Foraging for the Best Getaway for Fine Food and a Satisfying Stay
Seattle is a fantastic food city. Okay, so it’s hard to get good dim sum or a real bagel, but we’ve got some great chefs, decent diversity, and interesting markets selling lots of local produce, meats, and seafood. And while the city itself is beautiful and full of activity, there’s even more to explore just a short drive away. With rising gas prices putting the pinch on long-distance travel, I’m liking the idea of nearby overnight stays for some rest and relaxation. But as a restaurant reviewer, I don’t want my getaway to mean compromising on food quality. (Yes, I’m obsessive that way.) So, for this month’s Dish-Off, I invited three properties to each host me for a night. Their challenge: To provide the ultimate escape from Seattle, proving themselves worthy destinations of a short flight for food.
Willows Lodge is in the midst of Woodinville’s wineries, making it an ideal place to stay when taking in a summer concert at Chateau Ste. Michelle. I love the ultra-contemporary feeling, including the excellent temperature and lighting controls, and the bathtub is simply fabulous. A pre-dinner stroll on the grounds reveals some pleasing art and gardens; I especially enjoy seeing all the herbs and visiting the resident pigs.
If you’re feeling financially frisky, The Herbfarm is here, leasing land from the lodge. A little less pricey is Willows’ official restaurant, Barking Frog, where Chef Bobby Moore promises wine-inspired Northwest cuisine. Halibut and lamb entrees fit the bill, but surprisingly, it’s what comes with those dishes that shines the most. Included with the pretty-as-a-picture Alaskan halibut (am I the only one getting bored with this relatively plain-tasting fish?) are pleasing pea and prawn ravioli along with morel mushrooms and pea vines that suit the season. And while the lamb loin’s okay, I push it aside in favor of the accompanying ham hock risotto, highlighted by a Pinot Noir poached duck egg; this is a ham-and-egg combination that’s divine.
I probably should have pushed a little more food aside. Except for a somewhat disappointing lamb carpaccio, everything’s good, with bold and strong flavors (e.g., seared foie gras with poached rhubarb), though a little heavy. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of fried foods, but from the super-fun and filling start of popcorn lobster to the beet salad’s fried goat cheese to the final taste of can’t-resist, Creole-style beignets that accompany the chocolate pot de crème, I myself am feeling fried. And I’m not sure if I’m transported to a place in the Northwest, or elsewhere in America, as I stumble back to my convenient and comfortable bedroom in a bit of a food coma.
Closer to Seattle is Kirkland’s Heathman Hotel, which boasts (and delivers) smart service, and gets my nod for best bed of the bunch. Each floor offers a different choice of mattress, and I’m thrilled to test-drive a Tempur-Pedic. My room is cozy and comfortable, with a small step-out balcony that offers a peek-a-boo view of Lake Washington. I walk to the water, stepping out on a pier to peer back at the city I’ve left behind for my stay in Kirkland.
Heathman may be an urban hotel, but Trellis offers a fine farm-to-table dining experience that’s reminiscent of the European countryside. In charge is Chef Brian Scheehser, an organic farmer with three acres just minutes away; his harvest helps determine the evening’s menu. I’m carnivoracious, but no one will need to tell me to eat my vegetables tonight. My favorite dish is “rabbit two ways.” While I devour both the braised and grilled cuts of meat (and gluttonously gulp down the rabbit-essenced broth), it’s the vegetables—often overlooked in a dish like this—that are the true stars. The gorgeous Easter egg radishes, turnips, carrots and spring onions are delicately cooked for a fresh-from-the-garden taste. Same is true for a tagliatelle of vegetables (celery, carrot, zucchini and squash), which appears under that ever-present halibut. But this one’s better than Barking Frog’s, as is the lamb carpaccio, sliced thin and succulent, topped with minted tomatoes and arugula.
The only let-down, surprisingly, is the trademark “two-hour” chef’s garden salad. It’s a fresh selection of mixed leaves (like deer’s tongue) picked prior to the meal, but perhaps the servers’ hype led to higher expectations. That said, if one minor disappointment is this delicious, then dinner as a whole gets high marks. Like dessert (lemon-sage flan, perfectly paired with limoncello), the meal is fulfilling without being too filling. There’s great variety, and I don’t miss starch—though Scheehser assures me his potatoes, when ready, are well worth a return visit. I believe him. Trellis’ food reflects the chef himself: calm, confident and refreshing.
Further afield is The Inn at Langley, but it’s actually only 35 miles in the car and a quick ferry ride that, along with the pace of Whidbey Island, make for a true escape from Seattle. The rooms at Willows and Heathman may be more modern, but every room here has a magnificent 180-degree waterfront view. While I walk briefly on the rocky beach, I mostly enjoy the view (watching for whales) from the room’s window seats, the balcony, and even the sunken, jetted tub—which also faces a fireplace.
Dinner at The Inn at Langley Restaurant is a little different: a smallish affair (just 34 seats) with a set starting time and a set menu that changes nightly. Dominating the warm dining room (I like the double-hearth fireplace) is an open kitchen where I watch Chef Matt Costello at work. Tables feel private, but there’s a communal feeling as everyone waits in anticipation. Before service starts, Costello addresses his audience, speaking with pride about his desire to show off the island’s riches—from the furnishings to the food. Dinner is an extended affair, with each course offering something special and sometimes unexpected. The amuse bouche is a delightful nibble of local beets, roasted with vanilla and served with creamy avocado. There will be locally produced honey, just-picked lettuce, and wild garlic leaves and nettles. I savor weathervane sea scallops with truffle-enhanced barley risotto, slow-roasted salmon with just-harvested Penn Cove mussels (Costello promises they’ll be the best, and they are), and tender lamb with fresh corn polenta so sweet that I could eat it for dessert.
Course after course has imagination; even the intermezzo, cantaloupe sorbet with marinated feta and basil, is delightful—startingly salty but palate-cleansing. Costello likes to play with his cheese course, and on this night Delice de Bourgogne comes with rose water strawberries, pepper biscotti and candied ginger—an intriguing combination of textures and tastes. As I gather up some of Langley’s Island Angel chocolates and retreat back to my room, breathing in the salty air, I’m feeling like I’m having an idyllic island experience—a real Seattle getaway.
All three properties have positive aspects. Close the curtains, and Willows Lodge offers the best room of the group and potential for a satisfying, wine-centric stay. I love Trellis, and am eager to return at another time during the growing season. For the price of one meal at either Barking Frog or The Inn at Langley, two people can enjoy Brian Scheehser’s crops and country-style preparations; with its proximity to Seattle, you can make the trip at a moment’s notice without need to stay overnight. But for a special occasion and a true escape from Seattle, The Inn at Langley is the perfect getaway. If you don’t mind a set menu (personally, I like letting the chef choose, as it gets me to try new things), Matt Costello whips up winning dishes that are innovative and incredible. And along with the sensational food, you get that spectacular view; I enjoyed it the next morning until the last possible moment when I reluctantly pulled myself out of the Adirondack chair, took one last look, and headed home to Seattle with many happy memories.
WINNER: Inn at Langley
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.