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

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