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Tracy O’Grady recently opened what she calls a “neighborhood restaurant” in Ballston: Willow. In this case, “neighborhood” means silverware dispensed from linen-draped platters, restaurateurs instead of waiters, and pizza—er, “grilled flatbread”—that smells of truffles.
“We have gotten very tired of not having a decent restaurant to go eat,” says O’Grady, who lives nearby in Falls Church with her husband and operations director, Brian Wolken. “On Monday and Tuesday nights, it’s hard to find a roast chicken.” Roasted chicken is the first entree listed on her own dinner menu, which is stocked with American classics rotated toward the high end by touches of French and Italian. O’Grady describes the style as “modern Continental.”
So you can expect such rib-sticking, plebey fare as fried cheese—but you can expect it as fontina-and-prosciutto fritters with an imported, smoked-paprika fondue. You can also get a rack of pork, though it doesn’t come to your plate without first passing through Milan: The pig is pounded, rubbed with dijon mustard and panko crumbs, and served still pink inside with ham-hock “jus.” This is what happens when a chef who worked under Yannick Cam, Roberto Donna, and, most recently, Bob Kinkead tries to imagine the haunts of the middle class. The prices aren’t on par with the average neighborhood restaurant, either—about $10 for appetizers, $22 for main courses—but don’t expect anyone around you to care.
In its second month of operation, the restaurant still needs to beat out a few lumps on the menu. The first courses can be great, like the Caesar with chopped lettuce, homemade croutons, and smoked gouda, or they can be like the “warm Seckel pear and drunken goat’s cheese tart” with endive, raw onion, whole hazelnuts, and aged sherry dressing. The flavors and textures flail everywhere inside the mouth—and I never want to chase a nut around a plate with my fork again. There’s also the diminishing returns of the flatbreads, corrugated sheets of tortillalike dough topped with anything from simple tomatoes and basil (the “Margarita”) to caramelized onions and buttermilk blue cheese (the “Blue Fire”). The queen of these alien items shares the name of the restaurant and mixes wild mushrooms with fontina, lemon zest, and white-truffle essence. The cheese hardens, the dough softens, and the heralded ’shrooms are sideswiped by a powerful blow of salt.
Not so with the mushroom ravioli, perhaps the best of the appetizers. The firm-edged pillows are pregnant with diced fungi, and the porcini-and-truffle emulsion they inhabit intensifies the earthiness of the dish, as do the accompanying veal sweetbreads. The cheese fritters are also tasty in a meatless version, made from riccota and zucchini: crispy golf balls with fluffy centers and a lemony bite. And with a few soups, O’Grady proves apt at matching flavor to season: There’s a sweet pumpkin bisque with nutmeg cream, plus the autumnal cheese-potato-and-ale standard, though of course a chef who placed in Lyon’s Bocuse d’Or competition isn’t going to use just one cheese: Here she deploys five.
Appearing sporadically throughout the restaurant, which occupies the bottom of an office building and recalls Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow tea rooms, are paintings of a wistful, pale-skinned dame. This is the Willow herself, a Klimtian fem logo symbolizing serenity, understated elegance—“most of the things that D.C. isn’t,” says O’Grady. Yet despite the estrogen coursing through her project—the co-owner is Kate Jansen, a founder of the Firehook Bakery—O’Grady can put together a fairly masculine-looking meal. Witness the steak au poivre: There’s a slab of peppercorn-crusted strip steak, a twice-baked potato, and a thicket of red-onion “crisps.” The roasted chicken arrives in a similarly simple presentation, with potato wedges and glazed carrots.
Given O’Grady’s decade at Kinkead’s, it’s not surprising the seafood at Willow excels. The tight-skinned block of salmon is paneled with a sheet of smoky, crumbly bacon. Disturb it and the flesh, as if pressurized, breaks apart into tender, buttery flakes. But the most interesting dish is neither fish nor fowl but humble legume: O’Grady’s beautiful-looking marinated-vegetable ragout. Rising from a pool of carrot sauce is a mountain of French green lentils, its sides draped with butter-poached artichoke hearts. At its peak is a phyllo beggar’s purse containing goat cheese, which, broken open and stirred around, unites the varied components with creaminess and tang.
Jansen’s desserts can be described in one word: busy. Jansen concocts such obsessive-compulsive wonders as a semolina pineapple cake with a web of crème anglaise and cassis syrup, with a blackberry flying a tiny mint sprig and a sweet wafer stuck into a dollop of spicy ginger ice cream. In fact, in a touch more reminiscent of a downtown restaurant, all the desserts seem to have some sort of cookie, crisp, or candy stuck into them, as if in anger. Even the custard-apple tart is no exception, placed among splashes of caramel and apricot sauce with a pulled-sugar leaf driven into it.
If this is neighborhood dining, it sure shows how far along the Ballston neighborhood has come. One night, the dignified man delivering our appetizers paused to introduce himself. A professional restaurateur of 25 years, he said, he remembered when there was nothing of class in the area. In fact, he had worked nearby at a kitschy Tex-Mex kitchen whose selling point was a robotic tortilla maker. “I jumped,” he said, “at the opportunity to work here.”
Then he reached down to switch an entree fork with the more proper salad fork.
Willow, 4301 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington. (703) 465-8800. —John Metcalfe
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.