Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eating for Real

Sometimes you have to splurge a little. 

That’s what we were thinking when we tried to score one of the elusive reservations at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island The chef in the dining room, Blaine Wetzel, has been making waves in the culinary world for his innovative farm-to-table creations, even recently participating with other illustrious chefs in Le Grand Fooding in New York City in September.  The 24-year old superstar has put Lummi Island on the map, with the New York Times naming the Inn one of the ten restaurants in the United States worth a plane ride.  And, he’s cute.

We reasoned, if other food lovers are willing to fly across the country to dine at The Willows Inn, the least we could do was take a 10 minute ferry ride.  It’s our culinary duty.

Easier said than done.  To get a reservation, you have to call at 8:30 a.m. exactly two weeks to the day before you want to have dinner.  We struck out several weeks in a row before finally being placed on a waiting list.  The day before our anticipated dinner, we got the call.  We’re in.

First, the setting is spectacular.  The ferry ride across Lummi Bay from Bellingham sets you on a winding tree-lined road that, at this time of year, has turned golden and is littered with fallen leaves.  The Inn, perched on the water, boasts spectacular views at dusk, the broad expanse of sky turning golden-pink behind the dusty gray, shadowed horizon outline.

We arrive half-an-hour before dinner to take advantage of the social hour—a chance to enjoy the front living room, have a cocktail, meet other guests and tour the inn.  At the allotted hour, the hosts gently usher all of the awaiting guests to our tables.  One by one, we settle in to relish the next three hours. 

The staff immediately makes us feel special, pouring Prosecco into our glasses as we take our seats in the dimly lit dining room.  Through the glass-paned door separating the dining room from the kitchen, we see the chefs busily plating the first courses, looking efficient yet completely at ease.  The whole place feels serene.

The menu lists only five course, but we were served eight—yes eight—small bites even before the first course arrived.  We won’t go into detail on each and every one, we’ll just post the pictures here.  The presentation speaks for itself. 

We will say, one of the highlights was this basket of baby greens and vegetables—still attached to their leafy stems—served with a sprinkling of hazelnut and beer dirt and a creamy, tangy dip colored a verdant green from fresh herbs.

It’s fun to eat with your hands.

Another highlight (no surprise to our readers) was the bread basket.  Made from only four ingredients—Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill whole wheat flour, sugar, water and yeast—the bread was moist with a delicate crumb, crusty and delicious.  We ate our fair share, and then packaged up the rest for our morning toast. 

That seems to be part of Chef Wetzel’s brilliance, serving real food—fresh from the garden, farm or sea—in such a way as to remind you of the perfect simplicity of nature’s pure flavor.  Every dish was created so as to highlight the range of textures and flavors of the food’s perfect form—either raw, lightly pickled or smoked, or barely roasted or cooked.       

As the planned courses started to arrive—along with several more complementary small bites between each course—we almost clapped our hands in delight at the beauty of each plate.  While we didn’t always love the temperature or texture of everything served, we overwhelmingly appreciated the chefs’ commitment to the ingredients and the integrity of the preparations.  Each and every plate arrived with one of the chef’s passionately telling the story of either the source of ingredients or inspiration for the dish. 

For both of us, the whole night underscored our path in life—eat real food with those you love, and you’ll be happy.  And healthy.

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