New York Times Article Featuring Willows Inn

June 17th, 2011 by Mariah

A special congrats to the Innkeepers and Staff at Willows Inn for being featured in the New York Times!!!

Here is an excerpt from the article, “Seattle, a Tasting Menu”:

“I know that from previous visits to the region, and on the basis of those trips I can also say that its culinary strides of late seem especially long and fleet. One measure of these advances is the transformation of the Willows Inn, a longstanding lodge on Lummi Island that has recently become the focus of considerable chatter among (and pilgrimages by) restaurant lovers.

Lummi Island, a hilly, verdant, narrow finger of land that’s only about 10 miles long, is another of the San Juans, and isn’t especially trammeled or set up for significant tourism — at least not yet. After a roughly two-hour roadtrip from Seattle, a sign I confronted as soon as a ferry deposited me and my car there made that clear. It pegged the population at 816.

Lummi, which rhymes with chummy, has such a closed, cozy feeling that if you drive down streets away from the main part of town, people tilling their gardens or mowing their lawns look up expectantly, seemingly poised to wave hello to someone almost certain to be familiar to them. When they realize they don’t know you, there’s a moment’s pause. Then they wave anyway.
Willows Inn goes back to 1910, but in 2001 its current owner, a commercial fisherman named Riley Starks, bought and began to refurbish it, turning each of its 15 rooms, including two cottages, a yurt and several suites, into rustic delights. He wanted to upgrade its restaurant, too, and make it a showcase for the island’s small farms, one of which belongs to the inn, and for fresh catch from the surrounding waters. But his vision didn’t fully come together until late last year, when a young chef who had spent several years at Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant internationally renowned for its dedication to local products and traditions, agreed to take over the kitchen.

The chef, Blaine Wetzel, 25, has tried to create a North American Noma by faithfully — even slavishly — reproducing the original’s theatrics and grace notes. As at Noma, dishes come to the table in unconventional vessels: cedar boxes, clay flower pots, wicker baskets. As at Noma, there’s a profuse deployment of arcane greens (beach mustard, sheep sorrel, pine shoots) and vivid flowers (salmonberry, arugula blossoms, wild roses), some of them pickled and many of them foraged — as at Noma — that very day. And in yet another crib from Noma, Mr. Wetzel and his assistant chefs deliver these dishes themselves, so they can brief you on the backstory of each ingredient and how very nearby it sprouted, bloomed, grazed or swam.

What they don’t tell you, the printed menu does, providing assurances, for example, that reef netting, “considered one of the most sustainable fishing methods in the world,” and the labors of “Lummi tribal members” were responsible for much of your seafood.

A bit much? Perhaps. But the atmospheric and gustatory joys of dinner, which is a pre-selected tasting menu of five courses for $85 (not including drinks, tax and tip) redeem the preciousness. The inn’s hillside perch affords an expansive view from the dining room of the sea and the sky, streaked with orange and pink as the sun sets.

And Mr. Wetzel and his team for the most part do justice to incomparably fresh food. Seared spot prawns, floating in a cloud of mussel-broth foam, put me in mind of Lilliputian lobster tails. Their flavor was that rich, their texture that buttery. Equally tender fingerling potatoes, dressed with melted havarti and buttermilk whey, had such a true, clear taste it was as if someone had infused them with, or marinated them in, some magical potato extract.

They had been harvested from the inn’s farm, just a mile up the hillside. That’s where I stayed, in a satellite suite the inn has there. Rosemary, rhubarb and lovage skirted its stoop. Through the front windows I could see and hear the strutting and clucking of free-range chickens. You want a closer relationship with what you eat? At the Willows Inn you can practically bed down with it.

By taking culinary trends further than other places manage or care to, Seattle and its environs put a pleasantly kooky spin on things — which brings me to Woodinville, an audacious exurb of Seattle that indulges Americans’ deepened romance with regional winemaking through the illusion of vineyards where they don’t really exist. There’s no significant grape cultivation in Woodinville. That happens in areas of Washington far away. But to allow Seattle residents to sample the fruits of their state’s considerable — and noteworthy — viticulture without a long drive, more than 90 winemakers have set up tasting rooms here, many within the last two years. And they’ve been joined recently by artisanal producers of vodka and whiskey who actually distill their grains in Woodinville office parks and warehouses, then sell them from adjacent tasting rooms, taking advantage of a captive audience of tipplers. ”

To read the entire article click here: