Plaudits: Washingtonian 2010 #39, Washingtonian 2008 #54, 2009 RAMMY Winner - Kate Jansen, Pastry Chef of the Year
With an expiring Groupon in hand, and a need for a restaurant before our movie date, Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I headed out to Ballston to have dinner at Willow.
Willow sits in the side of a office complex on Fairfax Drive, in an otherwise nondescript section of Ballston. As a high-end restaurant in an otherwise restaurant-barren part of the suburbs, Willow tries to be many things at once. Walking in, you approach the patio, then a bar/lounge, with a few couches, a ten-seat bar, and a row of half-booth two- and four-tops. The walls are crimson red, with maple brown and black accents, lit barely by track lighting and some large red globular light fixtures, which produce a soft orange glow.
But walk further, and a whole new vibe emerges. The restaurant becomes much more white cloth and much more conventional, with sunlight streaming in from the large windows to the courtyard. Still, some common themes emerge: iron work on the walls, shelves with candles, and dark grey accent walls. In general, there's a mild buzz to the space which ebbs and flows but never fully dies down. Service was slow and inattentive at some points; the server was quick to get our orders in, but otherwise impossible to find as the meal went on.
To start, Texas and I split an appetizer: the duo of soft shell crab and jumbo lump crab cake, set atop a corn pancake and a bed of peas, corn, radish, and corn sauce. The overwhelming feeling from the two of us was one of "meh." To wit, it wasn't horrible, but it didn't inspire anything other than the feeling of eating. The crab was rendered without any flavor but itself; if I had to pick a singularly memorable flavor from the dish, it would be the corn pancake. All things considered, sort of a disappointment.
For the main course, I indulged in the gluttonous sausage-crusted rack of pork, which came flanked by a potato and smoked gouda tart, and broccolini caramellized onions, all in a ham hock jus. Here was the promise of meat and it delivered, a generous two ribs of pork meat encased in a layer of sausage and ultimately resulting in a dish that would make Scooby envious. All the same, it seemed like a bit much and came across like that, a mix of flavors that was more interesting in name than in combination. It was tasty, but never got past the sort of carnival appeal that sandwiching meat in more meat projects.
Texas went with the roasted Norwegian salmon, paired with butter poached lobster agnolotti, and a ragout of corn, peas, fava beans, and roasted tomato. This dish, much like the others, was fine but with almost no flashes of brilliance. The lobster was blah, more mushy than buttery and therefore stripped of any flavor to make it remarkable. The salmon was good, but not anything that couldn't be recreated by an experienced home chef. So, on some level, if the job of the restaurant is to add value, it wasn't clear if this dish did it.
Dessert was the place where we thought the restaurant would shine, based on the well-advertised bags of cookies to go we saw passed around. We ordered the passionfruit cheesecake, which definitely wasn't mis-sold; the passionfruit flavor came across strongly, with a clear tartness to the whole dish. Somewhat enjoyable, but definitely a flavor that got tired. Still, those cookies did look good.
A few missteps, and considering the plaudits and the distance necessary to get there, probably not somewhere I'd find myself again.
Food Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Classy Crowd
Vibe: Energetic to Noisy
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: Jump into the Ballston Commons mall, or grab a movie at the Ballston Common Cinema 12.