In 2010, the cash-strapped owner of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington, placed an ad on Craigslist for a head chef. Blaine Wetzel, who was raised in nearby Olympia and had spent the last two years cooking (and, of course, foraging) at Noma in Copenhagen, was looking to come home. “Home” soon meant a 9-square-mile island dangling in the Puget Sound just 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
Before long, introducing diners to the huckleberries and sea lettuce of the Pacific Northwest began to pay off. In 2011, the New York Times anointed Willows Inn one of “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride” (or more accurately: a plane ride, a car ride, and a ferry ride) and the bookings started flowing. Six months ago Wetzel won the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Lucky me: I was headed to nearby San Juan Island, and I couldn’t resist a detour to Lummi (“rhymes with tummy”—go figure) Island. As I prepared for our trip, I read plenty of reviews about the 18-course tasting menu but I didn’t hear much about logistics. Does the island ferry take reservations? What does one do on Lummi besides have dinner? What’s the inside scoop on the accommodations?
I’ll admit it. I’m a planner. I’m that person who books hotels months in advance “just in case” and prints out Google Maps as backup despite having an iPhone with GPS within three feet of me at all times. It’s an affliction. My friends and family are used to it. If you’re nodding your head, you might enjoy my top 5 tips (with food to follow):
Lummi Island is 110 miles north of Seattle—about a 2.5-hour drive, including the ferry crossing. But there’s no rush. Check-in at Willows Inn isn’t until 3pm and there isn’t much to do on the island before dinner (exploring the hiking trails was soon outvoted by pre-dinner cocktails on the inn’s patio), so it’s a fine idea to take the side roads. We happened to be driving from an island ferry that docked at Anacortes, so we stopped for lunch at Tweets (above) in the 1-block hipster town of Edison (population 133). Afterward, we wandered up the coast through Larrabee State Park before catching the I-5 North in Bellingham.
Willows Inn has seven rooms on its cozy property, but it also places guests in standalone houses and apartments nearby (note that common-area spaces are sometimes shared with other guests). It’s hard to get a handle on the quality of rooms from the inn’s website, but we highly recommend the Matia (pictured above) for its spaciousness and contemporary design. In line with this property, the innkeeper also recommended Loganita Loft, Loganita Cabin, and the Watermark houses. See all accommodations by clicking here.
Dinner begins at 6:30pm and guests are usually finished in time to catch the 10pm ferry. Even if you linger, which is tempting, the crossing runs until midnight.
Ever wake up wishing you could repeat last night’s dinner? The inn’s breakfast is a perfect medley of sweet and savory items that lets you relive the moment, and for a mere $25 per person. We enjoyed smoked sockeye salmon (practically the official food of Lummi), culatello, kale cooked with sweet onion, soft-boiled eggs, granola and yogurt with local huckleberries, marmalade with squash and pepper, and rye-and-sourdough English muffins. The house-made juices are to die for—refreshing, innovative, and not too sweet. (Don’t miss the juice pairing with dinner as well.) With breakfast we enjoyed a bay-leaf-and-lemon juice, and naturally our server pointed out the bay leaf tree just outside the window.
In case you’re on a tight schedule to catch a flight from Seattle or a ferry to another island (as we were), build in some time for the ferry back to the mainland. The ferry ride just takes a few minutes, but it only holds 22 cars and loads on a first-come, first-served basis. I’m assuming the 45-minute wait we encountered stemmed from people checking out of the inn and heading home around the same time.
Side note: you pay the entire round-trip fee on your way to Lummi. As our breakfast server said with a glint in her eye, “It costs money to come here, but you’re free to leave!”
Not yet… Let’s eat!
I started with the Spotted Owl cocktail (gin, Douglas fir, nettles, egg white) but I ended up preferring the Matia (gin, purple basil, and cucumber). We nibbled with anticipation on Samish Bay oysters; rhubarb that had been pickled in lemon, verbena, and sugar; and coppa salami.
Up to this point, we’ve been watching a kitchen expeditor furiously mark up a sheet—not to mention mysteriously move pebbles back and forth between boxes—as the servers swirl around him with plates. My mother is convinced it’s Chef Blaine Wetzel, but I’m not so sure (those cocktails don’t help). I vaguely remember a different face in the recent photographs at the James Beard Awards.
In fact, I’m 85 percent convinced Chef Wetzel just dropped off this shiitake mushroom—literally—because one of the mushrooms rolled off of its plate and I joked about a five-second rule, to which he laughed but briskly replied, “No five-second rule,” and brought another one. Wetzel delivered one or two other dishes to our table, and chatted amiably with a lack of pretension that, to me, is emblematic of the Pacific Northwest experience. The region does not tolerate ego well and, coming from southern California where status is shouted from a Range Rover while taking a selfie, it’s refreshing to say the least. It’s also no accident that the rest of the Willows staff calls him “Blaine,” not “Chef.” When asked to explain the kitchen hierarchy in Outside magazine, Wetzel replies, “Basically none. We work collaboratively. I trust these guys.” Someone pass the smelling salts.
The mushroom itself is a good example of Wetzel’s kitchen philosophy: so seemingly simple in preparation and presentation, yet saturated with the complex essence of mushroom—wood, smoke, herbs. Kind of like tasting peppery arugula after a lifetime of refrigerated iceberg lettuce.
Salt-roasted beets with herb seed and yogurt; spot prawns poached with its roe; barely cooked Samish Bay geoduck, sliced thin, with pork fat and breadcrumbs (if the gooseneck barnacles made you squirm, don’t Google “geoduck”)
To watch a brief interview with Wetzel and see more images of the island, check out this video.
Now where are my Google Maps for getting us home?