In my family, we describe certain events as ‘peak experiences’. They are instances so special and remarkable, they leave an indefinite impression. I have been lucky enough to have eaten at Willows Inn on Lummi Island twice now, and each time has been, without a doubt, a peak experience.
Ruth Reichl starts her memoir Comfort Me With Apples with the quote from A.J. Liebling, “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” She then comments, “Easy for him to say: He was independently wealthy. Personally, I found the primary requisite for writing about food to be a credit card.” Now, I’m not saying peak experiences have to be costly, nor do I think that expense guarantees a great meal. However, while Willows Inn is not inexpensive, everything about it is sheer magic — and worth every penny. (Being the winner of a Twitter giveaway, as I was, doesn’t hurt either.)
For those unfamiliar with the San Juans in Washington State, they are a beautiful chain of islands located about 100 miles north of Seattle. Lummi in particular requires about a two hour drive and a 15 minute ferry ride. It oozes picturesque Northwest beauty year round with its mossy, rock covered beaches and dense expanse of evergreen trees. The two lane road that winds around the island is the kind where everyone waves at each other as you pass by.After months of anticipation for my mom’s birthday celebration, she and I hit the road late morning to catch the ferry in time for a beach walk and cocktails before dinner. The Inn itself is small and cozy, with a handful of rooms on site and a few larger properties nearby. We strolled on the beach, took a long walk down the road, and then freshened up before tucking into a pre-dinner cocktail at the small bar.
I sipped on their bright green signature drink, The Spotted Owl, which basically feels like you’re drinking a gin-infused Northwest forest in a martini glass (sans pine needles). My mom went for an earthy concoction involving beet juice and ginger liqueur. We patted ourselves on the back for drinking such healthy cocktails. The drinks were served alongside a platter of foraged treats from the island and surrounding area including fresh rhubarb and Olympia and Shigoku oysters. As we ate our snacks, we peered through the glass doors into the airy kitchen and watched Blaine Wetzel and his team quietly at work, absolutely mesmerized.Having worked with Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen at the world-renowned Noma, Blaine Wetzel has become a master of making hyper-local ingredients shine in a way that no one else can in the Northwest. (He also just won the James Beard rising-star award, to no one’s surprise.) There is an element of surprise so ethereal in each dish that you can’t help but let out an audible gasp each time a plate is set in front of you. There’s the stone slab with kale chips, dotted with black truffle and rye. Our eyes widened when the tops of our wooden boxes were removed, cold smoke billowing out, to reveal a single perfect Samish Bay mussel. Of course, after each bite you are left wanting a million more, but then you wouldn’t have room for all of the other treats still to come.
We ate perfect radishes from their farm with slightly sweet lovage and whey. We ate wild dandelion roots that were then sprinkled table side with freshly grated dried herring roe that had been harvested from kelp. (Yes, this is something that exists and it’s amazing.) We ate fried halibut skin, rolled up like a hand roll and stuffed with some sort of wonderful cream. A single grilled shiitake mushroom was mind-blowing. There was a buttery, fresh spot prawn, poached in its gorgeous coral roe. I was happy to see the delicate, crispy crepe with salmon roe again, and it still exploded with briny flavor in the same way I remembered. We ate sunflower root dipped in a sweet onion puree. There were razor clams and wild beach peas that were an incredible shade of green. There was black cod (my favorite fish) and whole roast leg of lamb with local grasses. It’s hard to even pick a favorite, but I loved the aged venison leg, chopped into a thick tartare served with homemade rye toasts and wild lettuce.
We were served perfect, crusty hearth bread with hot pan drippings from roast chicken and fresh butter. (I could subsist on this alone.) I have to say though, the smoked sockeye salmon at Willows Inn is second to none. Caught each summer using the sustainable, ancient tradition of reef-net fishing, it is smoked outside, feet from where we were sitting. The flavor is unreal. The salmon alone requires a moment of silence to really let it sink in. Dessert was a refreshing steamed rhubarb slice with spring pine along with a dreamy puree of hazelnuts and chestnuts. These were followed by one last sweet bite, lovely flaxseed caramels .
We chose to do the wine pairing (there’s a juice pairing as well) which was incredible. Four of the five selections came from Washington, with the fifth hailing from Oregon. It started with semi-sweet hard cider that we sipped during our first small bites. This was followed by a Chardonnay from Yakima Valley, an IPA from Bellingham, and a to-die-for Pinot Noir from Dundee, Oregon. The best part about the wine pairing? They leave the bottle of whatever you’re drinking at the moment at your table, so you can top yourself off as you see fit. We finished off with a dessert wine from Yakima Valley that was so next level I might have had three glasses of it. After dinner, we walked the few yards to our room and after discussing the meal for at least another thirty minutes, drifted off to sleep. The experience wasn’t over yet, though. The biggest perk of staying at the Inn is the complimentary breakfast, which makes you forget any complimentary hotel breakfast you’ve ever had up until this point.
We sipped hot coffee from our individual French presses and ate soft-boiled eggs out of egg cups with coarse sea salt. There was a charcuterie platter with smoked salmon and wonderful cheeses, granola with fresh yogurt and fruit, and the BEST biscuits ever. There was even a kale dish that I ate (despite my dislike of vegetables at breakfast). Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we were given shortbread thumbprint cookies with raspberry jam in a bag for the car ride home. Needless to say, we didn’t want to leave.
The sensory feast at the Willows Inn is one that will feed you for weeks and months to come. It’s a celebration of place in the most exquisite way, and filled me with such a sense of regional pride. Add it to your bucket list, buy a piggy bank, do whatever you need to do to get there. If I had a bottomless bank account, I would go to Willows Inn every weekend. But then of course it wouldn’t be a peak experience, and for that I’m grateful.
Willows Inn, 2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island, WA, (360) 758-2620, http://www.willows-inn.com, Dinner served 4-5 nights a week from March through December, Reservations Required (Book out as far as possible)