A Trio Grows in Arlington
At Willow, three Washington restaurant veterans sink new roots across the Potomac
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 11, 2005
It's easy to picture myself in Washington when I'm refueling at Willow in Arlington: Every other employee there seems to conjure a memory of a restaurant visit in the District.
The suit at the host stand resembles the former chef from Butterfield 9, Brian Wolken, because that's who he is (though he's director of operations here). The woman behind the pastry counter, Kate Jansen, might be familiar to those who frequent Firehook Bakery, which she helped launch. As for the diminutive brunette who occasionally strolls from the kitchen to scan her audience in the dining room, that's Tracy O'Grady, the longtime chef at Kinkead's.
The recipe sounds like a hit: Three ambitious food professionals, all intimates -- Wolken and O'Grady married in the restaurant when it opened in September -- striking out on their own. Reality can nurture that happy vision, and when it does, Willow tastes like a major player. The kitchen's rib-eye steak, showered with winy mushrooms, is about as succulent as they come. When reality is less rosy at Willow -- when wine is served warm or yet another dish turns up underseasoned -- the restaurant's little annoyances swell into focus: The dining room that initially strikes you as neutral, for example, suddenly comes off as impersonal, even boring.
The stone oven off the reception area is a silent suggestion to begin a meal with something warm and crisp: one of Jansen's flatbreads. "Great to share!" promises the menu. "Watch the elbows!" It should also warn diners of the flatbreads' powers of seduction. The big rectangles look like topographical maps, all bumps and craters, and serve as tasty backdrops to some enticing toppings. As much as I like the combination of sharp blue cheese, sweet onions and fresh thyme, even better is the mix of wild mushrooms, chives, fontina cheese and white truffel oil. The oil is used with restraint, its earthy perfume cleverly evened out with lemon zest after the baked dough is pulled from the heat.
That same interplay of heavy and light shows up in a Caesar salad rethought with shredded smoked gouda and lemon zest, its base of chopped romaine garnished with a single shiny anchovy and some house-baked croutons. The salad's equals in the beauty department are a bowl of ultracreamy butternut squash soup and an appetizer of smoked salmon. The pink fish is sliced so thin you could read through it, and it gets some swell company: a salad of diced beets, a lacy potato cake, plus accents of fresh dill and horseradish-laced creme fraiche. Sheer elegance.
O'Grady tends to underseason her food. Fortunately, she also tends to stick something on the plate to rescue the center of attention. Bland on their own, ricotta and zucchini fritters are helped by a brassy dip of roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Similarly, fritters made with fontina -- akin to fried mozzarella sticks with a little class -- are enhanced by a tomato dip emboldened by smoked paprika. A juicy but otherwise muted pork chop does a Prince Philip, letting its consorts -- an herby onion compote and elegant, nutmeg-scented spinach tartlet -- bask in the limelight of diner appreciation. A first course of potato gnocchi in a Parmesan-flavored cream sauce, however, can't get a kick-start even from its prosciutto-wrapped shrimp garnish. The dish is a bland, one-note endurance contest.
Judging from the menus of many restaurants, I have to agree with vegetarians who complain about carnivores having all the fun. I'd be upset, too, if my entree choices were limited to pasta or a pile-on of side dishes on a plate. Willow helps remedy that slight with a couple of meatless main courses that show some thought. Leading the way: a bed of creamy lentils accessorized with buttery artichoke halves, ringed in a bright carrot sauce and crowned with a beggar's purse of molten goat cheese. The earthy legumes, the sweet moistener, the clutch of tangy cheese -- each element supports and flatters the others.
Fish dishes channel O'Grady's time at Kinkead's. Herb-paved salmon comes with escorts that bite and soothe: broccoli rabe and a creamy cauliflower gratin. Halibut assumes a Mediterranean accent with olives and a broth of tomato and citrus. It's satisfying. But this time of year I'm partial to anything the chef might make with scallops.
O'Grady frequently tweaks her menu, swapping one ingredient for another or adding a new element. One dish that merits permanent residence is roast chicken, which forsakes the usual restaurant glamour treatment for something homier and infinitely more seductive. The chicken's skin, thin and crisp as parchment, yields to equally succulent flesh; credit for all the savor goes to an under-skin massage of lemon and thyme. Soft, sweet coins of carrot, a light wash of sauce and wrinkly fingers of roasted potato complete the edible picture.
Willow, which replaced the saloon known as Gaffney's Oyster and Ale House, won't dazzle you with its looks. Despite an infusion of $600,000, the 7,500-square-foot space is pretty plain, with several tables set at odd angles or smack in the middle of heavy traffic. Red curtains and muted lighting help, but neither feature is enough to compensate for a room that feels as if it's only half-decorated.
Dessert helps, particularly anything using fruit. Jansen arranges apples in a fine tart shell, gilding the treat with caramel sauce; she partners a port-glazed pear with pastry made with ground walnuts and topped with a layer of blue cheese -- the sweet and savory flavors duel for attention in your mouth. Creamy pumpkin mousse cake gets a nice lift from cranberry jam. And the pastry chef's cookie plate finds a hit parade of flavors accompanied by something better even than a cold glass of milk: buttered almond ice cream.