This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Wine Dinner at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island

Last Thursday night, Leslie and I made the 30 minute drive to the small ferry going to Lummi Island. The 10 minute sailing time across to the island is an odd voyage. Such a short time to cross and yet by the time the ferry docks on the island we always feel we have sailed away to a distant destination. The little Whatcom Chief only holds about 20 vehicles, much smaller than the larger state ferries that move hundreds of passengers between the San Juan Islands. In a way its diminutive size adds to the adventurousness of the crossing.

Once across our car all but knows the way to our favorite getaway. It also holds sentimental memories for us as it is the place where our daughter Kate and her husband Nick became engaged. A right turn off the ferry dock and a winding two lane road through the Lummi countryside leads to The Willows Inn. Proprietors Riley and Judy are always glad to see you and walking in through the front door the first place I always head is to one of the two leather couches facing one another. I have my comfy spot next to the picture window looking out onto the Straits of Georgia. A vast expanse of water with occasional glimpses of whales, tugs towing barges and sailboats in full sail heading to who knows where.

On this particular trip to The Willows we had made a reservation for one of their famous Wine Dinners which feature well-known northwest chefs and wine makers who are brought together to prepare fantastic gastronomic events for small groups of people lucky enough to get a place at the table.

On this night we were treated to the culinary skills of John Sundstrom of the well known restaurant, Lark in Seattle. Paired with each course were the wines of Brick House out of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Doug Tennel and his wife are the owners and they brought several wonderful wines for the evening.

The appetizers were served on the sunny deck which stretches across the front of the Inn. Glasses of chilled Zardetto Prosecco were served along with the appetizers:

  • whole roasted spot prawns with sorrel, lemon and butter
  • warm mangalitsa lardo crostini with rosemary
  • burrata crostini with mint, fava beans and olive oil
The spot prawns are caught by Riley right off the Inn. He brought the evening's catch up onto the deck and showed everyone the fresh, bright red prawns snapping and jumping in the bowl on their way to the kitchen. A few minutes later we were all tearing the heads off and pulling the tails off to get at the sweet salty meat.

The Mangalitsa is a type of pig Riley raises there on the Willow's farm. This pig had only recently been dispatched for this special evening's meal. The lardo is the fat back from the mangilitsa and it melted in your mouth. This critter would appear on the menu twice more before the night was over.

We were summoned into the main dining room at about 7 where Riley introduced our chef who explained each course and to Doug Tennel who also described his wines.

The first course was a chilled Lummi Island wild Sockeye Salmon with spicy watercress puree, wasabi tobiko and miner's lettuce. The presentation was beautiful with the sauces swirled and swipped across the plate as if by an artist's brush and then, almost as if an after-thought, a dainty stem with tiny flowers placed perfectly among the sauces and salmon. Along with it was served a 2007 Gamay Noir au Jus Blanc. Perfect!

Course 2 was an Italian Wedding Soup with chicken, Mangalitsa sausage, nettles and egg. Here again the Mangalitsa pig had been used. Riley decided to create a sausage with it. Not sure how to go about it he called his friend Greg Higgins, owner of the fabulous Portland, Oregon restaurant of the same name. Greg walked him through the process and the outcome was fabulous. The soup was subtly rich without being overpowering. The paired wine was a 2007 Chardonnay which satisfyingly matched the flavors of the soup.

The main was a reappearance of the Mangalitsa pig. This time the loin was prepared and sliced into medallions, placed over crispy red potatoes and asparagus with a lemon, parsley, garlic sauce. While the loin was delicious, melting in your mouth, the potatoes were the surprise hit. Everyone wondered how Chef Sundstrom had prepared them. When he next appeared the mystery was solved. He had parboiled the small red potatoes, allowed them to cool, then smooshed them with the heal of his hand so that the skins broke open slightly. He next coated them in olive oil and sprinkled them with black truffle salt before roasting them until the outsides were crisp. Wow! This course also brought with it my favorite wine of the evening--a 2007 "Les Dijonnais" Pinot Noir. I was waiting for this wine as I love Pinots. This one one didn't disappoint. My only regret was that I couldn't finish it and accept the offer for more. I was the designated driver.

Finally, our dessert made its appearance. A white chocolate pot de creme with rhubarb preserve and almond croquant. Delicate and delicious it melted in your mouth. The 2007 blackberry port made a superb accompaniment to this perfect end to the evening.

Chef John Sundstrom's food does not have the hit-you-over-the-head flavors of the Tom Douglas school my wife loves so much. His food is far more subtle. It relies on its freshness, purity and simple beauty to convey its message. And it conveys it well. I found myself repeatedly placing the fork or spoon in my mouth, closing my eyes and slowly removing the conveyance. Eyes still closed, I allowed the food to simply melt, sending the flavor signals here and there across my tongue. There was no reason to hurry. I couldn't hurry. I wanted this to last forever.

We were paired with two other couples as our table mates and couldn't have asked for four nicer folks to share the evening. One couple, young, celebrated their 5th anniversary. The other couple were actually acquaintances of Leslie's from the University. Sadly, the room began to slowly empty and we waited, still conversing with our new friends, until it was time for us to reluctantly make the drive back to the ferry and to our busy lives across the water.

We will be back Willows Inn. Thank you for a wonderful evening.