The Willows Inn: Hyper-local Dining In the Pacific Northwest
Hype comes in many forms in the world of food and wine. Celebrity chefs, special cuvées, one of a kind ingredients, rarity. Exaggeration is so common that we acclimatize ourselves to it and grow skeptical. This is particularly true of a wine or food blogger who samples much more than the average person and whose palate becomes jaded much more quickly.
I am not a food connoisseur but I have dined at quite a few excellent small and highly regarded restaurants in many of the world’s major cities. Thus I too bear a good degree of skepticism when approaching anything with a reputation. But my dour cantankerousness failed to prepare me for what I would experience at The Willows Inn, a small restaurant on Lummi Island off the north coast of Washington State.
Confronting the Hype
A 1-2 hour drive from Vancouver, including the border, there is no reason why anyone would go to Lummi Island of their own volition. What drew me here was reading an article passed along to me by a friend that highlighted how the new chef (Blaine Wetzel) at The Willows Inn was the protégé of René Redzepi from Noma in Denmark – what is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world.
What I discovered at the restaurant was a faithful replica of Noma’s hyper-local approach to ingredients and highly stylized presentation. The chefs bring out the dishes personally so that they can answer any questions you have about the ingredients or the preparation. After 5 amuse bouche’s and 5 courses, I reflected on how there was not a dud amongst the bunch. These included a ‘vegetable snack basket’ with radishes I was told were picked “2 hours earlier”, locally harvested oysters and spot prawns, a mind-expanding dish of pine nettles, pine nuts and asparagus, and local reefnet caught salmon smoked in a cedar box before your eyes. Rather than wax poetic about what I ate, here’s the menu (see photos throughout and at the end of this article to view the insane presentation)
When Reality is Better than the Hype
This was without a doubt the best meal I have ever eaten, made sweeter by the fact that everything was locally sourced from either the San Juan Islands or The Willows Inn’s own farm, just 5 minutes walk up the hill. This is pacific northwest cuisine at its absolute apex, and at $85 for a 5 course meal any Vancouver denizen would be foolish not to dine at The Willows Inn, particularly since Vancouver is the closest major city. A restaurant of this calibre is rare even in the world’s great cities and it is nothing like anything being done in Vancouver, which is probably why the New York Times wrote it up as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world worth flying to.
I will note, however, that the service and accommodations (in order to secure dining it is much more reliable to also book a room to stay overnight) are decidedly amateurish compared to the dining experience. The rooms are fine, though nothing special, and the service is friendly, though they seem in shock and awe at the sudden inundation of guests from around the world. The sommelier is a nice guy, though is clearly somewhat overwhelmed and out of his element here. While the wines selected represent some good examples of high quality local wines, I expected a little more innovation from the wine experience. The pairings were solid, but predictable and it was a no brainer for me to get my own bottle (with pairings costing $65/person, and good bottles available for $80 and under, the pricing seemed out of whack). That said, I did managed to drink a 2005 Cameron Clos Electrique Chardonnay, which was probably the best Chardonnay I have ever had from outside France and accented all of the dishes perfectly, including the spring lamb, which was slaughtered by a local herder who lived just down the way.