We all need an array of restaurants in our lives. There’s the joint where the food is fine, the price is right, and they deliver on rainy nights, and then there’s the hangout where the bartender knows your name and your problems. It’s essential to have a spot with a deferential maître d’ to impress out-of-towners. A candlelit hideaway for romantic interludes is another must. And this time of the year, with graduations and rehearsal dinners on the horizon and Mother’s Day looming, it’s important to have a special place for family occasions where Momma will be coddled, tamed toddlers are accepted, and Dad can feel proud that you know your way around a wine list.
Voilà Willow. The two floors of the Lexington Avenue townhouse could be called homey if home were an antique dealer’s mas outside of Aix. It’s sophisticated enough to impress and yet disdains the haughty welcome that usually taints such spots. A small downstairs dining room offers intimacy while the larger upstairs room keeps Manhattan’s fetid breath at bay behind mullioned windows swagged with drapery. Spring flowers marking the season’s change provide points of color amid the light wainscoting and pastel yellow walls.
I discovered Willow when it was proposed as the venue for a reunion of my late dad’s coworkers. Noting that Elizabeth Schneider, the food world’s exotic-vegetable princess, was dining there as well suggested kitchen magic. Our party of five interrupted the babble of 15 years’ news long enough to select the foie gras terrine with a sauternes reduction ($14.50), where the buttery wedge was lushly highlighted by the sweetness of the wine, and a green salad ($7) accented by the nuttiness of sherry vinaigrette and muted tang of shallot. After years of sushi I was mildly disappointed by the meatiness of my seared sesame-crusted tuna with seaweed salad ($24.50), but the crispy duck confit ($22.50) garnered well-earned raves for combining the dark taste of the duck with supremed oranges and a jus with a hint of anise (or was it fennel?).
Willow was special enough to merit a return with Mom on Easter Sunday. The flowers were lush, the amber lights muted; three wheelchairs were parked in the downstairs dining area. Moms saluted each other with their eyes as we climbed to find the upper room filled: older gentlemen wearing Republican ties shared space with well-behaved children, vacationing collegians preened for parents, and one dating couple brought multiple-pierced ears and dyed blond hair uptown. Mom’s lobster bisque ($9.25) topped a thick puree with a dollop of grilled lobster salad that added some smoke. I opted for a pâté special, a grainy wedge topped with a circlet of pickled onions and enough moutarde de Meaux for slathering. Our guest enjoyed her salmon and avocado parfait ($10.50), a cunning tower playing games with the creaminess of fish and fruit, although she would have preferred more of the latter.
The duck’s encore garnered new bravos. A steamed striped bass ($23) floated satisfyingly in a broth flecked with bits of summer squash, zucchini, mushroom, and carrot. A pinwheel of pistachio-coated, medium-rare lamb chops ($28.50) was as rich in taste as it was heavy on the pocketbook, and the accompanying endives took on the dense flavors as they soaked up the jus. Dessert was light: a beautifully crusted lemon crème brûlée ($6.50) with three forks. Heading home, I planned Mother’s Day reservations. Dad would have loved it, but Willow is really Momma’s place.