Would you travel via plane, car and ferry to an island in the middle of nowhere to eat a meal cooked by a 26-year-old? Yes, you would.
Author MICHAEL KAPLAN
A COMMONSENSE RULE among restaurateurs is to always situate an eatery in a well-trafficked neighborhood. So if you decide to open a dining spot on a remote island serviced by a ferry that stops running in the early evening, well, you’d better have one heck of a restaurant. Fortunately for the owners of Willows Inn, located on tiny Lummi Island in the San Juan archipelago north of Seattle, that’s precisely what they have. Their restaurant is so good, in fact, that the New York Times deemed it among 10 that are actually worth flying to. (Even if you book a flight to Sea-Tac, though, it’s still a 90-mile drive, plus the ferry.)
Who is drawing customers to this eatery at the end of the world? A 26-year-old genius of a chef by the name of Blaine Wetzel, who—before moving home to Washington in 2010 to be closer to his girlfriend— spent two years working at Copenhagen’s acclaimed Noma. Inside Willows Inn’s recently upgraded kitchen, Wetzel explains what drew him to such an out-of-the-way operation: the close proximity of pristine natural ingredients and the complete freedom to do as he pleases with them. “This restaurant has its own farm and two commercial fishing boats,” he says. “When we want herbs, we forage for them. We get seaweed from the beach and pick our own lobster mushrooms when they’re in season. I haven’t seen a lot of setups like this.”
In the inn’s cozy 25-seat dining room, the tasting menu begins with a little wooden box. Opening it reveals a puff of fragrant smoke and a piece of locally caught salmon above a small fire. Later, there’s an oyster pickled in homemade sauerkraut, kale toast with roasted black truffles, impossibly creamy squid and a vegetable plate with a dreamy over-easy egg as a centerpiece. The menu peaks with grilled duck topped with grilled onion purée, then gracefully winds its way down to a delicious pine-flavored ice cream that tastes exactly like it sounds— but in the best possible way.
After dinner, Wetzel stands in the kitchen musing on what he has in store for future menus. He points beyond the window to a small hut with tendrils of smoke twisting from the chimney. “We’re experimenting with smoked duck wings,” he says. “They’re not perfect yet. Eventually we can add spices and try different cooking techniques, but for now the important question is whether they taste good.” He hesitates for a beat, then says, “I believe they do.”
There’s a lot of talk about Washington strawberries, especially when they start appearing in steaming strawberry-rhubarb pies in bakery windows every spring. But one could argue that it’s the strawberry’s ubiquitous little cousin, rhubarb, that’s the real star of the show. The ruby-red locally grown vegetable pops up in dishes, both savory and sweet, all over the state in May: At Seattle’s venerable Italian spot Tulio Ristorante, chef Walter Pisano works the stalks into salads, purées them as an accompaniment to duck and uses them to amplify cheese platters. Across town, chef Jason Stoneburner at Bastille Café & Bar poaches them in honey, ginger and rosé to add a sweet note to crispy pork belly. As delicious as the savory dishes sound, however, for rhubarb lovers it’s hard to beat dessert at Tulio: a rhubarb crostata served with a scoop of rhubarb gelato. “Rhubarb on rhubarb!” Pisano exclaims. —M.K.