A love story with food at Willow.
If there ever was such thing as a restaurant fairy tale, this would be as close as you could get. Willow restaurant located in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, VA (4301North Fairfax Dr.) debuted almost five years ago in September with the marriage, literally of two culinary visions. On the opening day of Willow, chef and co-owner Tracy O’Grady was escorted down her restaurant’s aisle by her mentor, Bob Kinkead where she was joined in matrimony to Brian Wolken, former chef from Butterfield 9. According to a New York Times article, precisely 70 minutes after saying ‘I do’ O’Grady, still wearing her white satin-and-chiffon wedding dress, was in her new kitchen preparing to serve the 350 guests who had been invited to sample Willow’s cuisine. Most people understand how stressful your wedding can be, but to open a restaurant on the same day? “Many people said we were crazy for doing this,” O’Grady told the New York Times reporter.
It’s been nearly five years since their opening … it’s a good sign that Willow is still going strong since at least four restaurants have come and gone at that site in 15 years, including Bistro Bistro and Gaffney’s Restaurant Oyster & Ale House. Willow’s cuisine style is described as modern continental and Chef O’Grady prides herself on using the freshest ingredients featuring local produce, meat, and grains while incorporating classic French and Italian influences.
I visited Willow once for dinner once in 2006 but Restaurant Week lunch was my first opportunity to return. Their Restaurant Week three course prix-fixe menu included many choices for each course. For the appetizers, there were five choices, two of which were vegetarian. All of the dishes were excellent seasonal dishes that showcased the bounty of the summer season and included locally sourced ingredients. Some of the choices included the Yellow Tomato and Yellow Pepper Bisque with traditional Tomato Bruschetta with Basil, or the Fried Green Tomatoes with Dilly Beans and Shrimp and a spicy Remoulade or the Liberty Town Flat Bread with Mustard Barbecue Sauce, Smoked Pork Shoulder, Smoked Mozzarella, and Cheddar and Pickled Onions. I was told recently by a friend who is a chef that chef O’Grady was one of the first chefs in the area to put flat bread on a menu. I ordered the local Heirloom Tomato Salad with Mascarpone Basil Mousse, Herb Vinaigrette, Balsamic Gastrique and Garlic Croutons. The salad was perfectly seasoned and was quite vivid. While the yellow tomatoes added color to the dish, it’s not the only thing that it contributed. The yellow tomatoes taste sweeter and less-tart taste because they have a higher proportion of sugar, which often masks the acidic flavor. The vinaigrette also helped to balance the acidic tomatoes. The Mascarpone Basil Mousse was silky, smooth, and tasted like fresh basil picked from my garden. The house-made croutons added a nice crunch to several bites. It was the perfect portion for a first course; however, I did not really share any like I normally would. My husband doesn’t like tomatoes. He calls them the devil’s fruit. His loss.
My husband ordered the Cucumber and Avocado Gazpacho with Crispy Yucca Chip with Lemony Greek Yogurt. This dish, like the Heirloom tomato salad is a very light and refreshing summertime dish. I ignored the fact that I know that avocado is very high in fat; otherwise, the dish is very healthy. The cucumber and avocado gave the soup a nice bright green color and there was just a hint of purple from a few red onions. Again, the soup was a perfect portion for a first course and I don’t think most soups are designed for sharing. We did; however, ask for a second spoon so that I could try it. The gazpacho tasted more like cucumber and less like avocado, which I expected, and I enjoyed the texture from the shaved green onions, fresh cucumber cubes on crunchy red onions. The Lemony Greek Yogurt was tart but was a nice accompaniment to the spoonfuls it touched. I imagine that the recipe also included lime juice and perhaps some red wine vinegar. Perhaps Chef O’Grady will share the recipe with the world one day. Interestingly enough, guests can find some of her recipes at the hostess stand as you pass the bar/lounge area. I picked up the recipe for both the Corn Ricotta Pancakes and the Creamy Orzo and English Pea Risotto.
After being pleased with my first course, it made me even that much more excited for
the main course. I ordered the Parmesan Crusted Swordfish Medallions with Barley and Zucchini Risotto, Broccoli Rabe and Smoked Tomato Butter. The dish was beautifully presented and there were so many different components on the plate, each with a different texture that it’s almost difficult to choose where to start. The Barley and Zucchini Risotto was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and the creamy supple texture was an excellent accompaniment alongside the crispy coating of the fish. In my opinion, perfectly cooked risotto should not be crunchy or sticky enough to cling to a spoon or fork, nor should it be so watery that it runs off the plate. Surprisingly the Broccoletti, which is slightly bitter, has a texture that is hardly similar to our common friend, Broccoli. I usually only see Broccoli Rabe with heartier dishes, but it was delectable. The Swordfish was tender, flaky, and juicy yet the Parmesan crusted coating was crunchy. The Swordfish had a mildly sweet flavor and a moist, meaty texture. I loved every bite and the portion size was very generous. My husband ordered the Ratatouille and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Summer Squash Corn Pancake, Sauteed Spinach and Yellow Pepper Vinaigrette. Since I am allergic to peppers, I didn’t really have the opportunity to taste the dish.
Desserts are the creation of Pastry Chef Kate Jansen, who co-founded the Firehook Bakeries in 1992 which W magazine ranked it one of the Top five bakeries in the world. I had the Chilled Lemon Souffle with Blackberry Whipped Cream. It was served in a panna cotta glass, and since panna cotta is a very popular summer dessert, I’ve had quite a bit lately. The Lemon Souffle was creamy and refreshing. The fresh blackberries, syrup, and whipped cream were rich and sweet and helped to balance the sourness of the lemon in the Souffle.
My husband ordered the Passion Fruit Meringue Tart with Strawberry Sauce. A scoop of fresh strawberry sorbet adjacent to the meringue was pierced with a golden crescent shaped cookie drizzled with strawberry sauce. My husband insisted that his was the better of the two desserts and I generally agreed. I was intrigued by the fact that Chef Jansen changes her dessert menu daily with a “Layer Cake” du jour. Our server told us that the layer cake was a walnut cake instead of an almond, or the other way around. He got confused and corrected himself so now I can’t remember what he said. Either way, I’m sure it was scrumptious. I’m looking forward to recommending Willow to my friends and readers.
Also, an even better deal than Restaurant Week, of which Willow is extending another week until August 28th, is that Chef O’Grady offers many wonderful small plates on her bar menu for an unbeatable pice — just $5. Try Crispy Fried Crab or Pork Rolls with Mustard CrÃ¨me Fraiche and Spicy Soy-Lime Vinaigrette, Miniature Fish & Chips, Hot Crab & Artichoke Dip, or Salmon Sliders. For the vegetarians, enjoy Portobello Mushroom “Fries” or Warm Gruyere Cheese Puffs.