As much as I’ve been enjoying the chance to lead the commentary during live Sexy Feast dinners at area restaurants, I was equally looking forward to actually eating last Saturday’s “sexy” meal at Willows Inn, which The New York Times recently named one of the world’s “ten restaurants worth a plane ride.” Blaine Wetzel recently took the helm as head of the kitchen at this Lummi Island inn, having previously worked as sous chef with Rene Redzepi at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that S. Pellegrino named the “best restaurant in the world” for 2010.
I consulted with Wetzel about the menu, which looked impressive. But in addition to what was listed, there would be a few surprises, such as a series of small morsels to start the meal. Included was one bite per person of smoked salmon, sitting in a wooden box.
So what does Willows Inn’s smoked salmon starter teach us about sex?
It’s about vulnerability and intimacy.
Each little salmon piece, hit by a butane torch before serving, look so small and vulnerable, trapped in that wooden box.
Vulnerability is a key component of intimacy, which is one of the three parts of the triangle of love, per Robert Sternberg’s The Psychology of Love. The amount (if you can quantify this) of passion, commitment, and intimacy determines what type of love you and your partner share. Passion can come quickly, and commitment might be easy to pledge (though longer to prove), but intimacy takes time, partly based on building trust.
So while it might be strange for me to focus on a salmon bite out of the whole, splendid meal at Willows Inn, there’s good reason. You build trust and intimacy in small nibbles.
It strikes me that everyone’s vulnerable in this dining experience. You’ve paid a price ($70 is the usual amount) for a multi-course dinner, and now you need to trust that you’ll like it. The chef is vulnerable, not knowing how you’ll react to the meal, especially with accolades that have increased expectations.
But Wetzel is earnest, creative, and talented.
Like an amuse bouche, his salmon bite is the foreplay, tickling your taste buds, and hopefully earning your trust. Your meal, like a relationship, continues to grow as it unfolds. As dinner moves from oysters to cod to crab, then mussels to scallops to squash, and then beef cheeks to beef tongue, you let go and open yourself up to the possibilities. And when dessert of “green apples and buttermilk and licorice” arrives at the table, you’re ready for anything.
Many are now asking the question: Is Willows Inn really worth a plane ride? I would hesitate to bestow such a superlative on this place, or any place. After all, superlatives are so subjective. That said, Willows Inn is certainly a special place. Dinner is full of care and creativity, and is quite delicious.
I can declare that the restaurant, like intimacy, is well worth the journey.
(Note that the inn itself is in a unique island setting, with very simple rooms. Avoid the Rose Room if you value your sleep, as you’ll feel like you’re in the adjoining kitchen, with pots and pans and people noisy until the wee hours of the night–and then again early in the morning. That kitchen experience may be a little too, well, intimate.)
First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on February 17, 2011.
Bonus: Reflecting on recent visits to inns in the area, Willows Inn’s dinner is right near the top. Lots of interesting elements, and full of surprises. I still have fond memories of meals at the Inn at Langley, which also offers more comfortable and scenic rooms.
The rest of the menu (the photos, most taken in the very dark dining room, do not do justice to the beauty of these dishes):
Potato chip with cod and sauerkraut
Totten Inlet mussels with potatoes, cucumber and horseradish
Weathervane scallops with cabbages and mussel sauce
Winter squash with local black truffles and hazelnuts
Slow roasted beef cheek with grilled onions
Marinated beef tongue with pickled carrots and watercress sauce
Green apples with buttermilk and licorice