- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

What better way to celebrate the opening of a new restaurant than with a wedding, especially when the bride is the chef.

Willow Restaurant in Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood was the scene for the Sept. 2 opening of the restaurant and the wedding of its co-owner chef, Tracy O’Grady, to Brian Wolken, the director of operations.

The wedding was taken as an auspicious sign of good things to come, and good things there are at Willow.

Mrs. O’Grady was executive chef at Kinkead’s in Washington. Pastry chef and co-owner Kate Jansen was a founder of Firehook Bakery — and the rolls at Willow are delicious.

Willow is a large and elegant restaurant in a new building on North Fairfax Drive, specializing in what the restaurant describes as modern continental cuisine. In fact, it’s contemporary American cooking with strong French and Italian roots.

The first courses are particularly tempting. There are no daily specials, but the menu changes frequently. We began a meal with a grilled flatbread, which is served at lunch and dinner. This is a large sheet of thin, lavash-type bread with various toppings. There’s a choice of three: Margarita with tomato, basil, scallions, fontina cheese and Parmesan; Blue Fire, with caramelized onions, blue cheese and fresh thyme; and Willow, with mushrooms, lemon, fontina, chives and white truffle essence.

We chose the Blue Fire. Delicious. The sharpness of the melted blue cheese is offset by the sweetness of the caramelized onions; the herbs sprinkled on top and the crisp bread itself make it a wonderful shared appetizer.

Wild mushroom ravioli are also an aromatic and delicious individual starter. Four large ravioli are filled with chopped mushrooms and served in a spinach emulsion, fragrant with a little truffle essence. The small squares of deep-fried veal sweetbreads served atop the ravioli hardly blend with the dish. They jar rather than enhance the flavors of the pasta.

Fried zucchini and ricotta fritters are both good and filling. The round balls of mostly cheese and a little zucchini are breaded and deep-fried, and served with a tomato and red pepper sauce. The fritters are heavier than traditional beignets but retain their delicacy.

Another version is made with fontina and prosciutto. Mussels are steamed in sherry; clams are prepared casino-style with bacon, leek fondue and lemon bread crumbs. Other starters include smoked salmon with potato latkes and a potato gnocchi gratin with shrimp, prosciutto, Parmesan and herbs.

Corn chowder is a rich, creamy soup with an excellent little crab cake in the center. Caesar salad is chopped rather than in leaf, and served topped with shaved Gouda, rather than Parmesan, in a good creamy dressing.

A simple green salad is enhanced with orange slices and hearts of palm in a sherry vinaigrette with a few almonds and shaved Manchego cheese on top. It’s an eclectic mix, but tasty and refreshing.

The lemon-roasted chicken is a winning first course. Tender, juicy and flavorful, it’s among the best chicken dishes around. The chicken is served with excellent roast potatoes and sliced carrots. Sounds simple, but tastes wonderful.

Pan-seared halibut is similarly a simple-but-fine combination of fresh fish and orzo pasta in a fine tomato-orange broth. Plump, seared scallops, bacon-crusted salmon, steak (rib-eye or filet mignon), mustard-crusted rack of pork, breaded and fried Milanese style, and a vegetarian dish round out the entree menu.

At lunch, the appetizers, soups, flatbreads and salads are much the same as in the evening. Entrees are somewhat different and include a Moroccan spiced chicken stew and a Mediterranean plate consisting of a goat cheese beggar’s purse, olives, hummus and cucumber salad. Five sandwiches are added to the menu: bacon and Gruyere cheese; smoked turkey on flat bread; a BLT; a hamburger and a muffaletta with smoked ham, mortadella, salami and Gouda.

Ms. Jansen makes not only good dinner rolls, but several exotic desserts — banana walnut rum tart; triple chocolate custard parfait; apple nutmeg custard tart, and pumpkin praline mousse cake.

We tried the vanilla raspberry creme brulee and the chocolate tiramisu napoleon. The creme brulee, decorated with two or three raspberries was good, but a bit too light. The dense texture and flavor created by the exclusive use of heavy cream and egg yokes was missing. The tiramisu napoleon was neither tiramisu nor napoleon, but a small tower incorporating chocolate cake.

Willow’s wine list is interesting and well priced with selections from Europe and the United States. Several excellent whites and reds by the glass or bottle go for between $26 and $32 per bottle.

Service is first-rate, with several familiar faces from Kinkead’s among the staff. Many of Mrs. O’Grady’s regulars from her days at Kinkead’s have followed her to Willow and are enjoying her solo flight.

RESTAURANT: Willow, 4301 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703/465-8800

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers, $5 to $16 (lunch), $6 to $16 (dinner); entrees, $12 to $18 (lunch), $18 to $32 (dinner); sandwiches, $8 to $12; desserts, $6 to $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; validated free parking in garage beneath the building

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Ballston (Orange Line

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