Among the many forms of dumpling you’ll find in this city, the pierogi — that doughy workhorse of the Eastern European diet — seems a cheeky, unlikely choice to receive a modern New American update. But thanks to chef John Poiarkoff of Willow (506 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-399-2384) in Bed-Stuy, it’s no culinary punchline. When the restaurant opened in April, Poiarkoff’s handmade potato pierogi were anointed with dollops of sour cream under a bed of oxtail-laden kimchi. For summer, the dumplings welcome a lasso-shaped garlic scape and sour-cream-simmered morel mushrooms.
Poiarkoff, of Russian descent, spent five years at the Modern working under Gabriel Kreuther before joining forces with restaurateur Carver Farrell at Gowanus restaurant the Pines, where he’s also the chef. Both there and at Willow, his style demonstrates a focused playfulness. Those pierogi balance the comfort food of his ancestry with his fine-dining background in a way that feels effortless. Hard-seared, their skins sturdy and creamy potato fillings well seasoned, the spud purses can be ordered as a $13 starter or $20 main course. They also generously pair with Willow’s most expensive entrée — a lush, fifteen-ounce, dry-aged strip loin ($65) — as a side dish. Intended for sharing, the sizable portion includes sharp, bitter greens and malty birch jus, all of which complement the beef’s musty richness.
Like most dry-aged beef, the majority of Willow’s cuts spend weeks hanging in a temperature-controlled room, but Poiarkoff also offers tartare from meat aged 90 days, cut into supple pebbles that practically melt when chewed. Spread the chopped steer, arranged in three loose quenelles and bolstered by sweet cherries and vaguely citrusy nasturtium leaves, on shards of broken sesame crackers. The kitchen charges $19 for the small, carefully wrought (and excellent) appetizer. It’s a bold move in this neck of the woods, but thankfully, the bet pays off on the plate.
Poiarkoff buys his meats from Brooklyn’s Happy Valley Meat Co., a distributor that sources from several farms in and around his native Pennsylvania. Wonderfully chewy boar belly was paired with asparagus on one visit and charred snap peas the next. In both versions the wild pig’s gaminess was elevated with acerbic compressed rhubarb and nutty sunchokes — prepared both roasted whole and as a silky purée (the belly also shows up on Willow’s brunch menu over kimchi fried rice). Meanwhile, Poiarkoff’s lamb breast impressed as an entrée with apricots and broccoli rabe, but soared as a small plate when lending its barnyard earthiness to salty, sweet XO sauce tossed with grassy fava beans and leaves and spooned over ricotta-slathered slices of toasted sourdough.
No less whimsical with seafood and produce, Poiarkoff butter-poaches a loin of monkfish, long called the poor man’s lobster thanks to its consistency when cooked, and dresses it with wild foraged watercress, shishito peppers, and chunks of lobster meat. A maroon glaze made from reduced lobster stock, tomatoes, and fermented chile paste adds much-needed spice and piquancy. Squares of butter-soft mackerel, cured for only a few hours with spruce-spiked tequila and then flash-seared, punctuate a puddle of yellow watermelon purée dotted with vibrant green mint oil. “The watermelon comes three ways,” bartender Torrey Bell-Edwards explains while pointing out thinly sliced watermelon pickles and cubes of compressed watermelon, which cut through the mackerel’s assertive flavor.
Bell-Edwards flexes his creative muscles, too, whipping up a quartet of proprietary drinks that persuasively unite quirky elements like Chartreuse liqueur with maple syrup and barrel-aged gin with rosemary syrup, yogurt whey, and sour beer. The latter cocktail, called the Crybaby, could certainly move an unstable drinker to tears with its range of herbal bitterness and tart notes.
Like Bell-Edwards, pastry chef Lisa Smaroff ably complements Poiarkoff’s experimental approach, as in a masterful strawberry shortcake riff, with nutty peaks of sunchoke cake sitting in mild black pepper cream and layered with sour green strawberries and citrusy sorrel leaves. She takes classic combinations and runs with them, zapping chocolate semifreddo and chocolate cake with candied kumquats, orange cream, and honeycomb candy and lacing pound cake with lemon buttermilk and pickled blueberries.
As a follow-up to the Pines, which started off with a different opening chef and found its footing thanks to Poiarkoff’s leadership, Willow feels far more polished in its first few months of service. Built inside a jagged, standalone building bearing a splashy, colorful mural by artist Will Hutnick, its attentive, knowledgeable staff delivers outstanding gratis bread service (sourdough rounds topped with butter and a purée of kale and green garlic) and pours soups tableside. And yet prices (aside from the aged beef) are modest, given the talent and effort at play. So many restaurants struggle to deliver an experience fit for both locals and destination diners — it’s a high-wire act many get wrong. Here, it’s a breeze.