April 24, 2003

Finger Lake 'n Good

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In hospitality, restaurants are often associated with theatre, through an experience that is composed by the restaurateur. At Willow, chef/owner Sean O’Brien, and his wife Amy orchestrate a dining experience that is like no other in Ithaca. Their goal is to simply, “express themselves,” by offering a methodical style of service and innovative cuisine. This goal is accomplished nightly, Monday through Saturday, for dinner only.

The restaurant, located at the north end of Tioga Street next to Fall Creek Cinemas, offers contemporary American cuisine accompanied by American wines at a reasonable price. Appetizers include a soup, three salads, bruchetta, and three seafood plates ranging in price from $6 to $11. Entrees include fresh fish (filleted as well as whole), quail, steak, chicken, pork, and fresh pasta. Prices for entrees range from $16 to $22. Exquisite desserts, made with everything from fruit to chocolate, are priced at $6.50 each. Willow also offers a 3-course, $25 pre-theater menu, which includes a ticket to the show at Fall Creek Cinemas, from 5:00 to 6:15 PM.

Inside the restaurant, a simple yet elegant atmosphere awaits the diner, with artwork on the walls, and stylish, upbeat music in the air. Willow defines its image by using white tablecloths and glassware on the tables, while offering a casual, comfortable ambiance, instead of a stuffy, unwelcoming one, which is sometimes perceived when one simply looks through the window and never actually steps inside. The dining room is separated into two areas of the restaurant by a busy bar, which offers a great selection of martinis, micro-brews, as well as aperitifs and digistifs. The servers move about the dining room with a finesse that never seems to be obtrusive, but only helpful. The service is personalized in a way in which you can enjoy yourself. Willow’s servers are well-trained, and very knowledgeable, in regards to the menu, and the wine list, the latter of which could use a helping hand. The wine list at Willow has an interesting mix of wines, but the list only goes so far. The wines by the glass are even scarcer with two whites, one sparkling, four reds, and one blush.

The food which Chef O’Brien presents on the menu is quite different than anything else offered in Ithaca. The menu is seasonal, and focuses on technique, as well as innovative flavor combinations. After being seated, foccacia is brought to the table, and is served with a citrus-infused olive oil. The foccacia, though cold and dense, has a comforting, rustic flavor, especially when paired with the olive oil.

The appetizers vary in consistency of quality. The salads show great potential, but can fall short. The Spinach and Pear salad consisted of sliced pears, a terrine of goat cheese and prosciutto, as well as the accompanying dressings; a shallot vinaigrette and roasted pear coulis. The salad was over dressed and lacked seasoning. The flavors melded extremely well together though. I would definitely consider ordering it on my next visit. The Belgium Endive and Bibb salad is a different story. The Bibb lettuce simply didn’t belong on the plate. It lost its texture and every bit of flavor in the blue cheese vinaigrette. Also, the diced beets that were included in the salad became lost in the vinaigrette as well. They were simply too small and not enough. Though, the endive, blue cheese, crispy sweet onions, and croutons together were phenomenal.

The entrees fared much better in comparison to the appetizers. My guest and I were served the snapper and the Prince Edward Island mussels for our entrees. The snapper was by far the best dish I have had in Ithaca over the past two years. It was seared, and served over a lemon-potato hash, with braised fennel and an orange-cumin buerre blanc. The mussels, which were beautifully presented, had a conflict with the broth that they were served in. You just couldn’t get to the broth. Once the mussels were finished, the broth was exposed, with not a mussel in sight. On the other hand, the broth was fragrant and encompassed many intense flavors such as green curry, kaffir lime leaf, coconut and chiles. Also, the mussels were cooked just enough where they still held some of the brininess from the ocean.

Enjoying the desserts was a strong way to end our meal. The desserts were skillfully prepared, with much attention to detail. They too, like the rest of the menu, express simplicity with artful improvisation. An Alsatian cherry soup was served, along with a lavender cr