I will never dine at Feran Adria's restaurant El Bulli in Catalunia. It was closed last year (with a waiting list of 2 million), as Adria has moved on to other things. It was the #1 ranked restaurant in the world for most of past decade. Two years ago, it was replaced as #1 by Rene Redzepi's Noma, in Copenhagen- with a cuisine based on foraging just as El Bulli was based on molecular gastronomy. Thankfully El Bulli's food can still be enjoyed at his protege Jose Andres' "e" restaurant where I was lucky enough to dine February in Las Vegas. This month, a 2-hour drive from North Vancouver to Lummi Island off the coast of Washington State brought me and friend Terry to Redzepi's protege Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn. If you can't eat at the masters' tables, their proteges' tables will have to do.
It was a cold, wet March 9th when we ventured into the States, made much colder by the news of the death of Peter Bergman that morning. We brought along a CD of the 1999 Firesign concert in Seattle that I helped record. Terry's car CD player swallowed the concert CD. Things were off to a very bad start.
Our dinner time was 6:30- you don't get a choice. We left 4 hours early thinking we'd explore Lummi or nearby Bellingham, but Lummi offered nothing worth exploring and Bellingham isn't exactly connected to Lummi. So we were 2 hours early The Willows Inn had just reopened after serious renovations (it's a hundred years old) and was quite pleasant. The bar was open early so I had a couple of cocktails and Terry had a beer while we chatted with the staff about the Inn renovations (Terry is a carpenter, among other things), though the snapping logs in the fireplace were so loud it sounded like the Syrian army was outside attacking us. The sort of living room we stayed in smelled strongly of apricots and moccasins and no one could tell us exactly why, as they certainly weren't in the noisy fireplace. When it was finally time to seat us, the staff completely ignored us, though we'd been waiting patiently for 2 hours. Everyone else in the room was seated and even people walking in the door were immediately seated. We had to go and remind the staff that we also had a reservation (I made it by phone as soon as the restaurant reopened on March 1). Another bad omen.
Finally seated, we are given glasses of an apple cidre produced on a nearby island. This was new on the menu. They used to serve Proseco, a tasty beverage but it's from Italy. The whole raison d'etre of Willows is local food and drinks. As a lover of good cidre, I found it drinkable. Terry forsook the cidre and had the juice pairings with the meal, while I ordered the wine pairings.
The dining room, with outdoor firepit First amuse, delicious sunchokes in a cedar box.
Black cod, sauerkraut and scallops. Fried kale with mushrooms.
Smoky and tasty.
Steel head roe, parsley and creme fraiche. Venison heart: Intensely gamey. First entree: geoduck
This final amuse was grilled shitake.
By far the best. As if Wetzel was
finally serious about giving us
great food. Not shown are the oysters,
which are not a favourite. I asked for knife
to try a micorslice and was told cutlery was specific
to each dish. What is this, Alinea? Finally they found me a knife.
Bad service and bad food, a marriage made in hell.
Unfortunately I had exhausted my camcorder battery filming the architecture and couldn't film the rest of the entrees. No big loss.
Salmon was good, but salmon usually is. Sure it's sustainably caught and all, but that wasn't why we came to the restaurant. The farm adjacent to the restaurant is called Nettles farm, so naturally we were served nettles, as an entree. VERY chewy. I felt like a cow. The taste wasn't at all unpleasant. It was for that kind of experience of wild plants that we'd ventured to Lummi in the first place. At least we got some benefit from our prodigious use of expensive gasoline.
Terry asked if there were different kinds of wood used to smoke the different dishes. We were told no, all the same wood, but cooked differently in each course. Some are seared with gas. Terry also asked about the salt we’re given in a little dish. The server said they make their own salt. The theme of the whole meal, particularly the amuses, was smokiness. Rose hip desert: a sherbet and foam. A high light. We left before the last desert to catch the 10:00 ferry. When we were presented with our bill, I was stunned. Food was generally good but not That good. I could have flown to Copenhagen and dined at Noma for the price of this meal.
Foraging to me means collecting blackberries in the summer from the various brambles around town. Before Europeans invaded this area, I imagine most food, particularly vegetation, was foraged. I was inspired enough by the meal (or the Thought of the meal) to look in the library for books about edible plants in BC and how to identify and then cook them. Reminds me of Euell Gibbons books such as Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Firesign Theatre member Phil Austin released a solo album (although the rest of the group is on it too) called Roller Maidens From Outer Space in 1974, about the time Gibbons was attaining fame for his Post Grape Nuts commercial. Roller Maidens features a Gibbons-like character named Gilbert Skink: I still like to pick up my dinner right off the ground....And did you know that Poison Oak makes an excellent tea? Interesting link to Peter Bergman, who had just left us, and my sudden interest in seeing what I can forage and actually eat. But I probably won't be consulting Blaine Wetzel