DINING

Splendid setting enhances meal at Willows

Restaurant's setting and food is exquisite

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 24, 2006 

  • THE WILLOWS

    Address: 2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island
    Hours: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, now through October; winter hours 5:30-8:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
    Phone: 758-2620
    Reservations: Recommended
    Price: Dinner entrée $18-$28

LUMMI ISLAND -- During a recent dinner at the Willows, our server gently interrupted my unexpected tableside reunion with a long-lost friend to set down the previously ordered platter of Samish Bay mussels steamed in white wine and served in a carrot and ginger broth.

She later came back to apologize. She hadn't wanted to intrude, but the chef insisted that the mussels be eaten NOW.

That's a restaurant that's on its game: a server with tact, and a chef with standards.

The chef - Craig Miller, formerly of the Oyster Bar - is well situated to maintain standards at a restaurant where owners Judy Olsen and Riley Starks also operate Nettles Farm, producing their own organic vegetables and pasta. But it doesn't stop there: Starks is a commercial fisherman who provides reefnet-caught salmon and spot prawns.

"This time of year we're about 85 percent self-sufficient," Miller said. "I'm not sure if there's anybody else who does what we do."

The restaurant and bed-and-breakfast perch on a bluff on the island's western shore, with a sweeping view across the strait to Orcas Island and the archipelago beyond. We were seated on the canopied deck rimmed with rose bushes, where we could hear the gentle lapping of the waves at the base of the bluff.

I've always believed that outdoor dining is overrated, but on a calm, cool evening, with a bit of cloud to screen the sun's rays, this al fresco setting was impossible to resist. As the sun got lower and began to trouble diners' eyes, the servers lowered remote-controlled blinds just enough to shade our faces without blocking the view.

One expects oven-fresh bread to start a meal at a better restaurant, but the crusty, chewy focaccia at the Willows was exceptional. We ate two helpings, partly because we needed more to soak up the broth from those marvelous mussels ($12).

The dinner menu at the Willows changes weekly and stays simple. On our visit, the bill of fare included four dinner choices: steak, salmon, chicken and a seafood pasta, which could be preceded with a choice of two salads, the mussels, or a fava bean soup.

The salmon was a no-brainer. You can't get it any more fresh and local than the Lummi Island reefnet-caught sockeye ($26) that Miller says should be available through the end of the month. It came lightly seared, brushed with oil seasoned with fresh dill, and served on a bed of wild rice atop eye-catching slabs of red and yellow heirloom tomatoes that must have been the size of softballs.

For our other main dish, we chose organic spinach ravioli in black pepper cream garnish, tossed with local spot prawns tossed in an arugula pesto ($18). The marriage of these prawns with the cheese ravioli seemed short of inevitable to me, but both the ravioli and the prawns tasted terrific, and they didn't get in each other's way either.

One nice feature at the Willows: Each dish, including appetizers and salads, is paired with a recommended wine available by the glass, a nice touch if you're in the vast majority of diners uncertain what wine to order with a meal.

When making reservations, consult the restaurant staff about island ferry schedules and likely wait times.


AT A GLANCE: THE WILLOWS

  • Address: 2579 West Shore Drive, Lummi Island

  • Hours: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, now through October; winter hours 5:30-8:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

  • Phone: 758-2620

  • Reservations: Recommended

  • Dinner entrĂ©e price range: $18-$28

    Reach John Stark at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com.

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