Being “new” is the best thing a restaurant has going for it nowadays. Everyone loves to try new things afterall. It’s just human nature. We all like seeing a new movie, staying at a hip, new hotel, or trying a chef’s latest creation. I mean, who wants to eat the same thing at the same haunts week after week? (Don’t admit it if you do!) A monotonous life of turkey sandwiches for lunch, and roast chicken for dinner is not a life worth living, at least not in our eyes.
That’s why I opted for Willow Road in Chelsea the other night. It was “new,” and that was the sole reason I made a reservation there. I wanted to check out a new restaurant, and simultaneously check it off my to-do list. It was only as I neared the address that I realized Willow Road is located in the space formerly occupied by the original, The John Dory. For those of you who never read my review of the The John Dory back in January 2009, I was smitten with Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s seafood joint, and saddened when it closed for a few years, before moving to the Ace Hotel. It’s always strange to see a space transform, like walking into a house you used to visit that’s newly changed owners.
Lamb Burger Bites
85 Tenth Avenue is a whole new restaurant – a little like a pop art gallery, outfitted with shiny, white subway tiles, a funky, fluorescent sign on the ceiling that reads “Baked By Electricity,” and a humongous wall mural of the Chelsea neighborhood, drawn by an emerging artist named James Gulliver Hancock, who does illustrations for The New Yorker. There’s an upfront communal table, a long, handsome bar with seating, and several tufted leather banquettes scattered about the room, including directly across from an open kitchen. The executive chef is Todd McDonald, who once headed up the kitchen at Cru and Ken Oringer’s Clio in Boston. In fact, Ken Oringer, among several others, is an investor in Willow Road. Here, McDonald’s cooking is decidedly more laidback, the restaurant calling itself a “gastrobar” (whatever that means exacctly).
There’s several fun, inventive cocktails created by Greg Seider (Summit Bar), including a spicy-sweet Cinnamon Gimlet, and a Japanese riff on an Old Fashioned, made with Yamazaki 12 whiskey, orange, and cardamom. As for the food, well, it’s refreshingly unpretentious, and yet, creative. There’s nothing overworked or overwrought about this seasonal American menu, heavy on the comfort food, with a dash of international inspiration tossed in to make it more interesting. Like any good gastrobar (whatever that means) or gastropub, Willow Road serves a Jar Of Housemade Pickles and Duck Crisps, which are homemade Potato Chips, gloriously fried in duck fat. There’s plenty of approachable and affordable bites to nibble on while you’re drinking at the bar, including a Hunk of Aged Cheddar and Country Bread, served with a shot of Whiskey and a Pickleback for just nine bucks — a drink and dish in one — and tasty Spiced Lamb Burger Bites, which arrive slathered in a Sumac Aioli and sandwiched between two grilled slices of Pullman bread.
Mussels A La Plancha
If you want something a little more civilized, you might consider their Charred Bean Salad, or a Twenty Greens Salad with a melange of greens (though I’m not sure there were 20, but who knows?), mingled with pistachios and an aged pecorino cheese. While I’m still wishing we’d ordered the Mac & Cheese, studded with sausage, fennel pollen, and lemon, we did try the Wild Black Bass, cooked en papillote (sealed in paper & steamed in its own liquid), over a bed of wild rice and leeks. The result is an incredibly moist and flavorful filet that pairs perfectly with the rice beneath it. There’s a comforting Beef Pot Pie, brimming with vegetables and fragrant with thyme, and Buttermilk Fried Chicken. But my favorite dish at Willow Road, the dish you can’t miss (unless of course, you’re allergic to shellfish), is the Mussels A La Plancha. It’s hard to find a restaurant bravely willing to cook mussels a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate), in fear they’ll dry out, and rightfully so, but in the right chef’s hands, it can be a very wise move. This rendition is an excellent one, with a generous helping of plump, briny mussels, accompanied by an ingenious kumquat-laced butter, which lend it a sweet, citrusy quality and bring out the best in the mussels.
Dessert at Willow Road is still a work in progress as there are currently only two items to choose from — a Deep Fried Snickers Bar with vanilla ice cream, and a Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake that’s surprisingly light on its feet and not overly sweet (as some tend to be). Sometimes, something “new” is just something trendy that will fade away, but Willow Road’s got dishes that we’ll crave and return for.