“The guests dining at Noma should feel a sensation of time and place in their very bones,” René Redzepi says in the introduction to to his 2010 book on Nordic cuisine. Just a decade ago, when Noma opened on Copenhagen’s waterfront, the young chef committed to a bold new brand of Nordic cooking that was wildly innovative yet deeply rooted in the seasons and the natural environment, using ingredients from Scandinavia.
Today, with its Michelin stars and place at the top of Restaurant Magazine’s list of the world’s best restaurants, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Noma: chefs from Chicago to Beijing offer foraging tours; ingredients like hay ash, green strawberries, spruce shoots, and fermented this and that are suddenly part of the fine-dining vernacular; and riding on Noma’s buzz, Copenhagen has become an against-all-odds culinary capital drawing young chefs and foodies from around the world.
“I never imagined that one of the biggest joys of running this place would come from seeing people leave,” master-mentor Redzepi wrote earlier over e-mail, as he crisscrosses the globe promoting A Work in Progress, a new set of three books documenting a year in the life of the restaurant. Next week, he begins a book tour through seven North American cities, including a talk with Padma Lakshmi at New York’s 92nd Street Y on November 13. “As much as I get attached, it would be a real letdown if they didn’t at some point want to do their own thing. I’ve seen many times where a split can be treated like a bad divorce, since such a strong relationship develops with your sous-chefs. But it really should be like your best friend moving out of the shared apartment: the friendship continues.”
By the time Spain’s influential El Bulli (where Redzepi himself once worked) closed in 2011, Noma had become a finishing school of sorts for already accomplished chefs, taking up the mantle of Ferran Adrià’s educational kitchen. “They are forced out of their comfort zones, and by the time they leave, their minds work in a completely different way,” explains Matt Orlando, a former Noma chef, now heading up Amass in Copenhagen. “Noma produces chefs who have a different way of approaching cooking and how a restaurant should function.” At the core is Noma’s famed Saturday Night Projects, staff-only tastings at which the chefs create and get feedback on new dishes—gatherings meant to spark creativity and sharpen chefs’ sensibilities. “Just to work with René on a daily basis—everyone had all these things like liquid nitrogen, a hand blender, and cream—but the things that come out are kind of mind-blowing,” confirms Daniel Burns, who recently opened Brooklyn’s Luksus.
For his part, Redzepi, who shares the cover of next week’s Time with Momofuku’s David Chang and D.O.M’s Alex Atala, sees the work at Noma as part of a larger shift in the way the world looks at chefs. “Twenty years ago, cooking at all levels was, at the end of the day, a blue-collar, menial trade,” he says. “In the past three to five years, things have started to change dramatically. It’s not like it’s a white-collar trade yet, but let’s call it ‘hipster red.’ In these times of change, when a generation like mine is the gateway between the past and future, it’s even more vital and just plain nice to see these friends and colleagues grow around the world. We can process this craziness together.”
To celebrate Noma’s tenth anniversary and the release of A Work in Progress, Vogue.com caught up with four restaurants and their chefs who bring the Noma DNA to their own projects.
The Willows Inn is a secluded retreat located on Lummi Island, WA. The Inn has become a culinary destination and their mantra – “Fished, Foraged, and Farmed”. Chef Blaine Wetzel sources ingredients from Lummi Island fishermen, the surrounding forests and beaches, and from Nettles Farm – only a short walk from the dining room.
Gastronomic retreat in tranquil setting on Lummi Island, a 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland north of Seattle, with 21 accommodations both on site and scattered around the island as much as a mile and a half from the main lounge and restaurant. Off-site lodgings, such as “The Beach House” and “The Watermark” are in stylish, privately owned island homes rented by the inn, and amenities vary, but most offer fine views. On-site options include “The Haven,” perched on a hill behind the restaurant. All have limited service; breakfast at casual café near the ferry dock is included. Principal amenity is excellent restaurant featuring acclaimed chef Blaine Wetzel’s constantly changing menu.
While guests sip specialty cocktails like the Spotted Owl (gin, Douglas fir, nettles and citrus) and the Juan de Fuca (tequila, wild plums and sage) at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Chef Blaine Wetzel prepares his team for the evening’s three-hour tasting. Beyond the deck, mountains rise from the water’s edge. Bald eagles nest atop towering hemlocks and cedars. Gentle waves lick the quiet beach.
Inside the open kitchen, a focused, surprisingly serene atmosphere prevails, reflecting the tranquility of the secluded site itself. Our first snack arrives like a zen master’s koan, a mystery hidden within a closed cedar box. Lifting the lid exposes an earthy, aromatic bite of baked sunflower root atop a bed of cushy moss. The dinner unfolds through a progression of small snacks and entrées, each bite a sensory revelation from Chef Wetzel’s impressionistic palette of light and air, smoke and shadow. Why so many snacks woven throughout a four-course meal? Chef Wetzel explains: “Small dishes allow for more flavors. You can focus on one vegetable at a time, be more precise.”
The Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most extraordinary destinations – short, memorable getaways that serve to refresh and inspire. The area is also home to a rich variety of wonderful restaurants.
One well kept secret, both a destination as well as a jewel of a dining spot, is Lummi Island, the most northeasterly of the San Juan archipelago, with a population of slightly more than 900. A short trip from Seattle and a beautiful destination, Lummi Island also is home to one of the top restaurants in the country, the Willows Inn.
In the 20 years I have been going up there, very little has changed. Time stops on Lummi. The little bargelike ferry can carry about 24 vehicles on the six-minute trip from the mainland.
The only noticeable shift on Lummi has been at the 104-year-old Willows Inn, which has become the subject of worldwide attention since chef Blaine Wetzel, 27, came on the scene. Wetzel saw the chef job posted on craigslist in 2010. He had been chef de partie (line cook) at the legendary Noma in Copenhagen, arguably one of the top restaurants in the world, and decided that it was time to return home to Washington state.
“It was like hitting the jackpot,” says Wetzel, of the job that he now lives and breathes. In the few short years he has been at the helm, Wetzel, who is now part owner of the Willows, has seen a noticeable change. “At first there were 10 people for dinner. Now we are full. We are busy, booked every day, filled up months out.”
Wetzel is the reason. The Willows Inn has been listed by The New York Times as one of the 10 places in the world worth flying to for dinner. Bon Appétit magazine lists it as the No. 3 food lovers’ hotel in America. Travel and Leisure says Lummi is among the best secret islands on Earth. Gayot’s 2013 restaurant issue lists Willows Inn as one of the top 40 restaurants in the United States. Those are just a few of its many accolades.
Wetzel, who says he has invested his reputation here, is obsessed with the freshest ingredients, as he says, “farming, fishing, foraging fresh local foods.” Sustainability is his mantra. Even the simplest ingredients come right out of the sea, or garden or forest, arriving on the plate in short order. The difference is noticeable. With each bite, we could hear people moaning with delight as they dined at tables nearby.
Half the guests this year have come from the greater Seattle area, another 20 percent from Vancouver, British Columbia, and the remaining 30 percent from all over the world. The day before I was there, acclaimed restaurant critic Frank Bruni, a repeat customer, had dined there. It’s not unusual to see a Ferrari or Aston Martin parked next to a Subaru at the inn. The dining room can hold 35 at the most, and has one seating five nights a week, from Wednesday through Sunday.
Overnight guests can stay in a variety of rooms, ranging in price from $175 to $675. For dinner, the price and menu are fixed. Dinner is $150. With wine parings it is $65 more. With juice pairings, it is $45. While I cannot speak for the rooms, the unforgettable dinner experience, with its impeccable service, was worth every penny.
Our dinner included charred kohlrabi with red currants and coriander; wild seaweeds with Dungeness crab; dried beets glazed with lingonberries; king salmon with summer squash and nasturtiums; and blueberries with woodruff and malt. And there were snacks – a smoked mussel, nestled on hot rocks served in a cedar box; a tiny crispy crepe with salmon roe; a crackly toasted ribbon of kale with black truffle and rye crumbs; crunchy halibut skin; grilled shiitake. In all there were at least 20 small offerings, each one more heavenly than the one before.
While my friend was served perfect wine pairings, my juice pairings were something to write about as well, all pure, unsweetened, and just squeezed – the color as hypnotizing as the taste – gooseberry; cucumber; sorrel; carrot; and elderflower. If you think you have ever tasted any of these kinds of juices, think again. These are fresher than fresh. The difference is marked and delicious. And the presentation and the service matched the exquisite tastes of the food.
While guests sip specialty cocktails like the Spotted Owl (gin, Douglas fir, nettles and citrus) and the Juan de Fuca (tequila, wild plums and sage) at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Chef Blaine Wetzel prepares his team for the evening’s three-hour tasting. Beyond the deck, mountains rise from the water’s edge. Bald eagles nest atop towering hemlocks and cedars. Gentle waves lick the quiet beach.
Inside the open kitchen, a focused, surprisingly serene atmosphere prevails, reflecting the tranquility of the secluded site itself. Our first snack arrives like a zen master’s koan, a mystery hidden within a closed cedar box. Lifting the lid exposes an earthy, aromatic bite of baked sunflower root atop a bed of cushy moss. The dinner unfolds through a progression of small snacks and entrées, each bite a sensory revelation from Chef Wetzel’s impressionistic palette of light and air, smoke and shadow. Why so many snacks woven throughout a four-course meal? Chef Wetzel explains: “Small dishes allow for more flavors. You can focus on one vegetable at a time, be more precise.”
Summer’s a time for soaking it all in, eating every single thing at its absolute peak freshness, staying out late to watch the sun set after nine, the air still warm, cold drink in hand. To help you max out your summer supper plans, I’ve rounded up four special dinners that caught my eye. They’re the kind of dinners that take a little extra effort, a little extra money, but that promise to pay you back in vivid and spirited memories. Reserve soon, though, as they’ll surely sell out.
Willows Inn on Lummi Island is hosting their second annual Harvest Dinner July 24th and 25th, and it is a Big Damn Deal. If you want to eat food cooked by some of the best chefs in the country, surrounded by some of the most serious diners in the country, here’s your chance. Christopher Kostow of the three Michelin starred Restaurant at Meadowood is the chef whose food I’d be most geeked to taste, followed closely by Virgilio Martinez of Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru. Of course this all sounds silly because Alinea chef Grant Achatz will also be in the kitchen, cooking alongside Dominique Crenn, Justin Yu and Willows’ own young genius, Blaine Wetzel. Dinner, with wine (or Wetzel’s incredible juice) pairings included, is $500. If the price doesn’t make you wince, you shouldn’t hesitate to go. (Read this report from last year’s dinner if you’re on the fence.)
Need a good excuse for a little San Juan island-hopping this summer? Frank’s Oyster House chef de Cuisine Kym Goheen is cooking a summer afternoon meal on Shoal Bay on Lopez Island on August 4th (you’ll dine while taking in the stunning view from Jones Family Farm’s oyster beds, pictured above). There’ll be oysters, of course, along with: Herbed goat cheese, house-made crackers and roasted summer peppers with brut Crémant; oysters (raw) and clams from the grill, accompanied by Washington Sauvignon Blanc and Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc; smoked Jones Family pork loin, seasonal fish and produce accompanied by Oregon Pinot Noir; and strawberry and herbed shortbread with a house-infused strawberry and tarragon eau de vie.
The meal begins with drinks and snacks at 1:45pm and will go unil 6pm or so, making it convenient for those who must leave the island that evening (although, why would you?). The price is $120 per person inclusive of wine. Call Frank’s to reserve a spot, 206.525.0220.
Or reserve at table at the lovely Allium on Orcas Island (pictured left) on the 4th of July, when chef Lisa Nakamura will serve a four course prix-fixe menu: smoked salmon spread on dill focaccia; corn and bacon chowder with fresh corn and roasted garlic dumplings; a Surf and Turf of Painted Hills beef tenderloin and Dungeness crab cakes with potato salad, mac and cheese and summer veggies, and, of course, pie! A la mode with caramel sauce. And just in time for the fireworks, viewed from Allium’s waterfront deck? Hot chocolate and cookies. Dinner’s at 7:30 and is $95 not including wine/tax/gratuity.
Finally, Delancey pizza maestro Brandon Pettit is guest cheffing at an Outstanding in the Field farm dinner on Skagit River Ranch, Tuesday, July 9th. No word yet on what the menu will be, but when I hear back from Pettit I’ll update the post.
Getting to Blaine Wetzel’s restaurant, the Willows Inn on Lummi Island is not easy. But the two-hour drive (plus ferry ride) from Seattle to this island in Washington’s San Juan archipelago is well worth it. Lummi’s isolation and wild beauty are reflected in Wetzel’s food, a pure expression of this mostly uninhabited rocky patch of wooded coastline and its surrounding waters. Much of the Willows Inn’s produce comes from their own Loganita farm and they get some of their red meat from the neighboring Granger Ranch. Wetzel’s chefs also go foraging daily in the woods and on the shore, picking stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns, sea beans, wood violets and wild roses. Giant spot prawns, geoduck clams and ling cod are plucked out of the water by fishing boats that can be seen from the dining room.
This way of life is second nature to the 27-year-old Olympia, Washington native. “I grew up hunting for mushrooms with my family,” says Wetzel. “I was always outdoors, always fishing, so this was a natural fit for me.” He worked for almost two years on the other side of the world at Copenhagen’s Noma, currently sitting at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, before coming home to take over the Inn’s kitchen in 2010. Noma chef René Redzepi is a fawning admirer of Wetzel’s cuisine, a high compliment from the man who revolutionized Nordic gastronomy and leads a worldwide movement of chefs focused on “time and place” in their meals. But Redzepi is not the only one who’s taken notice of Wetzel’s cooking. Last year Food & Wine named Wetzel a Best New Chef and this year he is a James Beard Award finalist for Rising Star Chef.
Wetzel’s austere yet theatrical progression of dishes is reminiscent of Noma, but a meal at The Willows Inn is like one nowhere else. An impossibly green stinging nettle reduction with wild lettuce and fresh cheese may be followed by a crisp of halibut skin dotted with pickled razor clams and seaweed dust. Each light, colorful and complex dish is a modern folkway, a reflection of life on Lummi Island on that very day.
We head north to Lummi Island, just west of Bellingham to check out the Willows inn. A renowned location that has been bringing in guests for over a century.
Reservations at the Willows fill up quickly for the summer. You can book online at www.willows-inn.com.
When chef Blaine Wetzel returned home to his native Washington three years ago, after a stint at Noma in Copenhagen, he took over the kitchen of this small inn on Lummi Island, just a few hours outside Seattle. There he began crafting intensely local, poetic, and electrifying cuisine from the surrounding forest, sea, and farms. Dinner is a dreamy progression of courses delivered with a few words and sheepish smiles—often by Wetzel himself—starting with “snacks” like puffed fried halibut skins or a sliver of smoked sockeye salmon. Later, you’ll get a primeval thrill when you’re given an obsidian dagger with which to slice your venison carpaccio. As for the rooms, don’t expect a five-star stay: Your bed may squeak and the shower may be dimly lit, but you’ll wake to the tenderest scone you’ve ever had, studded with pine nuts and shoots from Lummi’s forests.—Sara Dickerman
The visionary food of chef Blaine Wetzel can only be savored on Lummi Island, one of the San Juan Islands near Bellingham between Seattle and Vancouver. An alumnus of Copenhagen’s Noma, Wetzel blends local foraging, farming and fishing with avant-garde artistry to produce dishes like baked sunflower roots on a bed of smoldering moss in a wooden box, or venison tartare with rose petals. A three-hour prix-fixe dinner is comprised of up to twenty tastings, each more luminous than the last.
Read more at http://www.gayot.com/best-restaurants/the-willows-inn-lummi-island.html#BFsTUxfTsiHAhaGr.99
In the winter of 2010, Riley Starks was in trouble. A fisherman and organic farmer, the 59-year-old owned a small inn on Washington State’s Lummi Island, a nine-mile ridge of fir and hemlock rising out of the sea near the Canadian border, with a year-round population of 964 weathered souls. Starks and his wife had bought the eight-room Willows Inn in 2001, and for a while they lived out their fantasy. Starks supplied fish and veggies to the restaurant, while his wife handled the inn and the cooking. But the economic downturn had clobbered both the inn and their marriage. His wife left in 2009, and Starks was forced to place an ad for a chef on Craigslist. He wasn’t looking for anything special, just a warm body to keep the place alive, and that was largely what he got among the 25 responses. Most were from restaurant-crazed Seattle, as he’d expected, but one reply jumped out at him. It was from Copenhagen, Denmark.
“To whom it may concern,” the email began. “Please consider my application for the chef position posted. I am originally from Washington State and, although for the last eight years I have been working around the country and in Europe, I would love the opportunity to return to the Northwest again. I am particularly interested as timing and the description of the restaurant seem like a possible perfect fit, a small chef-driven kitchen with the emphasis on the garden.”
In a sweetly passionate 1,000-word cover letter, the applicant explained that he was a chef at Noma, which he described as “a small restaurant with a biodynamic farm where the focus is exclusively on seasonal, farm-to-table dining. If radishes are on your section, you are the one harvesting them almost daily, and chefs are responsible to forage for various wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and berries that make up a huge part of the cuisine. I have totally refined my palette, to a more fresh, natural, juicy type of food full of texture.” The cover letter was signed, “Kind regards, Blaine Wetzel.” He was 24 years old.
Starks had never heard of Noma, but he checked it out online. What he found was a restaurant that had blown up the culinary world by going local with a vengeance. “They wanted foie gras. He gave them cloudberries,” said one Swedish restaurateur about René Redzepi, Noma’s chef. In 2009, after three years of steady climbing, Noma had claimed the number-three spot among the world’s top restaurants, as chosen by the food critics and restaurateurs at the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants Academy, and its complete reimagining of Scandinavian food would soon send it to first place, a position it still holds.
Starks scanned the Noma menu, the sea urchin powder and hay ash and Icelandic puffin eggs, and realized that Denmark had nothing on Lummi Island. He spoke with Wetzel, whose greenness did not give him pause. (“I wanted youth. Think about it: Alexander the Great was 24 when he conquered the world.”) Then he wrote to offer Wetzel the job. “Blaine, I would like to do all we can to encourage you to become our chef. If you have the same sensibilities of René Redzepi, we could thrill you with ingredients that very few restaurants can get. We keep live spot prawns, large and from right here, and I can say that there is likely no other restaurant that does this on the West Coast. Since I have been a commercial fisherman all of my life, I can source the best of the best from friends. I am not a chef or even a cook, but my job is to source ingredients, which I do well. Reading reviews of Noma, I have become inspired to reach higher, keep going, try harder. Though our location is pretty amazing, with west-facing marine views, the element that brings people here is our food. It would be so much fun to take that to a new level! It gives me energy just thinking about it.”
Blaine proposed that they revamp the kitchen and dining room and give America something it had never seen before. Starks agreed to go for broke; he borrowed and bartered $100,000 from his Lummi Island neighbors. “It was a Hail Mary pass for me,” he says. “I was going to lose this place anyway. I promised him all this stuff. But I really saw this as the salvation of the restaurant. I said, ‘You come, I’ll make this work somehow.’”
Blaine Wetzel saw Lummi Island for the first time in August 2010. For centuries, the Lummi Indians had visited for the good eats; little had changed here. One of the greatest salmon runs on earth slid past the western beaches every summer. The place was lousy with berries. Raspberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, Saskatoon berries. Rubenesque blackberries spilled along the roadsides, shining like purple Christmas lights. Wetzel recognized seaweeds and beach plants from Noma, and he knew that a lot of the ones he didn’t recognize would be edible, too. A few might even be delicious. The waters brimmed with oysters, mussels, and clams. Starks’ organic vegetable farm was a five-minute hike up the trail from the 100-year-old inn, the only public business on the island besides the Beach Store Cafe, also owned by the inn, and a small grocery store. The simple wooden building perched above a beach looking due west across the Rosario Strait, the arched backs of the San Juan Islands breaching the horizon like a pod of orcas.
“It was such a rare scenario,” Wetzel told me. “This little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, right on the ocean, only 25 seats, with its own farm and its own fishing boats. You don’t hear that very often. It caught my attention right away, and then it sparked my imagination.” Still, the inn was two hours from Seattle, reachable only by ferry, and the kitchen was a wreck. Noma it was not.
A 26-year-old culinary sensation is tantalizing the Pacific Northwest with his succulent foraged fare
Behind every great dish is a chattering of stories waiting to be told. Take the ripe blackberries with wild yarrow, carrot flowers, sorrel and chickweed in a puddle of dill oil that are served at the Willows Inn on Washington’s Lummi Island. One tale you might tell could be of its ingredients: how the berries were foraged only a few hours earlier from bushes plump with fruit, the yarrow and chickweed plucked from a field of the farm up the hill from the restaurant. Or, you could talk about the person behind the culinary creation: Blaine Wetzel, the Inn’s inventive 26-year-old chef who, after answering a Craiglist ad, took over the Willows’ kitchen and transformed a struggling restaurant into an international dining destination.
Still, you might just take a spoonful of the tart fruit and the grassy greens, put it in your mouth and experience what life tastes like on this patch of an island in the Pacific Northwest on a sunny, warm, mid-September day. That’s exactly the kind of storytelling that Wetzel is trying to accomplish with his cooking. “I want each dish to reflect a moment in time and nature,” he says.
Wetzel has succeeded in that mission—and the epicurean world agrees. This year, Food & Wine magazine named him one of its 10 Best New Chefs, and the New York Times included the Willows Inn on its list of “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride.” However, getting to Lummi Island is actually not that simple—after flying to Seattle, you’ll need to drive for two hours and then take a six-minute ferry ride to this smallest of the San Juan Islands. The island itself is only nine square miles, half of it a forested nature preserve, with a population of 964. Besides the Willows Inn, it contains one café and one general store.
Why has so much attention been paid to someone working in such an off-the-beaten-track part of the U.S.? His resume—or one particular entry on it. Before the Willows, Wetzel served as a chef in the kitchen of Noma in Copenhagen, crowned the World’s Best Restaurant by sponsors San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna for two years. (Wetzel has plenty of other restaurant experience: He’s also worked at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona; Citronelle in Carmel, California; and Alex in Las Vegas.) Noma executive chef Rene Redzepi has been hailed for reinventing Nordic cuisine by using local, often wild, products in surprising ways. Signature dishes include radishes in a flowerpot filled with a soil made from malt and hazelnuts; an oyster steamed in sea water and placed in the shell atop chilled beach pebbles; and white asparagus and spruce sauce. Many of the ingredients have been foraged by Redzepi and his chefs from the nearby shore and forests.
And Wetzel has carried that unique practice over to the Willows Inn. As a result, it’s probably only on Lummi Island that one can drive around and espy the odd sight of a professional chef—one of the restaurant’s staff, dressed in kitchen whites—scavenging berries in a patch at the side of the road. Redzepi’s methods immediately resonated with Wetzel. The soft-spoken chef says, “Growing up in the Northwest [he's from Olympia, WA] I’ve been going mushroom hunting since I was young. I was outside a lot, collecting blackberries and other things.” He adds, “Before Noma, I thought foraging was something you did at home; I don’t know it could be applicable on a larger scale.” But in Copenhagen, he saw 80 diners a day consuming wild herbs, vegetables and fruits—and loving them.
The six chefs working in the Willows’ kitchen forage every day; Wetzel tries to go just about as often and usually in the mornings. Watching him in action is not unlike watching a shopper go through a grocery store and pick out stuff. Here, instead of trolling the aisles, he’s got the entire outdoors as an open-air market. Wetzel starts with an ingredient he needs—like chickweed, a spinach-like weed—in mind. Then, he heads to spots on Lummi Island where it grows—striding through a field behind the inn or scrambling up a sandy bank near the beach—to gather enough for his diners that evening. But a foraging chef must multi-task as well: While he’s prowling, he’s also checking out the surrounding plant life to forecast when it will be ready—to see how the salmonberries are coming along or whether the hips on the wild beach roses are big enough to pick. “I can be inspired by where an ingredient grows,” he says. So the grasses and herbs peeking out from beneath the wild blackberry bushes led to the berry dish described earlier.
Besides foraging, Wetzel has many other food sources. There’s a four-acre farm up the hill that’s leased by the Inn and staffed by two full-time farmers which grows anything and supplies an endless amount of free-range chicken eggs. The Innalso has access to two full-time fishing boats that employ the reef-net technique invented by native Americans to catch the local salmon—a spotter stands on a tower on the boat’s deck, sees a school of incoming fish; and tells the crew who lower a huge net into the water and scoop them up. In his cooking, Wetzel will only use ingredients from his area—that means no citrus and no olive oil.
But when you dine at the Willows, I promise you won’t miss either of these. Right now dinner is the only meal served at the Willows, and at three hours, it’s a movie-length affair, complete with dramatic crescendos and surprise cameos. Guests are told to arrive by 6:30, and parties are seated gradually and in staggered groups, timed in the late summer and early fall so that people will be in place to enjoy the stunning Puget Sound sunset. Soon a server brings a first course to the table, setting down a plain, square, palm-sized cedar box. When you lift the cover, intriguing wisps of smoke drift up. Inside is a thumb-length, brown tuber, nestled on a bed of moss and tea leaves. It’s a baked sunflower root, and it’s the sweetest and most succulent one—well, the only one—you’ve ever had. But as delightful as eating it is the experience of watching diners around the room marvel and mumur over their own boxes with wonder-filled, child-like faces.
“When you eat at the Willows, you find yourself so captivated with what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting that you want to talk about it with your friends,” says John Gibb, managing partner of the inn. “I’ve been out to dinner lots of times where I’ve said, ‘Boy, this is a good steak’ or ‘I really like these vegetables,’ but never in the way I was at the Willows, where I was completely enthralled and just wanted to have a conversation about the food.”
The meal is a succession of 16 small courses—some are as petite as one pickled bay oyster with tapioca pearls nestled underneath (and, in a nod to Noma, the shell on icy beach stones) or a potato chip-like crispy halibut skin dabbed with wild razor clams and a halibut emulsion. The largest dishes are just five bites big, like a slender slice of dried smoked venison bedizened with a crispy mix ofbread crumbs and chopped bits of foraged cress, chanterelles and berries. Everything tastes pure, clean and distinctive, just like the island itself.
Gibb believes that Wetzel is on the verge of becoming a celebrity chef, not in the Guy Fieri or Paula Deen way but like a Rene Redzepi or Ferran Adria, a figure who influences how we cook and what we eat on a global scale. Surprisingly, the low-key Wetzel himself welcomes success—not because as a means to fame but as a license for him to keep exploring, in the kitchen and outdoors. “It won’t change what I do,” he says. “It just encourages do more, to follow my vision more thoroughly.” Wherever he goes, the journey is sure to be wild.
Every year our US-based editors team up with Lonely Planet’s expert authors to compile a list of US destinations that are prime for the next year. Best in Travel 2013 already covered two places we think the world should be looking at – San Francisco and the Gulf Coast – but here we wanted to dig deeper and shine a light on 10 places in the US that travelers should add to their wish lists for the coming year. Our 2013 picks are literally all over the map: once-in-a-lifetime northern lights, new top-tier museums, moose trails, Polynesian paradise and barrels of bourbon. Enjoy, and send us a postcard!
1. Louisville, Kentucky
Could it be that the new Portland is in… Kentucky? Louisville has asserted itself as a lively, offbeat cultural mecca on the Ohio River. New Louisville, also known as the East Market District or NuLu, features converted warehouses used as local breweries, antique shops and the city’s coolest restaurants. On Bardstown Rd in the Highlands you’ll find a hipster strip of shops and bars, not to mention many ‘Keep Louisville Weird’ stickers. Bourbon reigns in Louisville. This is the traditional jump-off for the Bourbon Trail; with bourbon’s current wave of popularity, new upstart microdistilleries, including some in and around Louisville like the small-batch Angel’s Envy, are giving the old names in bourbon a run for their money. Try for the first Saturday in May to witness the ‘greatest two minutes in sports,’ the Kentucky Derby.
The coolest hotel in town is 21c Museum Hotel, an edgy contemporary hotel with scissor chandeliers and loft-like rooms.
On Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail
Photo by Marty Pearl, courtesy of Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
2. Fairbanks, Alaska
Have you seen aurora borealis (aka the northern lights)? The sensation of seeing Arctic skies crackle with smoky blues, greens and reds has long drawn off-season travelers way north. 2013 will be big, marking the end of a fiery 11-year-cycle, when sunspots are particularly feisty, making for a big show in the Fairbanks sky 240 nights a year. Go. From May to mid-August daylight is too strong to see much, but by late summer they start to appear, and Fairbanks is the place to be. On the ground, curious foodies can sample traditional Athabascan cuisine at Taste of Alaska (call to book in advance) at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, or take part in a unique pub-crawl, The Great Fairbanks Pub Paddle. Open all year, the 414-mile Dalton Highway plies north of Fairbanks into the Arctic, and air taxis reach the pristine 800-sq-mile Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the light show will be best back in Fairbanks.
A favorite place to stay is Ah, Rose Marie B&B, a homey Dutch-built cottage that takes its breakfasts seriously.
A stunning display of aurora borealis over a cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska
Photo by Todd Paris, courtesy of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau
3. San Juan Islands, Washington
Lonely Planet guidebook author Brendan Sainsbury has a new name for these dreamy islands north of Seattle: the ‘Gourmet Archipelago’. Proudly home to a decidedly un-Pacific Northwest-like 250 days of sunshine a year, the San Juan Islands have always gone for self-sufficiency. You’ll find fresh, fresh food, with local artichokes and marionberries from farmers markets, seafood plates of oysters, razor clams and freshly caught salmon, and foraged edibles like seaweed and elderflowers at places like the Doe Bay Café on Orcas Island, or Willows Inn on Lummi Island whose head chef is an alumnus of world-renowned Noma. Hop on a bike, explore the beaches and enjoy the scenery, but be sure to eat!
For more options, see Brendan’s article on the Gourmet Archipelago.
Friday Harbor Farmers’ Market, San Juan Island
Photo by Barbara Marrett, courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Forget the cheesesteaks and tri-corner hat, Philadelphia is becoming known as an art capital. In addition to the world renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art, the formerly remote the Barnes Foundation, a once private collection of Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne, has a new central location. And it’s not just the big museums – Philly’s gallery scene is exploding with new venues like the Icebox garnering international attention and turning the Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods into the new hot arts hub. First Fridays, the monthly gallery open house, long a tradition in Old City, has expanded to the refurbished Loft District, where the party goes on in a host of new bars, clubs and live music venues.
For places to stay, the vintage-boutique inn Rittenhouse 1715 is around the corner from the namesake park.
Barnes Foundation gallery, Philadelphia
Photo by R. Kennedy courtesy of GPTMC
5. American Samoa
Did you know that a US passport can get you to an isolated South Pacific paradise without even leaving US territory? From the US mainland, American Samoa is a longer trek than Hawaii, but the distance rewards the visitor with some of the most stunning, untouched beauty of the Pacific and a national park that even the most ardent park system fans won’t have checked off their list yet. From the US, flights run from Honolulu to Pago Pago on lovely Tutuila, with waterfalls, fishing villages and spectacular beaches nearby. But press on with a quick flight on Inter Island Air to the tiny nearby Manuʻa Islands of Taʻu and Ofu, with shining, palm-fringed white sand beaches flanked by shark-tooth-shaped mountains. The best time to visit is Flag Day, April 17, when there are activities galore. This may be US territory, but it’s some of the purest Polynesia you’ll find anywhere.
It’s simple, but the family-run Vaoto Lodge can get you snorkeling within minutes of arrival.
Ofu Island, American Samoa
Photo courtesy of American Samoa Visitors Bureau
6. Eastern Sierra, California
This year, hop past Yosemite – just beyond lies the secret California dream: the Eastern Sierra, the overlooked flank of the Sierra Nevada range, with other-worldly natural attractions and surprises (Basque culture?), not to mention far fewer visitors. Just follow the scenic US Route 395 as it connects wonders like the Travertine hot spring in Bridgeport, the Gold Rush ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake’s bizarre calcified tufa towers, or the surreal Devils Postpile National Monument’s 60-foot curtain of basalt columns made from rivers of molten lava. Eastward, ho!
In Lee Vining stop at perhaps the greatest wonder of all: fantastic food served out of a gas station at the Whoa Nellie Deli with live music during the warmer months
Tufa towers in Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra
Photo by John Lemieux, Creative Commons Attribution license
7. Northern Maine
Moose, white water rafting, epic hiking. No, not the Rockies – we’re talking about Maine. Maine isn’t only lobster rolls, lighthouses and rocky shoreline. The woodsy interior, on the top half of the Maine ‘thumb’ reaching north to the Canada border, makes for a wilderness adventure. The Appalachian Trail begins/ends atop Mt Katahdin (which literally means ‘Mt Great Mountain’) in primitive Baxter State Park, with 200,000 acres of lakes and mountains to reach by hiking boot. Nearby is Moosehead Lake, home to a 99-year-old steamboat to ride, and the source of the Kennebec River, with great rafting opportunities at the Forks. To the north in remote Aroostook County, miles of old rail beds have been transformed into bike trails, and multi-day canoe trips can paddle you right up to the Canadian border.
Baxter is camping only. A good B&B nearby is the Greenville Inn on Moosehead Lake, built from a century-old lumber baron’s home.
Near Chimney Pond, Mt. Katahdin
Photo by Jue Wang, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.
8. Twin Cities, Minnesota
Lake Wobegon might be ‘the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve,’ but time has been much kinder to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St Paul. Minneapolis is often called the country’s best bike city and the Nice Ride bike-share system with its web of new bike lanes proves the point. The St Anthony Falls Heritage Trail is a 2-mile path along the banks of the Mississippi River. Plan time for Uptown’s Bryant-Lake Bowl, an old bowling alley with seriously good food (think artisanal cheese plates). And pay homage to the epicenter of Twin Cities’ music scene, First Avenue & 7th St Entry – hometown hero Prince sometimes comes by (seriously). St Paul is quieter, but key to see. Pedal over for a meal at the Hmongtown Marketplace, with authentic Lao dishes, and a show at the Fitzgerald Theater, where Garrison Keillor tapes his Prairie Home Companion.
Wales House is a cheery B&B with a fireplace lounge and frequent scholar guests working at the nearby University of Minnesota. (Go Gophers!)
Twin Cities Jazz Festival, St Paul
Photo by Chris McDuffie, courtesy of Visit Saint Paul.
9. Verde Valley, Arizona
Between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, the Verde Valley is taking off as Arizona’s go-to destination, and not just among the spa and crystal Sedona-fans of years past. The Verde Valley region is beautiful, with green canyons rimmed by red rocks, and towns like Cottonwood, Jerome and Sedona that have long drawn visitors for good food, art and mining lore. But the Verde boost is all about the wine. The new Verde Valley Wine Trail links four new vineyards clustered around Cornville, near Sedona. Most fun is reaching the Alcantara Vineyards… by kayak. Less fun is being the designated kayaker.
Sedona’s Cozy Cactus is a, well, cozy B&B in an adobe with easy access to local hiking trails.
Kayaking to Alcantara Vineyards, Verde Valley
Photo courtesy of Verde Valley Wine Trail
10. Glacier National Park, Montana
One of the countries wildest, most remote and pristine national parks, Glacier is everyone’s favorite national park who’s been. Its jagged, snow-blanketed ridges and glacier-sculpted horns tower dramatically over aquamarine lakes and meadows blanketed in wildflowers. Most visitors stick to the drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so it’s easy to escape crowds by venturing beyond it. A relatively new shuttle system offers an eco-friendly alternative. But go soon. The park’s 25 glaciers are melting – and could be gone altogether by 2030 if current climate changes continue!
The summer-only Many Glacier Hotel, built like a Swiss chalet, is a once-in-a-lifetimer hotel set on Swiftcurrent Lake like a queen on a throne.
Swiftcurrent Lake from at Many Glacier Hotel
Photo by Bill Weaver, Creative Commons Attribution license
Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/travel-tips-and-articles/77583##ixzz2IkIR5Vab
On a small island called Lummi, between Seattle and Vancouver, Blaine Wetzel is cooking at the Willows Inn. The menu changes daily, and this is definitely one of the most exciting new places to eat in the western U.S.
2579 West Shore Dr., (360) 758-2620.
Rene Redzepi chose this as one of his favorite places. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.
LE BERNARDIN CHEF ERIC RIPERT recently arrived in Bhutan for a two-week-long gig at the Amankora Thimphu hotel. Though he’s been hard at work mastering ema datse, the national dish of chilies and cheese, travelers may find themselves wondering why the guest chef has also been spending so much time outside of the kitchen. For Mr. Ripert, it is not just a cooking trip, but a foraging excursion that will take him traipsing through the Himalayas for wild mushrooms and other indigenous ingredients.
The wilderness-to-table movement takes the local food movement a step further by promoting locally foraged and hunted ingredients. Here’s a survey of six wilderness-to-table restaurants around the world.
Farm-to-table dining, the movement that painstakingly traces each lettuce leaf’s lineage, has been showing up at so many hotel restaurants that it has come to be expected. Now the small type on hotel menus is elaborating on the latest food craze: wilderness-to-table, featuring hand-scavenged ingredients.
Thanks to René Redzepi, the chef at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, who hunts down mushrooms in Nordic pine forests; or Viet Pham, who boasts “an 80% foraged menu” at Forage in Salt Lake City, hotel chefs are embracing creative sourcing. They’re making ice cream flavored with “found” pine tree needles at the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, N.C., and scallops served with seaweed that the chef picks up on the beach nearby at Chewton Glen in Hampshire, England. Here are a few other hotels getting in on the edible treasure hunt.
Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, Moab, Utah
On a former plot of wilderness along the Colorado River, chef Richard Potts explores 160 acres to find ingredients from fennel pollen to prickly pear. Foraged fare appears in dishes like American wagyu tenderloin with mushroom duxelle, as well as on the spa menu, with a pesto-infused body treatment made from the 30 pounds of basil the hotel harvested this past summer. sorrelriver.com
Parallel 37, San Francisco
Even the entryway in the Ritz-Carlton’s new restaurant is made from distressed wood hauled in from the wilderness (that is, if Marin County counts as the wild). Most of the herbs on the cocktail menu have been foraged, as well as many of the herbs that appear on the food menu. Bartender Camber Lay combines local bourbon and Benedictine with wild poblano peppers that come from nearby Oakland in the Bar Fly drink. Her signature Pineapple Express mixes local pineapple, lime and Oronoco rum with chocolate mint that was foraged in the hotel’s city. parallel37sf.com
Four Seasons Resort Nevis, West Indies
Through the hotel’s Catch and Cook program, guests can meet up with fishermen docked on nearby Pinney’s Beach and pick out fresh dorade, wahoo and big-eye red snapper for dinner. Another dining option is to source your own ingredients firsthand: Guests can dive for Caribbean spiny lobsters. They can also take guided hiking trips to forage for 20 types of coconut and collect ingredients for passion fruit wine and sorrel water, all of which they eat and drink afterward. fourseasons.com/nevis
Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington
At the foodie destination on this remote island off the coast of Washington, chef Blaine Wetzel requires each of his five cooks to forage for ingredients at least once a week. From wild crab apple blossoms and elderflowers to sea beans and local seaweed, most menu items have been sourced on or around the premises—only a handful of ingredients, such as oil and salt, are flown in. Even the butter is churned on-site and island-caught salmon and trout are smoked right outside the kitchen. willows-inn.com
The Balmoral, Edinburgh, Scotland
Every fall, chefs from the property’s Number One restaurant take groups of guests to the Perthshire countryside to find their own food. After breakfast at the hotel, foragers pick chanterelle and amethyst deceiver mushrooms before stopping for a picnic lunch of local Glencoe venison and foraged mushrooms, cooked by executive chef Jeff Bland. Guests carry home any uneaten bounty in takeout boxes. thebalmoralhotel.com
The kitchen team of six move with coordinated grace. There’s no discernible food preparation activity, except for the oven baking dark round loaves of rustic rye sourdough. Strategically placed in this compact, sleekly modern space in Washington State’s acclaimed Willows Inn, the young chef, Blaine Wetzel, is both creative force and conductor. Ingredients appear and the plating, of what the chef describes as a “symmetry of dishes,” is finalized, then ushered out of the kitchen to diners who have waited up to six months for a reservation.
“The day may start with chopping wood,” was Blaine’s answer to one question, “and then fishing.” He wasn’t being flippant. The fragrant aroma of alder wood earlier wafted from the small cedar smoke house next to the inn. Chanterelles are in season in the local forests with woodruff and sorrel easily gathered.
The Willows Inn was constructed as a fishing and hunting lodge in 1910. The design of the craftsmen bungalow is atmospheric, but it has the excellent fortune of being nestled within the trees of Lummi Island with stunning views of the bay. For many years the Willows enjoyed a deserved reputation as an ideal, albeit remote, escape, and given the reality of being on an island in Washington State, local sourcing for provisions was a necessity, not a trend.
For Olympia, WA, born Blaine Wetzel, fresh from Copenhagen’s internationally acclaimed Noma, where he was chef de partie, being on an island of only 800 inhabitants, with the “limitations of very local ingredients and suppliers,” forces creativity. Yet riding a tide of interest in fine, very locally sourced restaurants, was going back to the future. Local sourcing was everyone’s food experience until recent history, and a dish as simple as sockeye salmon, smoked with green alder wood for eight hours, is a masterpiece in the right hands.
Within the last two years, a new ownership group, including chef Wetzel, has revitalized the inn and drawn national attention. Partner John Gibbs has high praise for the chef, “Blaine allows the flavor of the food to be what it is, and that requires that he has the best ingredients.” With reservations for dinner in high demand, the attention to detail has to be rigorous.
“The (set) menu ebbs and flows,” the chef aptly explains, “we may do as many as 25 dishes. Small dishes can be more precise.” Small dishes can highlight intense flavors in often overlooked foods, such as a toasted leaf of kale dusted with black truffle and rye. Even cocktails benefit from local bounty with aromatic woodruff scenting a martini.
Cocktails are served in the comfortable lounge of the historic inn, or on the covered porch overlooking the island studded bay. The two dining rooms look into the kitchen and onto nature through generous windows. A procession of small dishes, each a visual and aromatic miniature of food art, occupy attention for the next few hours.
Removing the lid from a warm cedar box emitted an aromatic puff of smoke revealing an earthy baked sunflower root on a bed of moss. The bouquet defined a dinner rooted in the Pacific Northwest forest. A local oyster sat pickled on a bed of white herring roe, from southeastern Alaska, topped with sorrel. A delicate section of albacore tuna floated in cucumber juice garnished with a snow of icy horseradish.
The presentations of dishes were as imaginative as the ingredients. Two crispy sections of halibut skins topped with razor clam and glazed with seaweed powder sat on a flat piece of gray slate. The salt and pepper colored skins nearly blended into the rock. Slivers of smoked venison were paired with chanterelles, pecans and blackberries, all sitting off to one side on a stunning hand thrown pottery dinner plate. The simplest of ingredients created dishes that radiated light and flavor. Three small cups of grilled sweet onion held a pool of pale green rhubarb juice and a contrasting swirl of thyme oil. The visual was asian and the shot of concentrated herbal flavors intense.
Neither the menu nor the wine list remain a mystery with the well trained staff more than pleased to patiently explain the ingredients and preparation of the dishes. Washington State vintages are featured along with a selection of European wines. The menu can be complimented by either a wine or juice pairing. This being Washington State, Westcott Bay dry apple cider was a perfect compliment to the venison. The freshly made juices are as fascinating with the dishes as the wines.
The Willows Inn is America’s most exciting restaurant experience, which can be a curse. Yet in an effort to counter that pitfall, chef Wetzel’s dining room closes for two winter months while the staff rejuvenate and continue their education through travel. It’s fitting then that dinner starts with travel, taking the ferry over to Lummi Island, to begin a seductive food journey you will want to repeat.
The Willows Inn, 2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island, WA, 98262 360-758-2620
In order to create the ultimate “bucket list” of restaurants—the top places to eat before you kick the proverbial bucket (or, to put it more cheerfully, before you retire to your secluded tropical island)—we put the question to the chefs behind restaurants that are already on our must-go lists. Read on for restaurant picks from culinary luminaries including René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma, David Myers of Los Angeles’ Comme Ça and Tokyo’s Sola, Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and NoMad, and Juan Mari and Elena Arzak of San Sebastian, Spain’s Arzak.
Chef: René Redzepi
Restaurant Choice: The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, Washington
Five years ago, “New Nordic” cuisine was virtually unknown, especially outside of Northern Europe, but with Copenhagen’s Noma topping Restaurant magazine’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the past three years, the globe’s food cognoscenti are clamoring for chef René Redzepi’s forager-chic cuisine. So when Redzepi named a relatively-under-the-radar restaurant located right here in the United States to top his “bucket list,” our ears perked up. “Dinner [at the Main Dining Room] at the Willows Inn is high up on the list,” Redzepi says. The year-old restaurant has been credited with attracting an international, in-the-know influx of food-obsessed visitors to the 102-year-old inn, located on one of the famously beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington’s Puget Sound. “I have heard great things about the restaurant—amazing place, very unique, a special journey, and of course from a chef, Blaine Wetzel, who was a chef de partie at Noma for a while and a very talented young chef.” With an endorsement like that we can’t imagine that Wetzel, who is in his mid-20s, will remain under the radar for much longer.
Chef: David Myers
Restaurant Choice: Kitcho, Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto’s Kitcho, which has been serving seasonal multicourse meals at its Arashiyama flagship restaurant since the 1930s, tops the bucket list for David Myers, whose own eateries include the French bistro Comme Ça in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a pizzeria in Costa Mesa, and two properties in Tokyo: a patisserie and a café. “This incredible restaurant specializes in classic kaiseki cuisine,” Myers says. Time Out Kyoto describes chef Kunio Tokuoka’s food at Kitcho “almost too beautiful to eat,” with a price tag to match, but from Myers’ recommendation, it sounds well worth a spot on the ultimate bucket list: “The food here is absolutely some of the best in the world. It is all about the whole experience, from the kimono-clad servers to the handmade dishes. I would be happy to have this be my last meal.”
Chef: Seamus Mullen
Restaurant Choice: El Capricho, Castilla y León, Spain
Seamus Mullen opened his Spanish gastropub Tertulia in New York’s West Village in the late summer of 2011 and the accolades, which started almost immediately, haven’t let up since. New York Times reviewer Sam Sifton piled praise on Tertulia’s pork dishes, but it’s the beef that Mullen craves at his bucket list restaurant, El Capricho, in northern Spain’s Castilla y León. “It’s an underground dining room shrine to beef,” Mullen says of the place, adding that it’s not the kind of beef we see in American steakhouses. “José Gordón Ferrero prefers the meat from beasts of burden—steers that have had a rigorous life at work pulling plows and towing carts. He searches all over the Iberian peninsula for oxen that are ready to be retired and then brings them to his restaurant, where they finish up their time on earth in spa-like comfort, munching on hay and chillaxin’ before they are turned into extraordinary steaks that are dry aged for up to 100 days… In this world of homogeneity and sameness, it’s a welcome change to find a restaurant that embraces the notion of uniqueness, that no two steaks will be the same. Brilliant.”
Chef: Ryan McCaskey
Restaurant Choice: Madelyn’s Drive In and Take Out, Deer Isle, Maine
Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel bestowed a three-out-of-four- star review on Ryan McCaskey’s Maine-inspired fare at his restaurant Acadia, so we’re happy to take a Down East bucket list recommendation from the chef who can’t get enough of the lobster and clam rolls, fried cod, and ice cream at Madelyn’s Drive In and Take Out. Located just off Route 15 in Deer Isle, Maine, it’s “the kind of place where you order and either sit in front on picnic tables, or take it with you,” says McCaskey. “I like it so much in fact, that every year I go, they always say to me, ‘Back again?’ I think last year I went there four times in a week!” Sounds like the kind of place everyone should eat at before going to the great lobster pot in the sky.
Chef: Michael Tusk
Restaurant Choice: Steirereck, Vienna
James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Tusk of San Francisco’s Quince and Cotogna has been hearing great things about the 40-plus-year-old family-owned Steirereck in Vienna’s Stadtpark: “My wife, Lindsay, dined there last year and has not stopped talking about the experience since.” Tusk is just as intrigued by the restaurant’s rep for “modern Austrian cuisine of the highest level, and indigenous sourcing of the best products with a passion for innovation.” Dishes like mountain trout with white eggplant, black trumpet mushrooms, and purslane are made with ingredients from nearby farms (including the family’s own farm) and paired with wines from the restaurant’s vast cellar. The airy Relais & Châteaux property, located in an Art Nouveau building on the glittering Danube, rose from 22nd to 11th this year on World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and was also given a Slow Food UK Award for its promotion of local ingredients and revival of the “forgotten foods” of Austria.
Chef: Andy Ricker
Restaurant Choice: Nahm, Bangkok
Until just this year, you had to go to Portland, Oregon, to eat chef Andy Ricker’s Thai food. But the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northwest, changed the New York Thai food scene with not just one but two new restaurants: Pok Pok NY in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Pok Pok Phat Thai in the Lower East Side. When asked for his bucket list restaurant pick, Ricker doesn’t stray from his devotion to Thai cuisine. “If I had to choose one restaurant to go to on my deathbed, it would be David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok,” Ricker declares. “I have eaten there many times already and my heart grows fonder after each visit. The level at which David is cooking there is astounding by any measure.” In fact, Nahm made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year, “the only Thai restaurant to make that list,” Ricker notes. While the award-winning London branch of Nahm may be more famous, Ricker points out that “the proximity to superior raw product in Thailand has elevated David’s cooking to new heights at the Bangkok location.”
Chef: Daniel Humm
Restaurant Choice: Barney Greengrass, New York
Daniel Humm, the award-winning chef of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad, is perhaps the hottest thing on New York’s restaurant scene right now, but his bucket list pick shows respect for his elders. “When I think of classic New York foods—foods that are truly representative of New York cuisine—I often think of the smoked fish at New York’s appetizing shops, particularly the smoked sturgeon at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. Incredibly flavorful—smoky, silky, and salty all at the same time—I like it best in their scrambled eggs alongside a toasted bagel and a glass of orange juice. It’s such a simple dish where the fluffy eggs carry the essence the smoked fish. It’s a truly sensational experience, not only eating that dish but also simply being there, in that century-old New York institution.”
Chef: Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
Restaurant Choice: Ganbara, San Sebastian, Spain
The father-daughter duo behind San Sebastian’s pioneering New Basque restaurant Arzak don’t have to travel far for their ultimate, dine-before-you-die restaurant experience. Ganbara, in San Sebastian’s parte vieja (old town), serves what the Arzaks call “beautiful” pintxos, such as garlicky anchovies, grilled prawns, and cured meats. Three-Michelin-starred Arzak showed up again in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, as it has done for the past five years—and in 2012 Elena was named the World’s Best Female Chef—so we’d be quick to follow the Arzaks to a restaurant they describe as “a magic place” for both its atmosphere and food. Other tapas lovers agree with the Arzaks’ recommendation, particularly the bar’s justly famous specialty of sautéed wild mushroom, a dish called out in Gourmet magazine’s “Food Lover’s Guide to San Sebastián” (June 2005), and yet again earlier this year by Condé Nast Traveler.
Chef: Aimee Olexy
Restaurant Choice: Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California
Every diner who wants to eat the eight-course farm-table tasting menu at Aimee Olexy’s Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, faces the same challenge: Reservations are taken exactly one year in advance, with phone lines opening up at 7 a.m. The first caller each day reserves the single spot available—only one party (of 8 to 12 guests) is served each evening. With a reservation system like that, it’s actually easier to get a reservation at Olexy’s bucket list restaurant, farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “I’d go to the humble, simple Chez Panisse on a breezy September night,” says Olexy, who opened an easier-to-book outpost called Talula’s Garden in Philadelphia with restaurateur Stephen Starr last year. “I would think about all of the families and friendships, emotions, and inspirations that live in those walls and hope that kind of magic lives on long after me.” In fact, when Bon Appétit named Talula’s Garden to its 2011 list of the Best New Restaurants in America, editor Andrew Knowlton compared the restaurant to Chez Panisse: “I never ate at Chez Panisse during its ’80s heyday, but I imagine the food tasted something like the meals I had at Talula’s Garden. I’m talking ultra-fresh ingredients in flavorful, straightforward dishes. It seems easy to do, but as your average mesclun salad proves, it’s not.”
Chef: Jeff McInnis
Restaurant Choice: Minibar by José Andrés, Washington, D.C.
Jeff McInnis, known to TV viewers from his turn on Top Chef, was a 2012 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef, South, and his sourcing-obsessed Southern restaurant, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami, was a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant this year. For his do-before-you-die meal, McInnis chooses Minibar by José Andrés in D.C., which has also been smiled upon by the James Beard Foundation; chef José Andrés was named 2011′s Outstanding Chef. “I’ve always been a huge fan of chef Andrés’ style and think that any tasting menu developed by his team would likely be ‘life-changing food,” says McInnis. “His team is a very talented bunch of chefs and I hope to not only eat there but to one day cook in the kitchen as well.”
By J. S. MARCUS
A few years ago, when the attention of the food world was about to shift north to Scandinavia, a presiding wunderkind at Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant was kitchen sous chef Christian Puglisi. In 2009, Mr. Puglisi, now 29 years old, decided to leave Noma, along with Kim Rossen, a young waiter and chef, and the two made plans to open their own restaurant.
The result, called Relæ, opened in August 2010 in Copenhagen’s funky Nørrebro district, and was followed last year by Manfreds og Vin, a neighboring wine bar featuring natural wines. Relæ showcases Mr. Puglisi’s eclectic culinary mind-set—the result of a Sicilian father, a Norwegian mother, a Danish adolescence and a stint working at Spain’s El Bulli restaurant—and the partners’ preference for small wine producers.
Although the new eateries share Noma’s emphasis on local produce (carrots are a mainstay at both, just as they are at Noma), neither, stresses Mr. Puglisi, should be described as ”Nordic,” the cuisine now associated with Noma chef René Redzepi, whose relentless investigation into the foodstuffs of Scandinavia, characterized by foraging through forests and beaches for ingredients, have arguably made him the most celebrated chef of this young decade.
“When we opened up, we acted like teenagers,” says Mr. Puglisi, speaking this spring in a small test kitchen near his two restaurants, alluding to an effort to break out from under Noma’s long shadow. ”So we said, ’No foraging at all.’ ” He wanted to avoid “the obvious” comparison, so he applied an axiom he had learned from Mr. Redzepi. “To be original,” says Mr. Puglisi, “you need to cook from within.” This spring, Mr. Puglisi’s pan-European instincts were vindicated, when Relæ—which highlights imported Noma no-nos like olive oil—won its first
From the west side of Copenhagen to the West Coast of America, former Noma chefs are making culinary headlines. Taking what they have learned from Mr. Redzepi, and often applying that knowledge to very different conditions or goals, these chefs are finding that there is life after Noma. In the process, the original restaurant has become not just the world’s best—according to the influential “50 World’s Best Restaurants” list, compiled by the U.K.’s Restaurant magazine—but a unique finishing school, training what seem destined to be several of tomorrow’s most important gastronomic talents.
Noma alumni who have gone on to create their own successful restaurants include Blaine Wetzel, a Noma chef de partie who runs a locally sourced restaurant on Lummi Island, two hours north of Seattle, and Noma sous chef Jesper Kirketerp, whose new Copenhagen eatery Restaurant Radio offers an accessible bistro-like riff on Noma’s cerebral approach.
Other Noma alumni are Claus Henriksen, head chef of the restaurant at Dragsholm Slot, a baroque castle an hour from Copenhagen; and Søren Ledet, a partner at Geranium, an upscale Copenhagen practitioner of Nordic cuisine, which also won its first Michelin star this year.
The trend is now in full export mode. Earlier this year, Mads Refslund, a head chef at Noma in its early days, relaunched a onetime Cajun restaurant in lower Manhattan called Acme as a New York outpost of Nordic cuisine. Later this year, Oliver Croucher-Stephens, a young Noma chef de partie who grew up on the Isle of Wight, will return home to the south English coast and prepare to relaunch the fine dining room of the island’s Priory Bay Hotel. And Noma’s own current star import, American-born head chef Matthew Orlando—whose CV includes stints at the U.K.’s the Fat Duck and New York’s Per Se and Le Bernardin—is looking ahead to the day when he will open his own restaurant in Copenhagen.
“I love it,” says Mr. Redzepi, Noma’s 34-year-old co-founder, co-owner and guiding spirit, speaking this spring about his ability to send out accomplished chefs into the world. “The ultimate pleasure is to have a former worker succeed.”
In spite of the joy it gives him, however, employee ambition can mean a higher turnover. “When you have these potential megastars—who are really extraordinary food thinkers—you want them to stay until they die,” he says. Attracting—but then losing—talent is “a double-edged sword.”
Noma—now in its ninth year —is considered a locavore restaurant, but in fact it sources food all over Scandinavia, from Iceland to the north of Norway. The use of unusual tastes, like pine, and the banishment of more familiar tastes like citrus, can make a meal there an intellectual adventure—Mr. Redzepi’s larger goal is to translate the history and geography of an inhospitable region into something transcendentally edible. All this means that Noma is long on ideas but short on comfort food. Many Noma alumni are trying to reverse that.
A signature dish at the Willows Inn—an isolated, century-old hostelry, whose tiny restaurant was taken over by Blaine Wetzel in fall 2010—is ordinary smoked salmon, served fresh from the smokehouse behind the kitchen, and with nothing but a warm towel. “You eat it with your fingers,” says Mr. Wetzel, who turned 26 this year, adding that the dish’s freshness extends to the green alderwood used for smoking.
Mr. Wetzel’s tenure at Noma meant leaving behind a girlfriend back in Washington. They were reunited when he returned home after finding ideal conditions at the inn, whose isolated position on a fertile island meant that suppliers were already in place.
The inn makes its own salt and runs its own farms. “We slaughter chickens four times a year,” says Mr. Wetzel, which leads to the restaurant stocking up on stock. “There are times when we’re making chicken stock six days a week.”
Lower prices and familiar flavors are the bywords at Radio, which opened last fall just west of Copenhagen’s historic center. Like Noma, the restaurant features bread made from wheat grown on Öland, an island off Sweden’s Baltic coast, but Radio serves it with butter mixed with slowly caramelized onions—a homier touch. The restaurant includes ingredients associated with Noma, like local ramson and pickled elderberries, but the result is simple and satisfying, rather than overtly ambitious or amazing. A recent dinner included a creamy dish made of barley, Danish hay cheese, lumpfish caviar and dill—a Nordic twist on risotto.
“Our idea was that there should be space for everyone,” says Mr. Kirketerp, the 32-year-old former Noma sous chef, who shares cooking duties with his co-owner, Danish chef Rasmus Kliim. Radio reverses Noma’s complicated approach—and accompanying sky-high prices. These days, a meal at Noma is 1500 Danish kroner (€202); at Radio, you can get a threecourse dinner for 300 kroner (€40).
“We do comfort food,” he says. “We can pleasure a lot of people,” while some diners—even if they could afford it—”just won’t understand” what Noma is trying to do. That said, he admits, “I would eat at Noma every day” but “it’s quite hard to get a table.”
Wall Street Journal Europe April 2012
Food & Wine Announces 2012 Best New Chefs in America
Up-and-Coming Culinary Talents Celebrated at New York City Event
April 3, 2012, New York, NY – Dana Cowin, editor in chief of FOOD & WINE, will announce the winners of the 24th annual FOOD & WINE Best New Chefs award this evening during a party at The Liberty Theatre in New York City. This prestigious award recognizes talented chefs with a unique culinary vision. The 2012 winners will be featured in the July issue of FOOD & WINE and will also attend the 30th anniversary of the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 15-17. For more information on the winners go to foodandwine.com/bestnewchefs.
“It is such a delight to honor these incredible chefs, who have made a tremendous impact on the culinary world in a short period of time,” Cowin says. “They’ve created truly pilgrimage-worthy restaurants, whether on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest or in the heart of New York City’s NoLita.”
2012 F&W Best New Chefs
Erik Anderson & Josh Habiger The Catbird Seat, Nashville, TN
Mario Carbone & Rich Torrisi Torrisi Italian Specialties, New York, NY
Danny Grant RIA, Chicago, IL
Dan Kluger ABC Kitchen, New York, NY
Corey Lee Benu, San Francisco, CA
Jenn Louis Lincoln Restaurant, Portland, OR
Cormac Mahoney Madison Park Conservatory, Seattle, WA
Bryant Ng The Spice Table, Los Angeles, CA
Karen Nicolas Equinox, Washington, DC
Blaine Wetzel The Willows Inn, Lummi Island, WA
F&W Best New Chefs are chosen after a months-long selection process. The magazine works with restaurant critics, food writers and other trusted experts around the country to identify outstanding chefs who have been in charge of a kitchen for five years or fewer. Then the editors travel incognito to taste the food themselves.
For more information, visit foodandwine.com/bestnewchefs.
Which of today’s lesser-known eateries will be tomorrow’s impossibly booked dining meccas? We analyze the patterns, interview the influencers, gauge the buzz and pick out the ascendant stars
By KATY MCLAUGHLIN
It’s easy to identify the world’s hottest restaurants: They come to your attention just as the possibility of ever snagging a seat in them begins to approach the likelihood of winning Mega Millions.
What’s harder is picking out the restaurants that are careening into that stratospheric position held by the globe’s top dining destinations. They’re tricky, but not impossible, to spot—if you know what to look for.
Seminal restaurants—such as Spain’s El Bulli (closed as of this July), Denmark’s Noma and Next, Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s new restaurant—share some key characteristics beyond their unbearably booked tables. Foremost, these are places that go beyond offering mere dining and make a mark on contemporary culture, redefining haute cuisine and demonstrating how artful and thought-provoking food can be. To find the next restaurant phenomenon, look for the concept that is a true departure from the past, not a mere personalization of an already existing idea.
Then, peer in the dining-room windows and look for the folks who have skin in the game: other chefs. The first people to sniff out a talented chef are his or her competitors, who today more than ever consider travelling the world and scoping out new players part of their job description. Even better, ask sous chefs of top restaurants where they spend their modest salaries. Another sign: Young chefs in training desperately want to work there—and will often do so for free. If you hear about culinary graduates traveling to beg for a stage—an unpaid cooking internship—at the kitchen door, that’s where you want to eat.
Restaurants well on their way to becoming global phenomena tend to score high on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants and are loaded with Michelin stars. But they don’t necessarily start out that way: Often young places that propose radical new ideas are the subject to love-it or hate-it reviews, with some critics and bloggers declaring they ate their worst meals ever there. Some top spots are entirely ignored at first: When chef David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, the place sat so empty Mr. Chang says he chased away despair by cooking adventurous dishes that he himself would like to eat—and that eventually turned his eateries into a reservations juggernaut. Once a critical mass of diners decide the risks are worth the rewards, everyone piles on and starts adoring the place. So it can often require courage to weigh in while the jury is still out.
Radically popular restaurants—which often have prices to match—attract a fair share of business travelers, tourists and “gastronauts,” people who plan their vacations around their meals, though their presence may be overestimated. It’s popular for dining blogs and food snobs to complain that foreigners spoil the authentic feeling at top tables: At the outset of the financial crisis, tales abounded of Europeans paying for haute cuisine across New York City as though it were McDonald’s, while the word from France and Spain was that dining rooms were swamped with Americans, British, Japanese—anything but cash-strapped natives. In reality, even the most internationally recognized places aren’t seeing a foreign invasion: In his 20 years at New York’s Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert says the dining room has consisted of roughly 70% locals and 30% out-of-towners, while Alinea in Chicago says 40% to 50% of its diners are from out of town, and 5% to 10% of the total are foreign.
Though it is not always the case, the world’s most coveted reservations are often in restaurants that emerge while their local economy is booming. Ferran Adrià, El Bulli’s chef, told this writer in 2008, “I really believe my creativity had everything to do with the economic situation in my country. For the last 10 years, we lived through an economic boom in Spain that let me do lucrative consulting work,” which subsidized the restaurant so that creativity, not the bottom line, could reign supreme. In 1994, on the eve of the dotcom bubble that transformed the Bay Area economy, Thomas Keller opened the French Laundry in California wine country. Abundant disposable income helped pay for one of the country’s most ambitious—and most expensive—menus.
While diners are just discovering exciting new chefs, the world’s cagiest food conglomerates have often already tapped their talents: Givaudan, one of the world’s premier flavoring companies, puts top chefs under contract to help identify new food trends.
Based on what we know about the globe’s most coveted tables, we sussed out candidates for those elevated spots from three categories: Restaurants already on the brink of household-name-level fame; ones to watch where reservations are already fiercely coveted; and ones that are fairly easy to get into today but are rocketing upward into major-player status, and where tables may soon be as scarce as winning lottery.
The Wall Street Journal, October 2011
July 27, 2011 | By Kevin Pang, Tribune Newspapers
LUMMI ISLAND, Wash. — The cooks are assigned homework. Once a week, sometimes more, The Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel sends his five cooks to forage in the wild. One might be tasked with elderflowers and crab apple blossoms, his job to pluck 30 flowers.
Often they’ll find these wild plants in their backyards, literally. The restaurant staff all live on the nine-square-mile island, 20 miles south of the Canadian border in Washington state. Wetzel’s home is located near the beach, where on days off, he’ll bike to the water to gather sea beans and seaweed for dinner service.
Within the restaurant industry, ingredients traditionally pass through multiple sets of hands — the farmer, the food distributor, the deliveryman — before reaching the cooks. Then the “Eat Local” movement sprang up, and chefs began working directly with farmers.
What the 25-year-old Wetzel has cultivated on Lummi Island removes all intermediaries: They grow, forage, cook and serve everything. The only thing they buy commercially is oil and salt. What’s notable is Wetzel’s pedigree: The Olympia, Wash., native spent several years cooking at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant voted best restaurant in the world two years running by Restaurant magazine (full disclosure: I’m a voting member of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy). Wetzel’s cooking has attracted so much buzz that the New York Times name-checked the restaurant twice in the last year.
The Willows Inn (it’s both a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast) formed its philosophy out of necessity: Lummi Island, population 816, is reachable only by ferry after a two-hour drive from Seattle. The car ferry holds 20 or so vehicles and costs $7 round trip, and to ship produce from the mainland every day would be cost prohibitive. Plus, no delivery trucks would venture on the island for just one business. So the Willows Inn staffers grow what they need on their farm, located a mile up the hill from the inn. One-half mile south is the pasture where their 120 lambs graze. The restaurant could theoretically sustain itself even if Lummi Island broke off into the Strait of Georgia.
Until that happens, I’m sitting on the hotel’s deck patio facing the sunset, metallic waters before me, cloud-crowned islands in the distance, the smell of cedar and pine wafting, and I’m thinking: How did I get into this Pacific Northwest tourism brochure? Then, to amplify the caricature, a bald eagle swoops by.
It’s the same view from my dining room seat, where dinner begins at 7 p.m. sharp for everyone. The restaurant caps it at 30 guests each night, which means Wetzel and team have room to flex their creative muscles.
Wetzel’s interpretation of creativity might be the opposite of what you’d expect — spare, subtle touches, a preference to undersalt, with ingredients you’ve never tasted or heard, colors you never thought possible on a plate.
It’s visually arresting theater: a cedar container, modeled after Native American bentwood boxes, arrives with contents unknown, until the lid is removed and alderwood smoke escapes. Inside is one perfect bite of house-smoked sockeye salmon, caught by reef net boats that fish exclusively for the restaurant. A raw razor clam dish is unexpectedly, remarkably creamy, paired with grated horseradish ice and potatoes colored an impossible blue. And a pickled oyster ingeniously topped with sorrel is nature’s mignonette, adding citric and herbaceous notes.
By the time the “Peter Rabbit” course arrives — a twig basket of pea shoots and raw turnips with an edible “dirt” of hazelnut and malt — the realization comes that this dinner could only exist here and now. In the finest restaurants in the world — Per Se, Alinea, The French Laundry — there’s nothing New York, Chicago or Bay Area about those places. The Willows Inn has what the French call terroir: It is symbiotically connected with Lummi Island. Nowhere else could this food exist, in no other time can this menu take place.
It is challenging food, to be sure, but it is the restaurant equivalent of television’s “The Wire.” The gratifications are not always instant, but come the next day, week, month. There is little in the way of truffles, creams or heavy seasoning. Like wine that decants, Wetzel’s cooking improves with time, when the floral aromas outside your room trigger memories of the wild cherry blossom ice cream and lemon verbena granita, adorned with velvety edible quince blossoms, wood violets and wild rose petals.
In my mind, some weeks later, those colors have only grown more vivid, the flavors more intense. That is a feat few restaurants can accomplish.
If you go
Lummi Island is located two hours north of Seattle and accessible only by a six-minute car ferry ride. It operates daily out of Bellingham. The set menu is $105 (wine pairing is extra). The inn, which dates back to 1912, has 15 rooms, with nightly rates ranging from $125 to $625 for the beach house. Breakfast (cooked by Wetzel’s team) is included.
The Willows Inn
2579 West Shore Drive
Lummi Island, Wash.; 360-758-2620
The Chicago Tribune – July 27, 2011
By FRANK BRUN
OUR waitress was in a panic, and no wonder. She couldn’t pinpoint the cradle of our clams.
We had asked where they were from in an off-handed fashion, my companion and I. We weren’t especially concerned. But in provenance-conscious, environment-attuned Seattle, such a question can all too easily be heard as a challenge, a taunt: assure us that these mollusks weren’t the denizens of some distant seabed, relocated through a lavish outlay of fossil fuel. Prove to us that they’re bivalves from the ’hood.
And her inability to do so could be seen as delinquent, punishable by up to six months of hard labor in a community garden.
“They’re definitely local,” she stammered, nodding hard.
“From around here,” she added, lest we misconstrue the concept of local.
She darted away to confer with another server, then returned with triumphant confirmation: “Lopez Island!” It is one of the San Juan Islands, just 80 miles or so from the Seattle neighborhood in which this restaurant, the Walrus and the Carpenter, makes its briny home. And the San Juans are to seafood what Bravo is to so-called housewives: a seemingly limitless trove of peerless specimens. The clams in question — butter clams, to be exact, which the restaurant had deployed in a sublime tartare — are just one example. They nominally promise softness, then come through with a bewitching sweetness as well.
To eat in and around Seattle, which I did recently and recommend heartily, isn’t merely to eat well. It is to experience something that even many larger, more gastronomically celebrated cities and regions can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another corner or patch of the United States where the locavore sensibilities of the moment are on such florid (and often sweetly funny) display, or where they pay richer dividends, at least if you’re a lover of fish. You could, I guess, make a case for the southern stretch of the Pacific Northwest around Portland, Ore., a city honored by its own cable television show, “Portlandia,” which pokes fun at its artisanal obsessions, epicurean and otherwise. But Portland isn’t as connected to and intimate with the sea and tides as Seattle. It’s not as wondrously watery.
In greater Seattle and the San Juan Islands you get a lineup and caliber of local oysters that aren’t easily matched, in addition to superb spot prawns, salmon, black cod and halibut.
Did I mention Dungeness crab? The region is lousy with Dungeness crab. It came at me in more ways than I could keep track of. At Seatown, an enticing new restaurant near the Pike Place Market, it formed a snowy layer in a colorful, carefully molded puck with pale green avocado and glittering orange tobiko, which is flying fish roe. Seatown further used it with bacon in an unconventional B.L.T. For its part, the restaurant Madison Park Conservatory, an excellent recent arrival to the shores of Lake Washington, served Dungeness crab deviled eggs at brunch. Somewhere around Seattle, I’m certain, Dungeness crab gelato is being made. I simply didn’t have the good (or ill?) fortune to find it.
The region provides a natural theater for this feast that’s just as inimitable, a thrilling topography of steeply pitched hills and gently sloped mountains. Snowcaps shimmer on the horizon.
Evergreens are everywhere — gargantuan and piney and so very, very pointy. The tree line has jags, edges. It looks as if it’s serrated. The region also has a spirit all its own, one that hews fetchingly to certain progressive, outdoorsy clichés; people show a fondness for bikes, beards, tattoos, flannel and all-weather pullovers that lies far outside the statistical norm. For humanitarian causes, too. Nowhere else have I received a hotel bill that included a $3 charitable donation.
“Um, what exactly is it for?” I asked the clerk checking me out of my room.
“It changes, but right now it’s for Japanese disaster relief,” she said. “You don’t have to pay it. You can opt out.” With three times that amount in minibar charges, I didn’t see how that was possible. Not if I wanted to slink off to my rental car — which, I suddenly realized, wasn’t a Prius or other such hybrid — with even the slenderest shred of dignity.
My trip came a bit too early in the year, at the end of April and beginning of May, when the rain hadn’t let up and a chill persisted. But June, July, August: that’s when the Pacific Northwest is most glorious. The clouds disperse and the sun shines plenty, but the temperature doesn’t climb oppressively high.
I know that from previous visits to the region, and on the basis of those trips I can also say that its culinary strides of late seem especially long and fleet. One measure of these advances is the transformation of the Willows Inn, a longstanding lodge on Lummi Island that has recently become the focus of considerable chatter among (and pilgrimages by) restaurant lovers.
Lummi Island, a hilly, verdant, narrow finger of land that’s only about 10 miles long, is another of the San Juans, and isn’t especially trammeled or set up for significant tourism — at least not yet. After a roughly two-hour roadtrip from Seattle, a sign I confronted as soon as a ferry deposited me and my car there made that clear. It pegged the population at 816.
Lummi, which rhymes with chummy, has such a closed, cozy feeling that if you drive down streets away from the main part of town, people tilling their gardens or mowing their lawns look up expectantly, seemingly poised to wave hello to someone almost certain to be familiar to them. When they realize they don’t know you, there’s a moment’s pause. Then they wave anyway.
Willows Inn goes back to 1910, but in 2001 its current owner, a commercial fisherman named Riley Starks, bought and began to refurbish it, turning each of its 15 rooms, including two cottages, a yurt and several suites, into rustic delights. He wanted to upgrade its restaurant, too, and make it a showcase for the island’s small farms, one of which belongs to the inn, and for fresh catch from the surrounding waters. But his vision didn’t fully come together until late last year, when a young chef who had spent several years at Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant internationally renowned for its dedication to local products and traditions, agreed to take over the kitchen.
The chef, Blaine Wetzel, 25, has tried to create a North American Noma by faithfully — even slavishly — reproducing the original’s theatrics and grace notes. As at Noma, dishes come to the table in unconventional vessels: cedar boxes, clay flower pots, wicker baskets. As at Noma, there’s a profuse deployment of arcane greens (beach mustard, sheep sorrel, pine shoots) and vivid flowers (salmonberry, arugula blossoms, wild roses), some of them pickled and many of them foraged — as at Noma — that very day. And in yet another crib from Noma, Mr. Wetzel and his assistant chefs deliver these dishes themselves, so they can brief you on the backstory of each ingredient and how very nearby it sprouted, bloomed, grazed or swam.
What they don’t tell you, the printed menu does, providing assurances, for example, that reef netting, “considered one of the most sustainable fishing methods in the world,” and the labors of “Lummi tribal members” were responsible for much of your seafood.
A bit much? Perhaps. But the atmospheric and gustatory joys of dinner, which is a pre-selected tasting menu of five courses for $85 (not including drinks, tax and tip) redeem the preciousness. The inn’s hillside perch affords an expansive view from the dining room of the sea and the sky, streaked with orange and pink as the sun sets.
And Mr. Wetzel and his team for the most part do justice to incomparably fresh food. Seared spot prawns, floating in a cloud of mussel-broth foam, put me in mind of Lilliputian lobster tails. Their flavor was that rich, their texture that buttery. Equally tender fingerling potatoes, dressed with melted havarti and buttermilk whey, had such a true, clear taste it was as if someone had infused them with, or marinated them in, some magical potato extract.
They had been harvested from the inn’s farm, just a mile up the hillside. That’s where I stayed, in a satellite suite the inn has there. Rosemary, rhubarb and lovage skirted its stoop. Through the front windows I could see and hear the strutting and clucking of free-range chickens. You want a closer relationship with what you eat? At the Willows Inn you can practically bed down with it.
By taking culinary trends further than other places manage or care to, Seattle and its environs put a pleasantly kooky spin on things — which brings me to Woodinville, an audacious exurb of Seattle that indulges Americans’ deepened romance with regional winemaking through the illusion of vineyards where they don’t really exist. There’s no significant grape cultivation in Woodinville.
That happens in areas of Washington far away. But to allow Seattle residents to sample the fruits of their state’s considerable — and noteworthy — viticulture without a long drive, more than 90 winemakers have set up tasting rooms here, many within the last two years. And they’ve been joined recently by artisanal producers of vodka and whiskey who actually distill their grains in Woodinville office parks and warehouses, then sell them from adjacent tasting rooms, taking advantage of a captive audience of tipplers.
Signs near Woodinville’s center, a familiar and tiresome collection of fast-food restaurants and chain stores, point the way to “wine country,” which is largely a hodgepodge of outlying strip malls, gussied-up garages and other unromantic structures between which shoppers drive, shiny little maps in hand, just as they would from the Banana Republic outlet to the discount Timberland store and on to the J. Crew. It’s as if Napa Valley had been reimagined as an outlet town.
The tasting rooms generally charge $10 to $20 for a flight of four to six shallow glasses and waive that fee if you purchase a bottle of wine. I’d recommend a stop at DeLille Cellars, in part because DeLille can be expected to showcase its justly beloved Chaleur Estate Blanc blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon. (An even better Washington white blend is the sauvignon, sémillon and muscadelle from Buty Winery, an accomplished producer whose wines aren’t in Woodinville but were on the list at Willows Inn when I dined there.) I’d also recommend the Project V distillery, which makes a brand of vodka called Single Silo, if only for its arch, shaggy vibe. Project V was having an open house the day I was there, so I could wander past the front retail counter — where a sign proclaims, “Vodka. It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore” — to the guts of the operation in the back. There I beheld a porcelain tub covered in flowery decals that is used instead of an industrial vat in the mashing process; a drum kit that was serving an ambiguous purpose; and an inoperable, vintage Volkswagen bus filled with cardboard cases of finished vodka. The Volkswagen, apparently, is the Project V storage closet.
Woodinville has a claim to fame in addition to its boozy bounty: the Herbfarm, arguably the state’s most enduringly acclaimed restaurant and one of its most ardent promoters of regional food. It has been around 25 years, the last 10 of them in Woodinville, and for that reason I didn’t eat there, keeping my focus on newer arrivals.
And in Seattle there were many — too many to experience in a compressed period of time, not unless I did absolutely nothing but eat. And this city encourages more than that, at least when the weather is good. During my stay it was and wasn’t, the rain coming and then going and then coming back, with local residents issuing a running commentary about that.
Although they’re touchy about Seattle’s soggy reputation, they do seem unusually jubilant — even evangelical — about drier days.
“You’re going to have some sun while you’re here!” said the woman at the Avis counter as I got my rental car.
“Can you believe this sunny day?” said the woman at the 7-Eleven counter three days later.
“Hope you enjoyed that sun!” said the woman at the Starbucks counter, a day after that. The sun had once again gone missing.
No matter the weather, I ran along Seattle’s waterfront, Elliott Bay on one side, the skyline on the other. There are cities from which it’s a short distance to natural splendor, and then there’s Seattle, where wilderness and civilization bleed into each other, the dividing line nonexistent.
And it is plenty civilized. In the city’s lively Capitol Hill neighborhood alone, I visited two irresistible bars that opened over the last two years or so. Both speak cheekily to cocktail mavens’ current fascination with make-believe speakeasies.
One, called Knee High Stocking Co., is hidden inside a triangle-shaped house with no sign out front, just a doorbell with the bar’s name in tiny letters near it. Another, Tavern Law, conceals a small, exclusive bar within a larger, well-identified one. To reach this hideaway, where many furnishings are early-20th-century antiques, you are advised to make advance arrangements, and someone on the inside has to let you in through a door disguised as the front of a bank vault.
As for restaurants, I had a fantastic brunch at Madison Park Conservatory, a new and refined American bistro that emphasizes the local and seasonal. Toward April’s end that was apparently nettles. They were the centerpiece ingredients in both a soup and a frittata I enjoyed. For a meatier, less seasonal coda, I tacked on the restaurant’s unforgettable egg sandwich, which trades the usual bacon for its uncured antecedent, pork belly. The belly is presented in thick dominoes of flesh whose fatty juices mingle with the runny yolk.
During lunch at Revel, a new contemporary Korean restaurant that is like a sleeker, sexier and slightly less accomplished Momofuku Ssam Bar, to use a Manhattan analogy, I had an outstanding riff on bibimbap, the traditional rice dish, with asparagus, pistachios and olives. And I twice ventured from the city center out to Ballard, a traditionally unglamorous neighborhood being embraced by fashionable restaurateurs. It is here that the prominent Seattle chef Maria Hines recently opened the Golden Beetle, where she channels her earthy, organic inclinations in a Middle Eastern direction. And it is here that the Walrus and the Carpenter, named for a Lewis Carroll verse, shares a former ship-parts factory with not only a bicycle shop (it’s Seattle, remember) but also a handsome new Italian restaurant, Staple & Fancy, that belongs to the chef Ethan Stowell. Like Ms. Hines, he’s Seattle restaurant royalty.
I stopped by the Walrus on a Friday at 5:15 p.m., and already it was full, with the intense, palpable conviviality that so many restaurants aim for but so few achieve. That kind of warmth and vibrancy often boil down to luck: to the animation of the crowd that gathers, the pitch of people’s voices. Here everyone seemed impossibly merry.
They sat on stools pulled up to high tables or a long counter, and they ate Blue Pool oysters and Hama Hama oysters and Sweetwater oysters and Eld Inlet oysters, all from Washington waters. The Walrus is essentially an embellished oyster bar, emphasis on embellished. In addition to raw shellfish it serves many cooked small plates and desserts — including, when I was there, grilled lamb tongue and a bay leaf panna cotta with a rhubarb compote — and a distinctive selection of wines, beers and cocktails.
The oysters are shucked with care: no clumsy haste, no messy errors. I closely watched the ace who shucked ours, impressed in equal measure by his skill and the elaborate beehive of what looked like dreadlocks atop his head.
When he finished shucking them, he put them before us, then did something for which I was unprepared — and very grateful. He handed us a neatly, precisely written cheat sheet that told us, from left to right, which oyster was which, so we didn’t have to remember and wouldn’t be confused. In this one odd-looking server at this one happy-making place, courtesy, earnestness, eccentric personal grooming and a proud scruffiness were all entwined. There was something so splendidly Seattle about that.
Seattle: A Tasting Menu
Although its hundreds of rooms and horizontal sprawl can make it feel oppressive, the Edgewater (206-728-7000; edgewaterhotel.com) in Seattle has more arguments in its favor than against. It’s situated on the very edge of Elliott Bay, part of Puget Sound, so that many of the rooms facing the water have balconies that literally hover over it, with views far into the distance and seabirds circling overhead. It’s also an easy walk to other waterfront attractions and there are great running and biking trails nearby. A standard double with a water view starts at about $300 in the summer.
In the Woodinville “wine country,” the place to stay is the Willows Lodge (425-424-3900; willowslodge.com), a nexus of rustic and sumptuous that has two distinguished restaurants — the Herbfarm and the Barking Frog — across its driveway and rooms with enormous fireplaces and huge sunken tubs. In the summer, those rooms start at $219 on weeknights and $319 on weekends.
One restaurant you shouldn’t miss, in terms of its festive atmosphere and the first-rate seafood, is the Walrus and the Carpenter (206-395-9227; thewalrusbar.com), in the Ballard neighborhood, about a 15-minute drive from the city center. Although it bills itself as an oyster bar, it’s really much more, and two people can easily build a dinner of small plates for $80 to $90, including beer or wine but not tax and tip.
For a more centrally located, equally unfussy seafood alternative, there’s Seatown (206-436-0390; tomdouglas.com), near the Pike Place Market, one of the latest additions to the Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas’s ever-expanding local empire. It showcases raw oysters, smoked fish and rotisserie meats. It’s a great place for a snack, but two can have a full lunch or dinner with beer or wine for anywhere from $60 to $100, excluding tax and tip.
Revel (206-547-2040; revelseattle.com), in the Fremont neighborhood, provides a sleek theater for contemporary Korean cooking that’s gently priced: two people could have lunch or dinner, including wine, beer and one of its trademark ice cream sandwiches, for under $80.0
Madison Park Conservatory (206-324-9701; madisonparkconservatory.com), with views of Lake Washington, is more expensive but worth it, for serious new American cooking with exemplary local ingredients. Dinner for two with wine: about $120.
And if you’re up for an overnight trek out of town, consider the Willows Inn on Lummi Island (360-758-2620 for hotel and restaurant; willows-inn.com), which gets almost all its meat, vegetables and fruits from within a few square miles and doesn’t look much farther for its catch. A five-course dinner is $85 a person, not including beverages, and rooms, cottages and suites at the inn are $195 to $625 a night.
In the Seattle exurb of Woodinville, more than 90 wineries and several distillers of hard liquor have tasting rooms, and while hours vary, most are open during the day (but not night) on Saturdays and Sundays. The Woodinville Wine Country association (425-205-4394; woodinvillewinecountry.com) has more information, including maps, about wine tasting rooms.
Seattle itself has embraced current cocktail culture fully, and two of the best places to experience that are in its Capitol Hill neighborhood. Knee High Stocking Co. (206-979-7049; kneehighstocking.com) advises making a reservation via text message. Tavern Law (206-322-9734; tavernlaw.com), has a general area that’s easily breached but also a hidden upstairs sanctum for which reservations may be necessary.
The New York Time, June 2011
The Noma-reared chef makes a trip to Lummi Island worthwhile.
By Hanna Raskin
You’ll want to go to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, which appears alongside restaurants by Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, and Grant Achatz on gourmands’ global checklists, to mark your birthday, anniversary, or some other milestone occasioning the clinking of Champagne glasses.
It’s an erroneous impulse.
Instead, go to Willows Inn when you’re not distracted by metaphysical musings on the passage of time or an overdue assessment of why you chose to marry your spouse. Go on a day that’s special only because you might later watch a sea lion paddling the hushed waters of Legoe Bay while the sun sets. Go because it’s simply not fair to chef Blaine Wetzel, his staff, or your palate to enter the dining room with your senses cocked to anything but the spectacular food awaiting you.
Wetzel, the wunderkind who trained at Copenhagen’s Noma—anointed the “best restaurant in the world” by a cabal of chefs and food writers trusted to issue decrees on culinary excellence—has created at Willows Inn a riveting celebration of the seasons and the land, a visceral reminder that the universality of nature, beauty, and art almost certainly matters more than your 43rd birthday and an attendant slice of cake.
The preceding lecture isn’t authorized by the ego-free Willows Inn, where cooks tromp down from the garden with plastic bagfuls of sorrel and watercress and are expected to help serve the dishes they create. An appealing Nordic modesty pervades the squat Craftsman-style inn, and there’s a touch of American-bred informality, too: Most diners dress for dinner in jeans and flip-flops, and the front desk clerk trilled “Hey, guys!” when we arrived to check in.
A hotel stay isn’t mandatory on weekend nights, when scrimping diners willing to forego wine or juice pairings can experience a meal for $85 plus tip and the cost of the eight-minute ferry ride that links Lummi to Bellingham. Pikers looking to rationalize their frugality will be pleased to know the hotel has little to offer: Our $200 farm cabin had a handheld shower and a curtain instead of a bathroom door, and the touted complimentary breakfast was a debacle of cold bacon and missing coffee. Still, if budget allows, book a room: After hours of edible pleasures, the only realistic next stops are a bed or the beach.
Willows Inn sits hard by a main road. The convenient location surprised me, as so many keystrokes have been expended on Wetzel’s adoration for the out-of-doors that I expected to be seated in a field. But the building overlooks a beach so scenic it rouses immediate regret for not having become a watercolorist. The iconic marine vista is the focal point of the generously windowed dining room and the front porch, where drinks are served before dinner. The bar’s repertoire includes currently fashionable cocktails—a Corpse Reviver leads the list—but the social hour has a timeless calm that must comfort guests whose grandparents owned sailboats and summer homes.
The Inn serves diners the same menu at the same time, but minutely staggers seating to avert a prosecco rush. Parties are summoned by a clipboard-toting server with the grace and placid voice of a spa assistant. Dinners begin with a series of what the kitchen calls “snacks,” which is akin to referring to a Porsche as a jalopy. The opening salvos encapsulate the mysticism, clarity, and subtlety that make a meal at Willows Inn so extraordinary, sometimes with even greater resonance than the more elaborate courses which follow.
There’s bound to be wizardry at a restaurant that requires patrons to cross a moat, even if it’s done with the aid of the Whatcom County Ferry system. The restaurant’s first dish confirms that Wetzel harbors a Scandinavian fondness for the supernatural: It’s a plain cedar-wood box, the sort which a young girl might use to store charm bracelets or secret notes. Diners are instructed to lift its lid, releasing a puff of paper-white steam and revealing two perfectly smoked nubbins of sockeye salmon—reef net–caught, the menu reassures—nestled in wood chips. Servers in the clutch of getting diners settled let the emptied boxes linger, and nearly every diner takes advantage of the lull to open the box a second time, hoping the trick might repeat itself.
Efforts to conjure a second helping of smoked salmon are uniformly unsuccessful, but it’s equally impossible to re-box the spirit carried by the salmon’s smoke cloud. The haze draws the dining room into Wetzel’s wild, woodsy world, saturated with romanticism and reverence for the region’s bounty.
Willows Inn grows its own greens, vegetables, and flowers, but the central character here is the forager, not the farmer. Just as at Noma, dishes are designed to emulate nature’s seemingly disordered patterns, so they include clumps of seaweed and strewn wild herbs gathered on the island. Even the mismatched utensils are scavenged from antique stores.
Diners are invited to vicariously participate in the foraging process by feasting on a potted tabletop shrub of salmonberries. “We urge you to try it,” the servers say, but not every guest is willing to do so. As surely as Willows Inn’s close-to-the-earth cuisine bewitches taste buds, it spins heads and stunts conversation. By the second or third course, most guests are reduced to monosyllabic exchanges meant to determine whether or not they’re enjoying the best meal of their lives. Almost every dish is an argument in the yes camp’s favor.
There’s a crisp saddle-shaped potato chip, garnished with a scrawl of sauerkraut and a swag of meaty black cod for a singular flavor that could displace sour cream and onion if a chip company could be bothered to replicate it. Next, an Easter basket overflowing with tender lettuces whisked from the greenhouse one week after planting. The leaves are scattered with toasted hazelnut “dirt.” Then there’s an undulating magic carpet of crisp herb toast draped with sonorous brown butter and petals of delicate greens. The toast is followed by two briny Whidbey Island oysters, pickled in sauerkraut and returned to their shells with tapioca pearls, perched on a mat of pebbles frozen inpristine ice.
And dinner hasn’t yet begun. Rye-inflected bread, served aboard heated rocks in a wooden box and paired with immaculate, fatty local butter, arrives to signal the formal start of the meal. A primordial mossy flavor invigorates a soupy clatter of asparagus tips, a mound of fresh farmer’s cheese, and slender pine needles. Curled spot prawns, huddled on the edge of an earthenware plate dotted with oyster emulsion and powdered seaweed, deliver an elegant, oceanic sweetness. The savory portion of dinner ends where it began, closing on a King salmon crescendo. The breathtaking fish has a spun sugar–like skin that plays off beads of mustard seeds and ghostly discs of turnips.
For dessert, there’s a kaleidoscope of wildflowers in purples, pinks, and yellows, served atop rose ice cream perfumed with lemon verbena. Visitors who pause to flip through the signed copy of René Redzepi’s Noma cookbook on the front table might find an image of something much like it. In fact, many of the dishes served at Willows Inn have obvious Noma antecedents. The similarities are so glaring that it raises the question of whether Willows Inn is peddling secondhand genius. Are diners dealing with the edible equivalent of the Mona Lisa, or a copy produced by a very talented painter who visited the Louvre with an easel?
But the food at Willows Inn isn’t a forgery: Wetzel trained with Redzepi, and doesn’t attempt to hide his indebtedness. For all the talk of drawing on local resources, the creativity at Willows Inn is largely imported, a distinction that probably doesn’t unsettle diners who can’t afford to fly to Copenhagen to sample Wetzel’s inspiration.
It’s perhaps not surprising that at 25, Wetzel is more likely to borrow than steal. He still has many, many years in which to fashion a style of his own. Until then, his guests will have to make do with one of the finest meals they’re ever likely to eat in the Pacific Northwest.
The Seattle Weekly July 2011
LUMMI ISLAND, WASH.— The chef places a cedar bentwood box at the centre of the table for the first of six amuse-bouches. Leaning over, I lift the lid and am smacked in the nose with a heady swirl of briny smoke.
“Woo hoo,” I cry, slamming the lid back down. I feel like we’re letting a genie out of the bottle, but I guess that has already happened.
This is Willows Inn on Lummi Island, the most northeasterly of the San Juan archipelago in the Pacific Northwest. Among all the islands in this lushly forested coastal paradise, Lummi is the most easily accessible – a six-minute ferry crossing from Bellingham, Wash., only 1½ hours south of Vancouver – yet is also the smallest (pop. 822) and least well known.
“I’ve been to Bellingham a hundred times and I’d never heard of it,” says Blaine Wetzel, the 25-year-old wunderkind chef who is changing the island’s fortunes and putting the 15-room Willows Inn on the gastronomic map.
How? Although originally from this area, Wetzel spent 18 months in Copenhagen, where he was a protégé of René Redzepi at Noma (No. 1 restaurant in the world, according to the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2010), before transforming the Willows Inn kitchen so completely The New York Times named it one of 10 restaurants in the world “Worth a Plane Ride” only five months into his tenure.
True to his training, Wetzel is taking a very Noma-like, hyper-local philosophy and applying it to the bounty of Puget Sound. He and his kitchen crew (dishwashers included) spend their off-days foraging for sea lettuce, wild herbs, mushrooms and berries. The restaurant menu follows the seasons, using only local ingredients.
The kitchen’s beef is grass-fed, from the island’s Skagit River Ranch. Fairhaven Organic Mill Flour in nearby Bellingham custom-mills the grain for the thick, crusty bread. The butter, also from grass-fed cows, is churned specifically for the restaurant twice a week. The fish is all caught in local waters. The produce is grown on the co-owned Nettles Farm 10 minutes away, where Rhode Island Red free-range, egg-laying chickens are also raised and a woolly Mangalitsa pig is fattened each season.
“The potential here is outrageous,” Wetzel says, noting that he’s not doing anything radical. “[Owner] Riley Starks has been following the same slow-food philosophy for the last 10 years. That’s what attracted me.”
Wetzel turned down several prestigious positions in Seattle and San Francisco to come to this rural outpost, where cars don’t drive faster than 30 kilometres an hour and islanders wave to strangers.
“This is the way Orcas Island was in the 1950s,” Starks says, nodding to Lummi’s touristy neighbour, the largest of the San Juan Islands.
We’re sitting on the inn’s westerly facing deck before dinner, watching the fishing boats in Rosario Strait and soaking up the sun. Lummi Island sits in a rain shadow protected by the Olympic Mountains, making it much drier and sunnier than the mainland. The sun is so bright and hot, we roll down an outdoor shade and peel off our sweaters. It may be late March, but it feels like July.
Starks put the farm before the table when he came to Lummi Island in 1992 and started Nettles Farm, where agritourists could (and still can) stay in the farmhouse suite, cabin and yurt. In 2001, he and his ex-wife bought the waterfront Willows Inn, a historic boarding house and family resort that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, to expand their dream of connecting diners to the dirt.
A lawyer by training and commercial fisherman by trade, Starks also founded the Lummi Island Wild Co-op, a sustainable reef-net fishery – the only one like it in the world – that uses the ancient native fishing methods to catch sockeye salmon without any fossil fuels, bycatch or lactic-acid-inducing trauma to the fish.
“I don’t know of any 40-seat restaurants that have four full-time farmers, two committed reef-net boats and so many connections with other fisheries,” Wetzel says after we are seated in the window-wrapped dining room with its breathtaking view of the southern Gulf Islands and Coast Mountains in the distance. As at Noma, the cooks help serve the meals.
Also like Noma, the regular, prix fixe tasting menu ($85 for five courses) is supplemented by just as many small amuse-bouches, which come out at a fast and furious, palate-popping pace.
Some of the small plates – tender baby radishes served in a crunchy bed of barley-malt and hazelnut “soil” and an exquisite piece of herb toast adorned in edible cherry blossoms and white powdered vinegar – will be familiar to those acquainted with Noma’s cuisine and cookbook.
But over all, it’s a highly original meal that is specific to Lummi Island in the spring. Drawing on Noma’s philosophy of “Time and Place,” six of the 12 courses are seafood. Wetzel says he was hesitant about creating menus with so much fish (on some nights, it’s 10 courses), yet upon further reflection it made perfect sense.
“The farm isn’t producing right now, but it’s high season for fish. We have to use what we’ve got.”
As at Noma, Wetzel doesn’t torture his food with complex preparations and heavy reductions. One course is0 roasted beet – just beet – served with a light tarragon cream and dillweed seeds. It’s clean and sweet and pure and, according to several diners here this weekend, the most delicious beet they’ve ever tasted.
To connect the food to its place, the chef uses textures, scents and flavours found near the main ingredient. The Penn Cove oysters, for instance, are presented on a bowl of frozen beach pebbles and garnished with seaweed.
“It keeps the oysters chilled, yes,” the chef explains. “But it also smells like the cold Pacific Ocean. I hope it evokes in the diner the memory of walking on the beach, maybe in their childhood or on their way here tonight.”
And then there’s the hot smoked salmon, two moist, meaty cubes sitting on smoking cedar chips inside their wooden treasure box. “Salmon is a way of life here. During the summer, you’ll see house after house with smoke billowing out of the smokers in the yard. I want to connect our diners with this island. When they eat here, I want them to know that they’re in the San Juans.”
Locals may call Lummi the “undiscovered” island. But if Wetzel keeps conjuring such magical flavours from its fields, fish and forests, the secret is bound to escape.
The Globe and Mail, April 2011