April 3, 2008

Ithaca Bites: Willow

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Willow, which bills itself as specializing in contemporary American cuisine, offers something for both the exotic and the more homegrown palate. Since Willow is right next to Fall Creek Cinema, my dinner date and I were going to head to a movie afterward. Our delightful meal lasted over three hours, during which we forgot our plans to see the film. The intimate, candle-lit yet relaxed setting provides a fertile ambience for a romantic occasion.
For an appetizer, I took a gamble on the chef’s special —that day split-pea and chocolate soup with peanut-butter gnocchi. I must admit, had I not been writing a restaurant review, I may have been more hesitant given this nearly absurd description. But my risk — and chef Sean O’Brien’s — was well rewarded. The flavors blended together in a mild aroma that complemented the three sweet chewy pasta balls sunk at the bottom. I had no trouble finishing my cup-sized bowl, which was the perfect amount given the subtle intensity of its flavor. My dinner companion, on the other hand, opted for a starter from the “Comfort Zone,” purportedly the more traditional selections: sourdough flatbread with local pork sausage, potato, mustard, New York cheddar and arugula. While the ingredients may sound hearty, the sausage was tender and not too overpoweringly spicy, with only a hint of mustard; the bread was baked thin and airy. It tasted very light, almost salad-y.
We also decided to splurge on a bottle of wine from Willow’s extensive menu that features bottles ranging from $28 to well over $100. The waitress offered to let us sample a few reds before we finally chose a less full-bodied Syrah with dark, smoky fruit flavors over a richer but drier Pinot Noir (we challenged each other, for fun, to see if we could guess which was which in a blind taste test; suffice it to say, my dinner companion beat me).
For the main course, I chose seared monkfish with grilled celery roots and lentils, arranged with walnuts and a dollop of sauce. The monkfish practically peeled away at the touch, and no more than a tad of the spiky toffee-flavored sauce was necessary to give zip to the fish’s pleasing blandness. My companion had glazed duck with fennel and turnip. I sampled a piece, but it’s been awhile since I had duck. I thought it fatty and tender, as well as just a bit chewy and juicy. My friend loved it. Moreover, not only the taste, but also the colorful presentation, was treated as an art form. To complete the evening, we ordered one dessert, a dark chocolate cake with multi-tired layers of lemon, cream and chocolate ganache dribbled with sauces of similar flavors. The lemon was perfectly sweet, neither too fruity nor zesty, while the cream was dense and sumptuous.
Service was impeccable, as our waitress whisked in and out at just the right moments, providing extra sauce and answering all our questions, but never hovering or shadowing us while we chatted. She also insisted on fixing the wobbly table, the imbalance of which was so slight I wouldn’t have noticed unless she brought it up.
Such exquisite dining comes at a cost, however, as entrees range between $22 and $35; those on a student budget might want to try the three-course prix fixe and movie deal for $28 between five and six o’clock, which comes with a ticket. While I have no reservations about recommending Willow, calling ahead for reservations is recommended.