Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Willows Inn

Adam had made a reservation at the Herbfarm for Friday night, because we couldn't get one at Willows Inn -- until we got a call on Friday morning that we'd gotten in off the waitlist.  We hemmed and hawed about whether it was crazy to change our plans at the last minute and drive two hours toward Canada for dinner.  (Maybe crazy, but it wouldn't be the farthest we'd gone for dinner, after all.)  The Four Seasons concierge recommended that we keep the Herbfarm reservation -- a mistake, but more on that later -- but at lunch, on Matt's urging, we decided to go.  We checked out, rented a car, and headed up the coast.  It started to rain, the traffic was terrible, and I obsessively refreshed the Google Maps traffic predictions during a tense first hour when it wasn't clear whether we'd make it to Lummi Island in time.  (We didn't head out of Seattle until after 3:00, and it's a two and a half hour drive without traffic.  The restaurant does one seven o'clock seating a night, and if we missed the 6:40 ferry, there wasn't another one until 7:20.)  We held off on canceling the Herbfarm reservation, just in case the traffic forced us to abandon ship and head there instead.  (When the traffic lightened and we committed, I called Herbfarm and was able to reschedule our reservation for Saturday night.)  In the end, we arrived at the inn sufficiently early to change before dinner.  While the clouds on the evening that we arrived obscured much of the view, when the weather cleared the next morning, the dining room, lounge, and front porch had a beautiful view of the water and the horizon dotted with nearby islands.  The main rooms of the inn are charming, and our little room up behind the main building was cute (with a lovely steam shower), if small.  There wasn't anyone to carry the bags, which we lugged up the stairs while attempting to avoid the fattest slugs I've ever seen, which littered the path after the rain.  (Gross, but pretty funny when I considered how much more disgusted Paul probably would have been.)

The baked sunflower roots tasted like a slightly bizarro version of the best roasted sunchoke I could imagine.  Given the obvious similar-to-but-not-quite sunchoke taste, we asked one of the handful of young chefs circulating around the dining room, who enthusiastically explained that there are different kinds of sunflowers, and sunchokes are the roots of a different type.  Turns out, that young chef was actually Blaine Wetzel -- thanks, profile in Art Culinaire Issue 102, conveniently left on the lounge coffee table for our post-dinner perusing! -- who is extremely personable in addition to being so talented.  Awesome.  (In retrospect, I don't know why it had never occurred to me to learn the sunchoke/sunflower connection, given that I love sunchokes.)
Baked Sunflower Roots

The next course was a nice variation on the Keller-originated (I think?) and much-copied (by Jose Andres at minibar and Jaleo, for a local example) crispy shell-and-roe combination.  Tasty and well-executed, but not particularly original.
Crispy Crepe with Steelhead Roe

I liked the potato chips, but wished they'd been crispier and perhaps thinner.
Potato Chip with Block Cod

The pickled oysters were good but not particularly memorable, and this trip made me a fan of sorrel.
Pickled Oyster with Sorrel

The kale toast was nicely thin and crispy, although it didn't taste particularly truffle-y, but it was a nice snack.
Kale Toast with Black Truffle and Rye

The basket of vegetables with a green goddess-like dip on the side reminded me of Stone Barns's early course of simple vegetables.
Farm Basket with Herb Emulsion

Like most of the early bites, the shitakes were simple but showcased the earthy mushroom flavor.
Grilled Shitake

The scallop with milk and arugula was a replacement for a venison tartare -- an unusual combination, very light, and the mix of dairy, seafood, and slight bite of arugula surprisingly worked.  It needed a little salt, and a sprinkle of sea salt from a little dish on the table helped.

They smoke the salmon in a wooden smoker just outside the inn, which we saw (and smelled) at work the next morning.  Awesome.
Smoked Sockeye Salmon

We'd arrived too late to order cocktails in the cozy lounge before dinner, so we'd requested a look at the list once at our table.  The Woodruff Martini was nice, but I remember thinking that the Spotted Owl was really interesting -- surprisingly, pleasantly woodsy.  (Weirdly, I can't remember which was the brilliant green one, but I think it was the Spotted Owl.)  We also did the wine and juice pairings, which didn't leave much of an impression (although the elderflower juice was lovely): 2010 Chinook Winery Semillon, 2009 Dei Feudi Fiano di Avellino, 2010 Claude Lafond Reuilly Pinot Gris, 2011 Syncline Rose, and 2011 Cascinetta Vietti Moscato d'Asti; cucumber, apple, carrot, huckleberry, and elderflower juices.
Woodruff Martini: local vodka, house infused woodruff syrup, fresh woodruff, citrus
Spotted Owl: Voyager gin, Douglas fir eau du vie, fresh lemon, nettle puree, served up

Although the prawn's presentation was cool -- it was killed and lightly cooked by the hot rock salt, and I love a good shellfish apocalypse -- I'm not sure the simple flavor was worth the effort and burning fingers required to eat it.  But it was accompanied by a delicious cocktail of oloroso sherry, apple, lillet blanc, lemon, (maybe something else that I can't recall).  I don't remember how we ended up with it -- it wasn't on the normal menu -- but I think we overheard the sommelier talking about it to another table?
Salt Baked Spot Prawn

The squid dish was one of the highlights of the evening, although I'm not sure the squid added much to the delicious layers of onion flavor -- charred green onion sauce, pickled and grilled onions, and onion bouillon reduction (from boiling the onions).  Without the squid, I think it would have been one of the most deliciously and deceptively simple vegetable dishes I've had.
local squid with grilled onions

The halibut skin -- with seaweed powder, vinegar powder, clams, and a sauce made with the halibut flesh -- was a good salty, crispy snack, but it was a bit weird coming after the less snacklike preceding seafood courses.
Halibut Skin with clams

Another delicious roasted mushroom, with fiddleheads, another use of woodruff, wood ear mushrooms, and slightly tart salmonberries.  A satisfying vegetarian course with interesting local ingredients.
wild mushrooms with woodruff and salmonberries

This oyster was outstanding -- the best course of a great dinner and possibly of the entire delicious trip.  The sauce had tequila, fried sage, fennel seed, chili flakes, brown butter, and it was fantastic and complex.  We were thrilled to discover that the recipe is available, and I definitely plan to attempt it someday.
Grilled Oyster with Tequila and Sage

The mustardy salmon was also delicious, but couldn't surpass the oyster.  I remember thinking that Deanna would appreciate the various uses of mustard flavor.
Jeremy's king with mustard greens and seeds

The Spotted Owl candy was a chewy bite of the cocktail's flavor -- great.
Spotted Owl candy

Dessert was simple but fantastic -- the strawberries were so sweetly ripe, the meringue drops were light, and the herbs added a bit of depth to a perfect ending.
first strawberries with chamomile and lavender

Flax bites were good, like a fancy sesame candy.  By then we were stuffed, slightly tipsy, and the last diners in the room, so we took the last sips of our cocktails to the lounge (where we found the aforementioned Art Culinaire) before making our way back up the path to our room.
Flax Bites

By the next morning, the weather had cleared into a gorgeous day, and we finally got to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.  After a satisfying breakfast in the dining room -- herbed scrambled eggs, appropriately greasy potato gratin, etc., although it couldn't compare to dinner -- we were on our way back to Seattle for our last night.

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