Updated: Jul 24
Dining at a James Beard Award-winner’s restaurant is a unique experience in itself. But dining at The Willows Inn with its front porch overlooking the unforgiving Salish Sea, the heady smell of the smokehouse out back and a warm crackling fireplace will be something we remember for decades to come. Not just because of the food, which is everything you’d hope it would be, but because celebrated Chef Blaine Wetzel and his impeccable staff understand the art of storytelling. At The Willows Inn, the story is just as much about the ingredients and the people behind them, as it is a love letter to the Pacific Northwest. Through the ingredients, we learn about the local fishermen and farmers, about the climate and ecosystem, and about the values of those behind the highly-revered final products.
Fishing, Foraging + Farming with The Willows Inn
The story of the Pacific Northwest, as orchestrated by the culinary team, unfolds through each course. A couple of expertly crafted cocktails are enjoyed by the fire upon arrival, shaken up at the 100-year-old Taft’s Bar in the other room. It looks a little like an old apothecary with its craftsman style built-ins that are lined with glass Ball jars, each filled and tagged with dried ingredients like sea cucumber, yarrow, madrone bark, birch sticks and white willow tincture.
There are only four barstools, lending itself to ideology that they want to make sure their guests are well-cared for, so it’s intentionally intimate.
If it hadn’t been a crisp autumn evening, the lure of the wood-burning fireplace may not have been so seductive. But we willfully surrendered to the sweet serenades of popping and cracking logs, and sank into the buttery, well-worn leather furniture. Like the restaurant’s produce, the herbs and edible florals used in each cocktail are grown at the restaurant’s own culinary gardens nearby.
True to fashion, there is an impressive array of house-infused and smoked liquors and garnishes, usually accompanied by hand-chiseled and sculpted ice. The beverage program is a vibrant reflection of the season and is served in antique barware they’ve picked up through estate sales over the years. If you can’t tell yet, this is a special place.
Taft's Bar + The Willows Inn Cocktails
We sipped our fireside cocktails - a smoked Charcoal Baby and a fizzy Walk in the Park - until it was time for the first course, which was served on the front deck in the cast of a coral sunset on the sea. We were there in mid-October, so the daylight hours slipped away quickly, leaving us time for only a few alfresco courses.
The staff brought us thick blankets to stave off a chill, followed shortly after by soul-warming bites from the smokehouse like crispy, toasted kale with black truffle aioli, skewers of velvety octopus with sweet sausage and smoked radicchio, delicate venison paired with meaty morel mushrooms, and quite possibly the best salmon anyone has ever had in their lives. The wild sockeyes are caught in reef nets by local fisherman and delivered the morning they are served. They are then smoked and glazed with a warm, brown sugar butter. The effect is unlike any texture one might expect from a traditionally flaky salmon, it becomes silken. It is served alone, as the standout that it is. This course is a crystalline taste of the cold waters in the region and a fine reflection of the local fishermen who seemed to have plucked only the very best specimens from the nets that day. The crisp breeze and smoked courses made for an unexpected and enjoyable contrast that only enhanced the overall experience.
Foraging hyperlocal ingredients on Lummi Island
We were then led inside to the warm dining room and our dimly lit tables overlooking the kitchen on one end, and the western water-facing windows on the other. Dozens of candles cast long shadows across the bare wooden floor, making the ambience irresistible. The staff practically beam with pride as they go over the courses and local bounty, which we happened to experience first-hand the next day while hiking the forest trails at Baker Preserve. We recognized a server from The Willows Inn with his beautiful Weimaraner, Blue, enjoying a morning hike. Except it was more than just a trip up the mountain, on his way back down he stopped to talk to us (yes, he lapped us like we were standing still) and was carrying the most beautiful haul of wild mushrooms that looked like spongy sea coral in the fold of his t-shirt.
True to form, the server was actually on a foraging mission for the restaurant and those same mushrooms would be served to that evening’s guests about three hours later. We were struck by the fact that we had been told the mushrooms were local at dinner, and even shown some of them before they were prepared, yet we unexpectedly saw it in action the very next day. And thus, we were introduced to the concept of hyperlocal.
But back to dinner. Another completely disarming and unexpected course was the herb tostada. The presentation was so imaginative and whimsical, it brought about faint whispers of something you’d expect from Noma in Copenhagen. Which makes perfect sense since Wetzel spent time there, learning under the famed René Redzepi.
The bouquet, with vibrant shades of green herbs like mustard leaves and edible flowers, is constructed on a crunchy foundation much like crostini. There’s a stealthy smearing of oyster emulsion you don’t see under the flora, adding the balance in texture and flavor. It takes a moment to wrap your mind around the idea of gnawing on a fistful of field, but the actual flavors and textures are nothing less than mind-blowing. This was another standout and maybe one of the most interesting dishes either of us has had anywhere in the world.
Farming the culinary gardens at Loganita Farm
The produce used at The Willows Inn tastes like it’s been grown in the proverbial Garden of Eden. Like they’re the very best version to ever come out of the earth. We were sent home with bundles of grapes which seemed a little anticlimactic at first, until we tried them. Did you know there were so many different flavors for grapes? Some were red and snappy, some were deep and richly flavored, and others were tiny and ultra-sweet. It was like having someone turn up the saturation in a photo. Trying a real concord grape for the first time made us feel like we’d been deprived of a divine right our entire lives. Like THIS is the way God intended grapes to taste.
To be moved by something as simple as a grape is a bit of a new concept for us, which is quite telling of the farmers at the restaurant’s culinary garden, Loganita Farm. Led by a superstar team of women, the farm specializes in bio-intensive practices that have a lower impact on the environment while promoting healthier soil conditions for the crops. They just might be miracle workers. If you’d like to see the gardens for yourself, you can schedule a tour at The Willows Inn front desk.
Willows Inn 20-Course Tasting Menu
After the four-hour, 20 course tasting, we were left with so many feelings. We were impressed, we were absolutely stuffed, we were in awe of the quality of the experience. We were keenly aware of how special this place was and therefore already thinking of how we’d miss it, we were disappointed that the quality of simple foods we consume daily are a fraction of the taste and nutritional value of what they could be…what they should be.
We have taken the soul out of farming and The Willows Inn team showed us how much magic there is in a return to the simplistic. As we watched the moonlight reflecting on the rippling waves from the dining room, we felt the passion and genuine tenderness this team had for their suppliers, each other and what they do. It wasn’t just a job for any of them. They all wanted to be there like it was an honor and a privilege to be part of something this special. We felt the same, it was an honor and a privilege to dine at The Willows Inn and experience a taste of the Pacific Northwest at its finest.
The Willows Inn Tasting Menu:
225 per person
120 wine pairing per person
Want more info on Lummi Island? Check out our Lummi Island Travel Guide.
**Please note the Willows Inn has now closed.
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Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years and is a regular contributor for Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.