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Off the Washington Coast, a Restaurant That Follows the North Star of Localism

Category: Lifestyle,Travel


At Ursa Minor, on Lopez Island, the menu relies heavily on the bounty of the island — but also on nontraditional ingredients.

Grilled summer vegetables with nasturtium, goat yogurt and salmon roe at Ursa Minor on Lopez Island.CreditCreditTrevor Eiler

Three hours by car and ferry from Seattle’s frenetic tech scene, Lopez Island pokes along at its own neighborly pace. Slow-pez, the affectionate nickname used by many of its 2,500 full-time residents, is the third largest of Washington state’s San Juan Islands. A single desultory village serves as hub for these 30 square miles of rolling farmland and evergreen forest bisected by two-lane roads, where passing motorists give each other a little wave. Everyone’s a neighbor on Lopez, even if you’re new to the island.

That certainly has been the experience of Nick Coffey and Nova Askue since moving full-time to Lopez and opening their restaurant, Ursa Minor, in April 2017. The couple, who wed on Lopez a month after the restaurant opened, have gotten to know plenty of Lopezians, especially those who fish, forage, raise livestock or grow fruits and vegetables.

At Ursa Minor, Ms. Askue handles the front of the house and other aspects of the business; Mr. Coffey’s menu offers a vision of a “creative agrarian Northwest cuisine” that relies heavily on the historic bounty of the island — from lamb, beef and oysters, to orchard fruits, wild berries and garden vegetables — but also on nontraditional ingredients like licorice fern root, cherry blossoms and reindeer moss.

“We’ll use just about anything from Lopez that comes our way,” said Mr. Coffey, who formerly cooked at Sitka & Spruce and other high-profile Seattle restaurants. “Just last week we grilled cattails brought to us by a woman who was digging up a pond.”

The fleeting availability of so many ingredients means the menu changes often, sometimes from one day to the next. But it also promotes nimble, mindful cooking, as I learned during dinner on a quiet Sunday in July. As twilight lingered for hours, washing the airy dining room in a rosy glow, two companions and I sampled widely from the menu’s 11 dishes.

Grilled oyster mushrooms, paired with a quivering raw egg yolk for dipping, were a surprise, acquiring a salty tang and surreal green color from their dusting of dried sea lettuce. Shiso and dried cranberries brightened golden-fried cauliflower on a rich bed of walnut purée, and we made quick work of sockeye salmon sprinkled with marigold petals and resting in a shallow, foamy pool of horseradish-infused buttermilk. Our dessert distilled summer itself: blueberry ice cream, flavor-boosted by its coating of dried blueberry powder, alongside glistening ruby strawberries and crackers of toasted meringue.

A pared-down, modern Northwest vibe pervades the 45-seat dining room, which occupies a wood-and-glass building in the village with a wisteria-draped, 16-seat patio. Bunches of dried herbs hang from exposed roof timbers, and large windows overlook boats bobbing at moorings. Simple wooden tables are set with glasses and stoneware crafted by Seattle artisans, while diners sit in wooden chairs inspired by Danish midcentury design.

Nick Coffey and Nova Askue, the owners of Ursa Minor.CreditCharity Burggraaf

For Mr. Coffey and Ms. Askue, Ursa Minor is the culmination of a long journey that began when the two native Midwesterners met at art school in Milwaukee more than 10 years ago before moving to Seattle and then Lopez. The couple’s choice of a constellation for their restaurant’s name ties into their focus on the natural world, they said, but the name appealed to them for an additional reason. “The constellation includes the North Star,” said Mr. Coffey, “the star that guides travelers to their destination.”

Ursa Minor, 210 Lopez Road; 360-622-2730; ursaminorlopez.com. An average dinner for two, without drinks and tip, is $100.

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