Feast by Ferry
It’s a cool April morning on Lopez Island, and Nick Coffey is licking a banana slug. “Maybe this should be an initiation for any new employees,” jokes the chef, upon learning that the mollusk’s slime numbs tongues. It is, in fact, a well-known Pacific Northwest rite of passage for hikers—though perhaps not one best suited to a chef who will be cooking and seasoning elaborate hyperseasonal dishes in a few hours. Eight years ago, Coffey visited Lopez Island, in Washington State’s Strait of Juan de Fuca, on a camping trip and immediately knew he wanted to open a restaurant here. Last year, that dream finally became a reality when he debuted Ursa Minor, a rustic 45-seat restaurant in the middle of the island. “Lopez is my muse,” Coffey says as he collects seaweed and pulls up licorice fern by the root. “But there’s a learning curve to running a restaurant on an island.”
The geography of an island—especially one that’s nearly three hours by car and ferry from Seattle—shapes the experience at Ursa Minor, as it does at Ælder on neighboring Orcas Island and The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Coffey, Jay Blackinton of Ælder, and Blaine Wetzel at The Willows Inn aim to serve entire menus of dishes made only from ingredients found on each chef’s respective island. Each is a tiny outpost with an ambitious kitchen sending out a culinary postcard: a meal that tastes of that exact place, at that exact moment in time.
Only a few of the more than 170 islands in these waters are inhabited—and even then, not by too many people. The Coast Salish tribes have long traversed these straits in their famous canoes, sharing the waters with orcas and sea lions. Today, Washington State Ferry boats carry weekenders in search of rented cabins, farm stands, hiking trails, and, lately, cutting-edge gastronomy. Chefs are drawn here by cold water teeming with oysters year-round, beaches strewn with edible seaweed, forests thick with mushrooms, and acres of farmland laden with everything from alpacas to zucchini blossoms. But the islands also offer something more elemental: a sense of disconnection that lures chefs who dream big. The ingredients available here call to only those willing to do the hard work of collecting them.
The islands demand that effort from visitors, too. Ferries from Anacortes, roughly 85 miles north of downtown Seattle, leave regularly for Lopez and Orcas, but they require reservations or plenty of patience (and sometimes both). Lummi Island can be seen right across the strait from Orcas, although, as the saying goes, “you can’t get there from here.” Instead, you must drive to a lonely terminal on the mainland portion of the Lummi Reservation and then board a tiny 20-car ferry, which crosses in just six minutes. The nine-square-mile island has few roads and even fewer amenities on its gentle hills and pebble beaches.
Chef Blaine Wetzel arrived on this island of fewer than 1,000 people in 2011, straight from a stint at Noma in Copenhagen—widely considered the best restaurant in the world—looking for a job closer to his hometown of Olympia, Washington. He quickly got a lesson in island life. Trucks don’t make deliveries here, so when he needed fish, a fisherman pulled up, towing his boat and still wearing his neon-orange rubber overalls, with a fresh catch. “Other places,” Wetzel notes, “fish arrive in boxes.”
The vegetables don’t “arrive” at all; they’re already here, on the restaurant’s farm, and the varieties have been specifically selected and grown to suit Wetzel’s needs. Take, for instance, beets: “There are thousands from all over Asia and South America, for spring or fall or overwintering,” the chef says over lunch at the restaurant, in between bites of a salad made from eight varieties of potato grown on the farm. Vegetables, fruits, and herbs make it onto the menu only after years of growing and testing, but they’re treated with reverence. Overwintered rutabagas are paraded out of the kitchen with the same ceremony as the singing scallops served on an ornate ice throne of fluted pink shells.
Wetzel calls his cooking “an interpretation of the island—a moment in nature in the form of a multicourse tasting menu.” It’s an approach that earned him immediate acclaim: He was named Food & Wine’s best new chef of 2012 and the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2014. The New York Times even declared The Willows Inn one of 10 restaurants “worth a plane ride.” But more than that, he brought attention to a corner of the world that had been better known for exporting its oysters and salmon than cooking them.
When guests pull into the parking lot at The Willows Inn, they’re greeted by white-coat-clad cooks clipping quince tree blossoms that will later become dessert. Servers bring the first few of the 20-plus courses to the diners wherever they’re waiting, usually on the wraparound porch looking out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On this warm evening, toasted kale leaves dotted with truffle, grilled kale flowers tied with twine like a miniature edible bouquet, and savory doughnuts filled with smoked black cod offer tiny thrills. Canada looms so close that cell phones sometimes pop into roaming mode, and whales play in the distance while guests assemble their own venison tartare sandwiches.
As dinner winds down with grilled and shredded halibut (served in a fumé of its own bones) and a digestive tea of wild blackberry leaf, the small beach pebbles that the kitchen uses to track diners’ progress through the menu move toward the end of the giant wood table. The quince blossoms plucked earlier in the day, ground and served with the juice of last year’s fruit, come floating out. Quince doesn’t grow as plentifully on Lummi as most of the other produce, so Wetzel also sources it from an orchard on the mainland. The short ferry ride doesn’t change the fruit, he says. “It’s inspired by the island.”
Lummi Island is less than five miles from Orcas Island, a 57-square-mile horseshoe of near-wilderness with the town of Eastsound at its center. With broad valleys and soaring ridges that dwarf the rolling landscape of the other islands, Orcas looms large. About 6,000 people live here—enough, thought chef Jay Blackinton, to support a real restaurant scene for locals. A former bike messenger in Seattle and San Francisco, Blackinton moved to Orcas in 2009 and began working at Maple Rock Farm. Six years ago, Blackinton and Maple Rock owner John Steward opened the rustic Hogstone’s Wood Oven pizzeria to serve the produce they were growing and, really, to feed their friends. “Turns out,” laments Blackinton, “you can’t rely on your friends to pay your bills.”
However, as word spread of the creative dishes they were making, people began showing up from farther away. Slowly, what was once a small shared-plates section became a multicourse tasting menu, and, as of last year, its own restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Ælder.
For Blackinton, as a farmer, the specificity of where each bite comes from provides the foundation of each dish. Oysters, served under a blanket of shaved frozen cucumber juice, are plucked from the sea just 344 yards away. The meat and produce travel about three miles from Maple Rock Farm.
“Gathering ingredients is the most important part of dinner service,” he explains as he sets down the sixth course: a whole pizza, topped with kale, cured egg yolk, and garlic capers.
The pizza serves as a bread course, an entertaining interlude, and a conversation piece. It comes to the table already in a box, both to retain flavor and to make it easy to take leftovers home. (Twelve-plus courses means limited stomach space.) By the time the diner finishes the last dish—today, a foie gras torchon with roasted quince paste—the pizza box returns to the table, carrying, perhaps, tomorrow’s breakfast. That breakfast, Blackinton hopes, will be enjoyed with a view of the water. Diners should dig into the place: “It gives context to what we’re doing.”
About an hour away by car and ferry sits Lopez Island, where chef Nick Coffey is on a similar mission at Kickstarter-funded Ursa Minor, which opened last spring. Here, the big windows, lofty ceiling, and thick wood beams invite guests to ignore the divide between indoors and out, echoing the restaurant’s goal of offering a literal and figurative taste of the island.
Only in its second season, Ursa Minor doesn’t have its own farm. Instead, Coffey mines the relationships he forged when he moved to the island from Seattle. Pigs, goats, lambs, and other large animals are sourced right here on Lopez, but the island doesn’t yet support a small-animal slaughter facility, so he brings in chicken and rabbit from the mainland. A local couple has spearheaded a movement toward growing grains on Lopez, but for the time being Coffey brings much of his grain across the strait from the Skagit Valley to a baker on Orcas, who makes the restaurant’s bread.
Still, Coffey’s food is a reflection of Lopez: In spring, a plate of dandelion greens hides an Easter egg of fresh goat cheese, and halibut rests atop potatoes crisp as the night air, awaiting a swipe through aioli. Even the butter offers unadvertised assets: smokiness from a literal roll in the (burning) hay, a touch of toasted yeast, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Each dish reads like Coffey’s personal map of the 15-mile-long island: “X” marks the salty sea lettuce, follow the dotted line to pick the sweetest carrots.
“In the city, consumers chase what’s new,” Coffey says. “Here, it takes time to build relationships.” For his core audience (around 2,500 people live on Lopez), he balances his own high-end dreams with a price point pegged at locals. “There’s a divide of people open to new experiences and people who just want dinner.”
Part of what makes these restaurants so specific to their locations is the pristine ingredients, but another part comes from their distance from population centers, which breeds a distinctly “island” mentality. “Part of the experience is taking a ferry, immersing yourself for the weekend,” says Coffey.
The isolation lures visitors, but it also breeds creativity at restaurants where deliveries don’t happen and where the flavor decisions start with planting and picking, rather than plating. The distance from Seattle isn’t a schlep or a downside; it’s a feature. Each island requires its own trip, its own exploration, its own wholehearted commitment from not only the chef but the diners. In return, they get a full taste of that island, exactly as it is that day.
“So often, restaurants have to exist where people are, and chefs only get to visit the farms,” Coffey says. “An hour ago, my feet were in the ocean.”