensation your taste-buds are about to experience with the shellfish.
I’ve not eaten in Copenhagen’s Noma, but I have eaten at Maaemo in Oslo, Norway (another Noma-inspired restaurant). So I did notice other touches of creativity the chef must have brought back with him from Copenhagen. I particularly enjoyed the Maaemo-like practice of letting Chef Wetzel and his assistants deliver many of dishes themselves right to your table. Questions are encouraged and a real sense of place is celebrated. Everyone at The Willows Inn has a personal connection to the food being served. I found tales of the staff’s foraging adventures most inspiring.
There were so many highlights to this meal, it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll just throw a few selections out there to entice you. I particularly enjoyed the “bumbleberries” in a broth of local grasses. This chilled soup is made with a local berry similar to a strawberry swimming in grasses like coriander and is casually strewn with bitter/sweet miniature wildflowers. There was a perfect little spot prawn poached and served in its own roe. Nothing goes to waste here. In fact we ate the “skirt” of a razor clam (the skirt is the muscle that holds the clam to the shell). See what I mean. The skirt was not wasted, though the clam itself had been stuffed inside a crispy cone of baked halibut skin in a separate course.
All in all, there were 22 courses coming to the table in the form of pre-dinner cocktail nibbles, “snacks”, dinner and dessert. None of the courses were much more than a bite or three, but the main course of Slow Roasted Lamb Shanks in Parchment did give the meal the satisfying heft of a complete dinner.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this story. The Beach House at The Willows Inn, the eagles soaring above the water, and my considerable good luck. I’ll let these pictures tell that part of the story. GREG
The eagle photograph comes courtesy of my editorial partnership with Shutterstock and looks exactly like the eagles I saw, but was unable to photograph clearly. Sometimes you gotta love Shutterstock. Especially when I have a story to tell that starts and ends with eagles.