The Willows Inn

Dinner – Saturday, September 3, 2016

“Welcome to Canada”, chirped my phone. At the northwestern tip of the lower 48, rural Lummi Island is indeed within striking distance of our good neighbour. The sense of isolation only enhances the experience – an hourly ferry is the only link to the continent, and dinner at The Willows Inn means spending the night. We arrived in the late afternoon, just enough time for some exploration to whet the appetite. Cocktails begin at four in the inn’s living room, dinner is served to all guests at six – how civilized. Everyone eats together, everyone rhapsodizes simultaneously. Here is our menu.

Dogwood berries, green hazelnuts

Chanterelles, dried tomato, smoked smelt

Toasted kale, black truffle, rye
Crisp, sinous leaves of kale, topped with daubs of black truffle puree and crunchy rye crumbs. The truffles were apparently as local as can be – sourced from a forager who trawls the northern ranges of the Cascades. The intensity made my mouth tingle.

Smoked black cod doughnuts, dried red seaweed

Crispy crepe
Steelhead roe, maple-sherry whipped cream, chives

Sidestripe prawns
Caught by the Lummi tribe, these specimens were served raw, with coarse salt the only garnish. Absolutely spectacular – practically untouched, yet one of my favourite courses of the night. Quality beyond compare.

Grilled smelt, lardo
The prawns were a tough act to follow, but the smelt were also amazing. Beautifully cooked, with clean taste and a supple texture enhanced by a thin veil of lardo.

Wild island plums

Crudites

Beet, gin-infused yogurt

Lightly-cured rockfish
Broth and gelee of grilled bones

After the superb bites of prawn and smelt ended the outdoor snack portion of dinner, we moved into the dining room, and there was an obvious lull – three courses of produce that were interesting but not spectacular. That ended with the seaweed-cured rockfish – evidently seafood ruled the day. A 3-star dish – sweet and salty and tangy, and an interplay of firm and gelatinous textures. Wow.

Herb tostada
Gorgeously presented – a fried mustard leaf topped with an oyster-parsley emulsion that affixed a garden of herbs. Such diversity in each bite, and the peppery, vegetal flavours were an excellent follow-up to the richness of the previous course.

Dungeness crab, pine nut milk

Charred onions, sauce of dried clams
Petals of cipollini onions filled with the kitchen’s homemade take on XO sauce – funky and heady. A counterpoint to the light, sweet crab meat in the prior course.

Aged venison
Purslane, rye, egg yolk

The meat was 2-month aged venison, roughly chopped and mixed with grapeseed oil and juniper vinegar. Honestly, eating this sent shivers of pleasure down my spine. The toast was dusted with shavings of dried venison heart and cured egg yolk- even more umami. Purslane leaves were genius – the texture of the succulent and the cleansing oxalic acid balanced the other components. Our dish of the evening – truly world-class.

Heirloom wheat bread, cultured butter, pan drippings
Crusty bread served with butter and salty, oily, roast chicken pan drippings. We had two rounds of this. Boy, what a way to fill up!

Albacore tuna
Radicchio, dried flowers, fermented mushrooms

Digestive tea of toasted birch branches

Concord grapes, lemon-thyme juice

Wild huckleberries, sweet woodruff ice cream, charred cream

Pumpkin seed fudge

We were overdue in visiting, and expectations have inflated over the years, but the kitchen met them with quiet (and humble) confidence. The Willows Inn is a place like no other – it is the definition of destination dining. But the restaurant and island are also so much more than that. Lummi Island is home to a few, a getaway and sanctuary for many more, a cultural and natural preserve, and a livelihood. I am already thinking about how soon before we can return.

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