Willow, Ballston, VA

(See the December 20, 2010 Review here.)

The last time I had dinner at Willow, I swore that on the next visit, I’d break away from the $5 bar menu which had been seducing me for awhile now.

Emboldened by a Groupon, I drank more expensive wines than I’d normally order (and I’m glad I did), and got a standard appetizer-entree combination. The friendly, efficient bartender, Jim Malfatti, took care of me during dinner – I really like Jim, and it says a lot about Willow that he’s been here for so long.

I started with a glass of 2008 Keuntz-Bas Riesling from Alsace. It had been months since I’d enjoyed an Alsatian Riesling, and this made me realize how much I’ve missed them. It seemed to be a natural fit with an appetizer of Scottish Smoked Salmon with Potato Latkes ($11.50), horseradish cream, mixed beets, cucumber, and dill, but the wine pretty much stole the show. For some reason, I had a picture in my mind of a couple homey, pancake-sized latkes, the salmon perhaps draped atop them, but this was pretty much just a few pieces of decent smoked salmon, with a few room-temperature, obviously pre-prepped mini-latkes strewn onto the plate alongside the other components. I’ve noticed in the past that the prep work in Willow’s kitchen is more obvious than at most restaurants, and this was a glaring example of that (it may be coincidental, but when Tracy O’Grady is present (she wasn’t on this evening), the kitchen seems to be able to pull this aspect off with a little more subtlety). The latkes turned an “okay” dish (smoked salmon is rarely special) into a disappointing one that I probably wouldn’t order again.

Salvation came with the entree, however, and also with my glass of 2009 Raptor Ridge Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley which was, to my consternation, served at room temperature. All was forgiven with the Sausage Crusted Rack of Pork ($28.50), a big, bold cut of thick, ham-like meat concealing a decadent little smoked potato-and-gouda tart, broccolini, caramelized onions, and ham hock “jus.” I’m a sucker for well-done holiday dinners (because they’re so rarely well-done), and this was Easter on a plate for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, warm Pinot Noir and all, and finished every bite with gusto.

Willow had a couple of flaws on this evening, but still remains an underrated restaurant on the internet, and I’m not quite sure why. There is an older clientele here, and when I think about the other restaurants in town with a similar demographic, they’re not discussed much either. It’s a shame, because Willow’s product deserves to be scrutinized, reviewed, and talked about, as well as being simply enjoyed.

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