Friday, May 31, 2013


In the space that used to be part of the Nabisco Factory, Willow Road is a humble little nook tucked between two culinary behemoths, Mario Batali's Del Posto and Colicchio & Sons.  Our proximity here to the meatpacking district guides the restaurant more than does her neighbors, however.  Reviews I read online were positive if not particularly astute, and the hostess perkily boasted about mentions in Page Six.  Well, I don't care who eats here: I care who makes it and how good it is made.  That said, the executive chef (who was not there on my visit) is Todd MacDonald, a prior colleague of  Shea Gallante (whom I admire greatly) at Cru before its closing.   In his stead was Grayson Shmitz  (chef de cuisine), who came out to visit the only sizable party in attendance- apparently friends or family- the rest of her time spent manning the burners in the open kitchen.  We arrived at 7:30pm to a virtually empty room, appealing a space though it was.

Lots of mirrors and white tile combined with rough-hewn wood and neon lighting give the room a very unique appearance, and not at all unattractive.  The waitstaff looks straight out of Portland, in flannel shirtsleeves and jeans, a bit unkempt, perhaps,  but appealingly just as un-uptight.  That is, the bartender and hostess.  Our server just kind of seemed as if he didn't really give a rip.   We chose a table near the window, where the light was a bit more spirited and we could watch the passersby on 10th Avenue.  If there had been many.  Given the holiday weekend and lovely Sunday evening that it was, I'm guessing most were already enjoying other al fresco destinations, which could account, in part, for the lack of clientele.

At long last, our server finally brought a refreshing Willow Fresca, a brisk concoction of  lemon and peach with gin and a splash of sparkling wine ($14).  The cocktails run that price on up, but they are an attractive set.   The menu describes itself as American classics with modern technique, which about sums it up.  After another extensive wait,  he returned to get our food order, and finally to provide our appetizer: a warm artichoke and fregola salad studded with bits of tomato and vibrant fava beans. The artichokes were particularly flavorful, and the pasta well balanced and toothsome: a successful if not wildly memorable dish.  Would we like toast with that?  Why, yes- toast is always pleasant.  If you want to pay for the bread, order it along with the "hunk of aged cheddar" from the Bites section of the menu.

First up, buttermilk fried chicken, enlivened with jerk spices and a sweet touch of orange blossom honey.   But then, there had better be something interesting going on with the chicken because that's all your getting: three burnished pieces in a paper lined bucket.  We requested ketchup alongside, which turned out to be Sir Kensington's Spiced.  I thought this a little weird: when you ask for ketchup, normally you just want regular ketchup, but given that it was S.K.'s it's always delicious, regardless.

A side of brussels sprouts, out of season though they are, were solidly prepared, roasted tender and moistened with brown butter and lemon in quite a fetching combination.  Very welcome with the lonely pieces of bird, too.    A skate roulade was cheffier, featuring three meaty furls sprinkled with pickly spring onions atop a smear of pureed green garlic.  Even this, however, wanted for the brussels (or the potatoes, raw kale salad, or beluga lentils that were on the menu as other side dish options) to round things out, as the dish was a little stark.  But the prices are reasonable enough, which frankly was most of the reason I chose this place.  All the restaurants that are sprouting up right now seem to have forgotten what a shambles the economy is still in... entrees verging on $40 in places that appear like weeknight dining options.  I don't know.  Makes me appreciate places like Da Marcella and Bar Ciccio that are producing EXCEPTIONAL food at startling reasonable prices.  Aside from the pricey cocktails, Willow Road is relatively affordable if you order smartly.   Especially if you're accustomed to tipping in accordance with the level of service, you won't have to dig too deep to match it.

Without further attention from our waiter, we finished our mains and chatted a bit, I visited the restroom, and still when I returned out plates had still not yet been cleared.  A bit more of a wait and
they finally were, and a dessert inquiry made.  There are no dessert menus, just three options briefly described: a sticky toffee puddings, a deep fried Snickers bar, and a chocolate-peanut butter cheesecake.  (Somebody's apparently forgotten bikini season is approaching).  Strangely, after acknowledging the Snickers with a disdained snicker, they provided us with one to try, anyways. It was... well, a deep fried Snickers bar.  Crusted in a crunchy golden sheath, the warmed candy bar was a bit leaden for my tastes.  I'm not sure who wants a candy bar, let alone deep fried, after a full meal.  But then again, this is, technically, the meatpacking district.  Atop a bed of cookie crumbs next to it was a smooth scoop of vanilla ice cream that paired well
with the toffee pudding that we DID order.  Although I preferred the ice cream to pair with the intensely sweet cake, it came pooled in a rich, sticky caramel sided with a dollop of somewhat deflated whipped cream.   Coffee arrived midway through dessert, and taken black, helped counter some of the extreme saccharine of the sugary desserts.

Willow Road is a funny contrast to its immediate neighbors.  Sandwiched between two acmes of exceptional service and exquisite cuisine, and then this little trendy nugget of faux-foodieism betwixt the two.  Transplant it to another neighborhood with a greater passerby traffic, and I'd say it had a good chance for success.  Here, they may need to step up their game a bit, and definitely sharpen the service, unless they  can lure the party set from the nearby clubs.  And it certainly remains a welcome financial respite from the wallet-strainers next door.

85 10th Avenue

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Trust no one.  No one but the chefs... and subsequently, me.  I had it from two (now acknowledged as extremely unreliable) sources that L'Apicio wasn't "all that", and had thus sort of taken it off my list.  Then I ran into Joe Campanale, the beverage director for the quartet of Epicurean Management restaurants in the city, who assured me it would be worth my while.  So I headed east, to that unlikely little cusp of
the East Village on the Bowery that has become quite a dining mecca: Freeman's Alley, Peels, Pearl & Ash, etc., etc.   Their first restaurant, dell'anima, made a top ten list of mine that provided my first baby steps into the exploration of gastronomic New York.  Their second, L'Artusi, is named after the historic tome of the art and science of eating well, Italian-style.  L'Apicio, too, is a culinary book, this one from the 18th century which featured the first use of tomatoes in pasta sauce.  Had I known this, I would focused my ordering more intently on the primi, but having experienced chef Gabe Thompson's expertise elsewhere, I just went with ordering whatever sounded good.  And lots sounded good.... and luckily, everything that sounded good lived up to its reputation.

We started with a nibble of savory flatbread crackers served with a plush cloud of whipped ricotta refreshed by a tangy muddle of jammy rhubarb confit... ahh, 'tis the season.  The dessert-averse (those that might finish a meal with a cheese plate instead of a sweet, might find this a fetching finale).

 Next up, another harbinger of spring prevailed in an appetizer of  juicy, svelte asparagus, grilled with bold evidence of char into a supple tenderness, easing languidly across the plate to rest their tips in a luscious, caper-flecked lemon aioli surrounded by tufts of frisee.  Grilled endive
was tempting too, although this version was just-seared to retain its crispness, and having a current fetish for endive braised mushy within an inch of its life,  I went for the warm mushroom salad instead, featuring chewy morsels of shiitake amongst more frisee.  Chewy slices of shiitake nestled with nuggets of roasted hazelnuts underneath a dense veil of shaved parmesan wafers, forming a haphazard igloo-like dome over the salad.

There are over a dozen pastas and four polenta preparations, more than half of which I'm guessing involve tomatoes in their saucings.  Now that I know from whence L'Apicio is derived, a return visit would involve a bucatini with shrimp and ramps, or perhaps polenta with rabbit cacciatore- maybe even the untomato-ified gnocchi with morels.  The variety is expansive.  But thus far, our samplings had been strangely un-specifically-Italian.  Not incongruous, in the least, but just as suitable at perhaps a New American or even modern French as an Italian named after the institution of classic red sauces.  Anyways, we continued on in just that vein, with a special LaFrieda burger.
His signature blend of beef was shrouded with a melty slice of pearly  Fontina and scattered with pickled shallots.  It is quite possibly a perfect burger.  And on the side arrive a boat-load of home fries, these more of the French-Canadian bear-trapper ilk than any little skinny steak-frites-esque french fry.  I wouldn't have been surprised had they been clad in flannels and sturdy suspenders.  Their exterior was rustic, crunchy, salty, and the insides sweet and tender- smooth as mashed potatoes.  All this, served with a dense salsa bianco which was anything but bianco and much too thick to be categorized as salsa.  Instead a dense creme fraiche stained ruddy with copious amounts of dried peperoncini  and chives, delicious on the fries, on the burger, by the spoonful...   I digress.  On a lighter note, the sauteed

 halibut was sauteed a little too vigorously, leaving the filet a bit tough and at odds with the delicate herb brodo and bright ribbons of shaved raw vegetables that adorned it.  Had the fish been more gently cooked, it would've harmonized with
its subtle accoutrements.  Instead, the sturdy filet could've held up to heartier bedfellows (perhaps even that red sauce?)
 It wasn't too disappointing, however, because it arrived simultaneously with a side of brussels sprouts with speck.  These were so decadent, fried to a deep russet and studded with thick chunks of meaty bacon and crispy leaves of sage, that they would've been hard to pair with that fish executed properly or not.   I decided to fixate on the sprouts, and the slightly overcooked fish took second hat.  These are snacky sprouts.. eat them more like potato chips, less like a virtuous vegetable.  They share the nutritional profile of the former, but a few bites are sure tasty.

Polishing all that off left little room for more than a green tea for my dining companion and and a short espresso for myself-  until I saw that Vanilla Semifreddo with rhubarb and orange cake on the menu.  You wait eleven months out of the year for rhubarb, so once a night, when the opportunity presents itself for twice, is not enough.  This might be my favorite dessert I've had since Jansen Chan's ethereal apricot souffle I was fortunate enough to experience at the old Oceana.  I didn't even think I liked souffle until that.  I know I liked semifreddos, that wonderful temperature purgatory 'twixt frozen and tepid, a consistency neither here nor there but simultaneously exactly as it should be at the same time.  The moist round of orange cake sat beneath the vanilla pillow crowned by a small orb of rhubarb sorbet, all surrounded by a tangy moat of  rhubarb compote, perfectly portioned and brilliantly satifsying: creamy and luxe yet fresh and vibrant.  This is the stuff sugar plum fairies dream of.

Was it particularly Italian?  Maybe not the meal I had, no... delicious though it was.  The room is  spacious at least as big as both dell'anima and L'Artusi put together. It's decor, with glowing, laser-cut orbs and lofty bouquets, could easily suit the cuisine of either nation.  And it was busily full, as it should have been for food this good.  You can easily put together an Italian repast at L'Apicio, or bend it New American like I did.  But regardless of its denomination, you'll be having a fine, fine meal.

13  East First Street
tel.  1.212.533.7400