By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
What’s an ideal brief vacation?
A one-day trip with terrific food, seeing old friends, and smelling the ocean will be my criteria. Where would that be? “See Pam Schell (former first lady of Seattle) on Whidbey Island” swam across my brain unexpectedly. On May 27, my husband and I took the 20-minute ferry ride from Mukilteo to the Clinton terminal, south of Whidbey.
I got to know Pam and the late Paul Schell when he was elected as the 50th mayor of Seattle (1998-2002). He died of a heart attack in 2014. Pam had worked with us on the Women of Color Empowered committee.
The late Schell was successful in developing several projects in Seattle and Whidbey, including the 28-room Inn at Langley. He was instrumental in providing the funding structure for the Seattle downtown library and several branches, including the International District branch.
I called Pam to let her know we were coming to stay at her Inn. She suggested we have dinner there.
“It’s a special 13-course dinner in our restaurant, Fridays and weekends only,” Pam said.
My mouth instantly watered when I heard that. I never expect small towns to have great food. (I might get some protest mail from some small-town folks, just like when I wrote about how boring Yakima was years ago.) My sole purpose was to see Pam. Any new experiences would be a bonus.
I assumed the meal would feature salad, soup, chicken, pork, beef, salmon, and two vegetables items, one of each to comprise eight of the 13 courses. I was right about only one item — the salmon. The way the Inn presented the salmon with ham stock, lemon balm, and asparagus delighted us. Asparagus and salmon are not my choices for meals. But Chef Matt Costello wowed me with a piece of moist and juicy salmon (most restaurants slab sauces onto fish to cover its overcooked flaw). The asparagus was trimmed at its stalk to expose a color contrast from head to end, enhancing its internal flavor with an unusual texture.
Costello and his five-member team amazed the guests with their creation on the table — every dish was wonderful — the magic never ended. And I have to conclude that Costello possesses the talents in “Chinese” and American cooking skills with a Northwest flair. More on his Chinese approach towards food later.
You walk through a splendid European-style garden with blooming flowers of purple, red, pink, and white, before you enter the restaurant’s door. A fireplace serves as the partition between the dining room and the waiting area.
The grand open kitchen lies in front like a stage, where guests can watch the chef and his team prepare dinner. We sat at a long table like royalty, facing the kitchen. The table was nicely set up with all of our names. The atmosphere was relaxing and intimate. There were about 30-plus guests, including families, couples, singles, and friends, sharing the same menu.
At 7:10 p.m., the presentation of the feast began. Chef Costello welcomed the guests and explained some of the ingredients and the cuisine. Simply, it’s both a dinner and a show. I was surprised that he and other chefs also served the guests. This was critical as food sitting a minute too long becomes dry, losing it freshness and tastiness.
I can sum up the evening in this way: “OMG! Wow!”
Costello said he used common ingredients, things I never would have thought to use. He took ordinary things, and turned them into extraordinary dishes.
The labor-intensive entrees were meticulously prepared with colorful items chopped into fine and tiny pieces, beautifully decorated on the plate like a piece of art.
The two appetizers were (shredded) razor clams, snap peas, preserved lemons, and camouflage (with thin slices of seaweed); and molasses bay leaf bread with crème fraiche and chives. I was so glad the servings were small because my stomach needed room for the other 10 courses. The crème fraiche tasted so light (since no thickeners were used), I didn’t feel it was rich cream.
The guests were given exotic silverware for every item served. The restaurant’s silverware collection was also a piece of art. One set of spoons was made of mother pearl. Pam told me that one of the chef’s hobbies was shopping on eBay. Yes, he bought a lot of silverware for the restaurant.
The next item was fried skate, dill mayonnaise, capers, and beer foam. I have prepared skate in the past, but it didn’t turn out like Costello’s. You wouldn’t have known there was beer in this dish if you didn’t read the menu. He told us that he taught himself to cook and he likes to experiment with everyday ingredients.
I talked to other guests and they all loved the biscuit, marionberry jam, and aerated bacon fat. I am not a fan of jam because it’s loaded with sugar. But I finished all the jam with the biscuit because it was so good and not too sweet.
Cold foie gras (a duck liver product), rhubarb, and verjus (acidic juice) jelly was another delicious piece. I hate rhubarb pie because it tastes so rhubarb-y. Costello surprised me, though. I couldn’t resist scraping up all the rhubarb juices left on the dish.
So there was no chicken, pork, or beef on the menu. Instead, Costello cooked us quail, day lily bulb, fava beans, and vadouvan (blend of spices). I have long forgotten my favorite childhood snack of fava beans. And I enjoyed every single one on my plate.
Costello was smart that he didn’t use chicken or other kinds of meat, which would have been too much for a 13-course meal. Instead, he chose quail, a tiny bird even smaller than Chinese roast squab. He marinated the quail for four hours with soy and honey. This is similar to Chinese barbecue. It tasted so exquisite, no words can do it justice. Inside the tiny quail was stuffed mushroom and veggies, surrounded by day lily bulb and beans. Imported from China, lily bulb has a lot of health benefits, according to my mother. I raved about the bulbs and Costello gave me a few to take home.
Costello is fantastic about cooking everything with the right amount of heat and time. This is the secret in Chinese cooking — never overcook anything. And Costello did just that for all the dishes. Bravo.
There were three desserts. I was so stuffed that I could consume only one — strawberries, chamomile, and custard. I have used chamomile for tea, never for cooking. This inspires me to try out many of the ingredients Costello had used in my own cooking. Regrettably, I had to give up the giant and oversized tonka bean truffle, even though I love chocolate. I would have taken it home if I could. The chocolate sauce melted as soon as it was served. Costello also used liquid nitrogen to prepare one of the desserts and white smoke was all over the counter, adding drama and fun to the three-hour dinner.
I like the fact that most of the food Costello cooks are from the Northwest. Even some of the wine used and served were from Washington and Oregon.
The dinner costs $145 per person, plus a 19 percent tip. Considering the amount of food, labor, effort, service, creativity, and planning for the dinner, it is a worthwhile experience.
Pam upgraded our room to a cottage facing the ocean, which consists of a spacious bedroom, living room, balcony, and a splendid garden that the room next door also had access to. Since there was no one staying in the other room, we had the garden all to ourselves. How heavenly!
Built in 1989, The Inn reflects the heart and soul of the Schells, in showcasing their special boutique hotel.
It’s their pride and also the pride of the Langley community.
When Schell died suddenly of a heart attack, many Islanders were shocked and saddened. They gave Pam hugs on the streets and other public places.
Pam joined us for dinner and breakfast the next morning before we left. She is adjusting well to her life without Paul. She is taking care of the business and staying active in the community. Of course, she still misses him.
I have no memory of what the island looked like when I was there four decades ago. Unlike national parks jammed with millions of visitors each year, the island had few people in its Fort Casey State Park and towns, even though the ferry terminal was packed. Gazing at the ocean, I felt rejuvenated and calm. Visiting Whidbey Island turned out to be my perfect vacation, which was really surprising.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.