Lummi Island

The Willows Inn on Lummi Island: A Celebration

As an honorary B’hamster, (what people in Bellingham, Washington call themselves) because I visit my boyfriend Masa there so often, I had heard tell of an incredible restaurant on the small island named Lummi, across the Bellingham Bay. A birthday was upon us, I won’t say whose, so Masa and I made our way there for a celebration. Driving North on the 5 freeway, 12 minutes from Bellingham, we took the Slater Road exit and made our way to the Whatcom Chief Ferry.  The ferry lands at Gooseberry Point and takes its passengers, many of us still seated in our cars, for a seven minute glide across smooth waters to the landing on Lummi.

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Lummi Island is small, with only about 900 occupants most of the year – though that number swells in the summertime with local US and Canadian residents (only 20 minutes from the Canadian border in Washington State) hitting the island in great numbers for fishing, hiking, wild berry picking and water recreation. There’s one school house, one post office, a couple of cafes and a burger joint called Sauce Burger – which everyone raves about but is only open Friday-Sunday in the off season. (Sadly, we were there on a Monday.)

And then there’s The Willows Inn. Located about halfway round the island, driving the bend you’ll start smelling the nostalgic aroma of campfire, which means you’re almost there.

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The Willows Inn is a small wooden building that looks out to the wide open Rosario Strait just across the road. Set above the gravel driveway, to the right of the restaurant and reception lobby is a small smoke house and the roaring fire we smelled about a half mile away, burning Birchwood or Alder.IMG_7195

Masa and I checked into the hotel, then took a hike while waiting for our room to be ready. We were told there was a nice easy loop nearby so we headed there and noticed pruning shears on the cork board near the entrance with the map of the area, next to notices to keep the park clean and to stay out of the locked community flower garden. The shears were available to any hikers who wanted to cut fruit from bushes or trees or help keep the trail kempt.IMG_7028 (2)

 

 

All fruit was finders keepers, so we headed out hoping for some late spring findings. No such luck, berries are summer fruit and aside from the lovely flower garden, there was nothing else to cut.  Even the pathway looked perfectly pruned on both sides — but we did work up an appetite on that short hike, something much needed for the dinner ahead.

Apart from the lovely setting and it’s long history (first opened in 1910) The Willows Inn is now famous for its 22 course meals prepared and designed by head chef Blaine Wetzel and his motley crew of foraging chefs. Blaine is arguably one of the most inventive chefs in America right now. His method is to use only local ingredients from Lummi and surrounding islands and encouraging every mili-ounce of flavor out of that ingredient. Sometimes that means not doing much to it at all, allowing the flavors of incredibly fresh produce and meats to speak for themselves with just a nudge of creativity. And sometimes it takes a great degree of inventiveness. Here’s a review from the editor of Saveur from June 2015.

“At the grill, a cook named Nick is rolling turnips directly in the embers. Once they’re nicely charred and cooked through, the roots will be peeled—leaving a few sticky burnt bits around the edges for character—then halved and marinated in lovage-infused whey. Then five hours in the dehydrator and, just before they’re served, the withered turnips are slaked with a grilled shiitake broth and garnished with toasted mustard seeds and tiny marjoram leaves.

I laugh—because of course it doesn’t sound simple at all. Later, though, encountering this dish at dinner, I see what he means. The taste is clear, dazzlingly direct, the essence of turnipness expertly coaxed forward by all this burning and slow-drying and careful reconstituting. Who knew a lowly turnip could possess this meaty depth of character, such goddamned swagger?” — Adam Sachs, Editor-in-Chief, Saveur

Masa and I sat down on the deck, along with the other 30 or so guests – we were encouraged to arrive no later than 6 pm.  Along with our cocktails, the beginning of the food parade began – at least five appetizers, maybe more – all while watching the sunset over the bay. IMG_7125 (1)

Masa and I delighted in the small dishes, each one with so many layers of flavor all perfectly suited to the main ingredient. A simple roasted kale, but with dots of truffle emulsion so heavenly we stopped talking instantly to take in full “moment” of it. And the next offering, smoked cod “doughnut”, a savory, plump ball of perfectly fried dough, with a bite of smoked cod buried within, was even better. Just one each, but just one was all that was needed, each bite so deeply flavorful. Roasted sunflower root, native oysters and cured rockfish followed. I was so taken aback at the bliss of it all, I forgot to take pictures of some of these.

  • Gin with Ginger, Lillet and Green Tea.
  • Baked Kale with Truffles and Pink Bellingham Bay Salt
  • Smoked Cod Doughnuts
  • Roasted Shitake, Smoked Cod Doughnut and Savory Clam
  • Crisped Crepe dusted with Nori. Served with Salmon Roe and Bull Kelp Seeds
    Crisped Crepe dusted with Nori. Served with Salmon Roe and Bull Kelp Seeds
  • Native Oysters in Wild Greens Emulsion

 

We moved into the main dining room after cocktails and appetizers. The entrè dishes began. Revelation after revelation. At one point we had just tasted a bite of spring turnip shoots, roasted and sauced with squid ink broth. We just shook our heads and stared deeply into each other eyes, which could only mean there were no words for flavors as sublime as these. Another favorite was salmon berries, tossed with local rose petals and rose granita. There was even a course that was made up merely of huge slices of homemade bread (of course), local butter and pan drippings in which to dip. A guilty pleasure (often performed behind closed kitchen doors in homes everywhere) offered up as gourmet course. Brilliant!

  • Turnip Shoots With Squid Ink Broth and Carmelized Razor Clams
  • Coonstripe Prawns in Prawn Butter
  • Seared Skirt of Razor Clam
  • Wild Herbs and on a bed of Herbed Pesto and Crisped Mustard Leaves.
  • Bread, Butter and Pan Drippings
  • Salmon Berries, Nootka Rose Petals, Rose Granita

 

What caught our attention almost as much as the incredible, indelible food, was the staff and the way Blaine Wetzel has managed to create a sense that everyone — chefs, guests, and servers — are in this together. Each dish is curated (and I don’t use that hipster word lightly, ever. But in this case, it’s apt.) by one of the chefs who is in charge of it from start to finish. This means sourcing each ingredient, even if it means foraging berries, or finding a local resource for the items. At cooking time, the ingredients have been prepared earlier in the day and one dish at a time is produced by the lead chef for that item with all other chefs helping.

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The kitchen is wide open to the dining room. It’s run so perfectly that at any given time there are no dishes, no clutter, just beautiful black slab counters with only the exact ingredients needed for the next dish – and all hands on deck making it. I know this, not just because I could see the operations clearly from our table, but because the guests are welcome to walk into the kitchen at any time and watch, chat, take pictures with any one of the chefs or workers. In fact, it’s encouraged. This is a one sitting, four-hour meal; it’s nice to hang out with the cooks for some of it.

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Head chef Wetzel himself came to our table, though we had no idea it was him, following a server who described the dish set in front of us. Wetzel walked behind the server, setting down hot towels on the table. He was laughing, though a better term is “giggling boyishly.”  I said, “Why are you laughing?” “Because I’m just surprised that the server didn’t really explain the dish to you very well.”  We had met just about every server so far, the protocol appeared to be constant rotation – and to us, this was another waiter. “Oh, would you like to explain it further?” I asked, joshing with him. He did, much more extensively, and I think I said something like, “Well done, thank you.”  He laughed again and went off into the kitchen. Later we learned that it was Blaine Wetzel. (And later, when we realized other people were walking straight into the kitchen, we had to go and explain ourselves and, of course,get a picture. He was so happy to participate, as if nobody had ever asked this before).

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The pace is slow, the dishes are small, but they go on and on and on. One bite is so delectable, you don’t want the flavor to end, so one is happy to eat slowly, savoring. Masa and I both noticed that the waiters, chefs, even the dishwasher, seemed like just about the most content people on earth.

I walked through the kitchen twice, talking to everyone, snapping pictures. I’ve never seen anything like this quiet, pleasant operation of young men and women dedicated in each moment to the food they devotedly prepare, and to their guests’ enjoyment. It felt as if after dinner we would all sit down by the fire and chat about our lives. It’s that kind of “we’re all in this together” feeling I mentioned before.

I’ll be honest. It’s a dearly expensive culinary excursion; meals cost $175 per plate at the time of writing. We are already trying to justify another celebration such as this, for some reason, any reason, just so we can experience this locally sourced, passionately prepared, foraged feast again. Well, I think my sister is having a very big birthday soon…

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Expecto Patronum

If you know me at all, you know that there was a period of my life that I was besotted with J.K. Rowling’s works.  I read my son each of the Harry Potter books every night, slowly, half chapter by half chapter for years.  It was delicious to read the series this way, slowly and aloud, explaining vocabulary to a precocious five year old, explaining why some events were taking place, what it might mean, what might happen next.  Delicious too was discussing the sounds of the character’s names, and the charms and spells, knowing Rowling borrowed heavily from latin to create brand new words that have now entered the English vocabulary.

My daughter came to Harry Potter on her own a few years later.  And though it wasn’t the same for her because she started later and could read them on her own to begin with, in her own fashion she became the biggest HP fan of us all, ending up reading the entire series five times and the last two books seven times.  (She even began a Harry Potter trivia club when she was in elementary school where she would organize trivia contest for any and all players at lunchtime.)

When we came to London last time, it coincided with the release of Rowling’s final book, The Deathly Hollows.  Back then, (was it five years ago now? Six?)  I booked a private tour with a guide who took us in a black cab around London to areas where the first 5 films were shot and then to the outskirts of London to the three locations where the original Potions dungeon, Harry’s home on Privet Drive and many of the scenes from inside Hogwartz were filmed at Oxford University.

Unfortunately part of that didn’t go well.  On our way to Oxford, the London area was hit by a rainstorm so furious that all motor ways in and out of the city were clogged, and we inched along for four hours in the most exciting downpour any of us had ever seen.  The guide, who was also the driver, was terrified of the roundabouts as we approached each one, many of them pooled so deeply that the water came half way to the door handles.  We skidded and lurched forward, and sweat out the terror of it.  We reached Oxford in time for the doors to close at 6 pm.  Instead of seeing any portion of hallways or great halls or the Dark Arts classroom, we sat in a pub eating cheddar sandwiches and waited out the rest of the storm.

We came back into London late that night just in time to stand in line at Waterstone bookstore, one of the first people in the world to purchase The Deathly Hollows.  Afterwards it was back to the little red hotel around the corner from the British Museum and my daughter and former husband fell fast asleep while I read aloud to my son until 1 am. Though he could easily have read that final book on his own by this time, it was our tradition.  We had come this far in the series and we wanted to finish it in the same way as we had begun.

That last book felt like a roller coaster, we wanted to read faster and faster, the thrill of knowing it would be the end, a bitter sweet reward to find out the thrilling ending.   We were both clutching our side of the book as I read – I noticed both of our hands were paper white. We didn’t finish until two days later, now back at home in our usual place, on the couch in the family room, snuggled next to each other.

So though it sounds cheesy, especially if you are from the land of “the industry” as I am, (I wouldn’t be caught dead at Universal Studios for instance) this time we headed to Leavesden for a tour of the Warner Brother’s Studio tour of the Harry Potter film sets.

There was no way to be disappointed by this, I will say that first off.  My fandom (our fandom) is fairly massive and very forgiving.  I expected to like it, and probably to love it.  However, I can honestly say that if you have ever had just a mildly pleasant feeling reading the books or watching the films, the experience of walking through the very simply organized tour will probably spark more than just mild delight.

Even with my Hollywood jadedness, the incredible detail the set designers, costumers, project architects, property masters, etc. put into each and every scene in each and every film astonished me.  Much of what we see in the film could have been recreated with CGI, as most fantasy films rely on this now.  But with the HP films, almost every prop you see on film is real; every costume has multiple layers of very particular fabrics, every set piece a written history.  The Gryffindor dorm rooms have things like off set corkboards for the actors playing their characters to leave messages for the other characters.  A portrait of a beautiful young Maggie Smith, dressed in finery, adorns the Gryffindor commons room, as a young professor McGonnical of course.  In Dumbledore’s office, an incredible glass curio cabinet houses eight hundred vials, each with a handwritten label of one of Dumbledor’s memories (which, if you have read the book, you know he can take out a memory and put into his Pensieve to relive).

The detail is hard to fathom, hard to wrap one’s head around.  Each wand in Olivander’s wand shop for instance also has a label on it, detailing the type of wood and core of each one.  (“Elm, Phoenix Tear;” “Willow, Heron Tail Feather” for example) There are 1500 wand boxes on that set.  The mere feat of these kinds of endeavors belies the passion that the crew had for this series.  I think this is why the films hold up to the books.  Among Potter fans/ Rowling fans (take your pick of which you would like to be called) there was always the fear, with each film released, that the “feel” of the book would be lost.  That it would cheapen once it hit celluloid.  The magic of the film series is that it never lost the depth of the incredible sensory world that Rowling built up for the readers, layer by layer by layer.

The only thing missing from this experience was leaving for the studios from track 9 ¾ at Charring Cross station (which does exist by the way, you can go there and see half of Harry’s luggage cart sticking out of the wall).  Instead we boarded a charter tour bus and sat squished together on the lumbering, 90 minute bus ride.  Many of us fell asleep, including the man sitting just ahead diagonal to my seat.  He woke me up when he fell out of his chair in his slumber and straight onto my outstretched leg.  All 250 pounds of his dead sleeping weight.  I have quite a large black bruise that covers most of my knee on that leg, and though my leg pinched every time I stepped on it throughout the tour, it didn’t keep me from loving every second.

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The First Post – London


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As a quick fix for my need to write, I’ve created this travelog.  I suppose about half the blogs out there have a theme or angle (I have another couple that do).  This one however is merely the account of one single-woman’s journeys through various geographies.  Definitely not a travel guide, and hopefully not just a boring journal.  I am sometimes alone, sometimes with my kids.

 At present, WordPress is new for me, and I haven’t really figured out how to make it look Whiz-Bang yet.  I had a great picture set to post as background and it came out about an inch square, no way to resize it easily.  As time goes on, I will either figure it out myself or have to make someone a really nice dinner for getting this blog up to speed graphics wise…for now, WP stock backgrounds and colors will have to do…

For now, a couple of longer entries to start, since we’ve been on the road for over a week…I’m traveling with my 14 year old son and 12 year old daughter – we spent a week in London before heading to where we are now, Dublin.

London, July 1-7.

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Perhaps I’ve been to London too many times.  It was charming, as ever.  But that “zing” of travel wasn’t there for me this time. London felt  like an old boyfriend.  Still handsome, still winning – but not enough chemistry between us to sleep with him again. I remembered the old love affair, my Mod days, traveling all over England on a Vespa with my friend Nicki  – showing up at dance halls in Brighton, drinking hard cider, wearing our Beatle Boots in the rain. Later, on other trips, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, King Henry VIII, every manner of study and sight seeing about the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stewarts, Yorks and Windsors. All things British, up to and including Colin Firth, were beloved.

But last week when the kids and I rented a flat overlooking the Seven Dials in Covent Garden, I felt jaded and wondered if I had been to London too many times.  Or was it that I had been too many places;  if cities didn’t all just melt into one big cosmo-opolis, if the world hadn’t  become just too damn small for me to ever really be excited by travel again.   Everyone on cell phones.  A Subway and a Starbucks and a Five Guys and a Banana Republic everywhere we looked.  We went through the paces of tourist sights (photos to follow) and all had their own delight to be sure, but my relationship with London had changed.  A comfortable, well worn friendship had been established long ago but this time without the electricity of novelty.

Though there were still things I’d never seen before (oddly, the Tower of London – and the Warner Brother’s  World of Harry Potter in Leavsdon)  the “Here Comes Christmas” feeling in my bones I get when on the road didn’t rise up,  but a certain sadness did.  I wanted to always have London to go to – this was my 5th trip (in oodles of years). Would it be my last?

It could be that I wasn’t traveling with a partner.  How fun it might have been to pop down to a pub for a Pimms or a Half and Half, or to have a romantic dinner.  Or even to spend time really perusing the Galleries and Shops – which neither of my kids wanted to do much.  (I guess I can feel lucky in a  way that they aren’t shoppers.)

It could be that my son and daughter had just arrived at the very moment of their  teen and tweenage lives when they realized together (and with precision teamwork) that Mom is the Other and that not only is she hopeless in things like technology, but that she actually knows Nothing of the World.

There was a moment when my daughter and I had it out in front of the National Gallerie.  It wasn’t over something big.  In fact it had to do with reading a map.  There are moments, as a traveler, that one is as certain of which way to go as if one’s body was an actual magnetic needle on a compass.  But there are also times that a companion is just as certain that the opposite direction is true.  As she and I  tried to convince each other about the validity of our routes, while thousands of other tourists milled around us, while men who were spray painted copper patina created the illusion of being statues, while school children clambered deftly atop bronze lions, my daughter grabbed the map out of my hands, thrust her finger at the place on the map like I had never seen a map before, and shrilled, “You don’t know what you’re TALKING ABOUT!”  When did this happen?  When did she stop trusting me?  At what point did she decide that it was OK to scream at me?

I stopped speaking. A fiery  chill ran up my body.  I gave her a cold-blooded stare, one that said “Don’t Mess With Me. Ever.”   I knew that the way I was glaring at her was a look that she would never forget. And I instantly felt guilty.

She glared right back at me.  She held my gaze. Her look said, “Don’t Mess With Me. Ever.”  I imagined a slap-fight right in the middle of Trafalger Square.

Jetlag?  Tween-hood?  Daughter vs. Mother?   All I know is that as we stood there, while the rest of the National Gallery  loving world stood still,  it dawned on me that this trip would be different  than all the others.  That the “kids” were going to assert their Selves with a capital S, and that any chance of my trying to pull off “my way or the highway” parenting was not going to work.  I would have to find a new way to helm the ship.  And that was going to be a new journey indeed.

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