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A love story with food at Willow.

If there ever was such thing as a restaurant fairy tale, this would be as close as you could get. Willow restaurant located in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, VA (4301North Fairfax Dr.) debuted almost five years ago in September with the marriage, literally of two culinary visions.  On the opening day of Willow, chef and co-owner Tracy O’Grady was escorted down her restaurant’s aisle by her mentor, Bob Kinkead where she was joined in matrimony to Brian Wolken, former chef from Butterfield 9. According to a New York Times article, precisely 70 minutes after saying ‘I do’ O’Grady, still wearing her white satin-and-chiffon wedding dress, was in her new kitchen preparing to serve the 350 guests who had been invited to sample Willow’s cuisine. Most people understand how stressful your wedding can be, but to open a restaurant on the same day?  “Many people said we were crazy for doing this,” O’Grady told the New York Times reporter.

It’s been nearly five years since their opening … it’s a good sign that Willow is still going strong since at least four restaurants have come and gone at that site in 15 years, including Bistro Bistro and Gaffney’s Restaurant Oyster & Ale House. Willow’s cuisine style is described as modern continental and Chef O’Grady prides herself on using the freshest ingredients featuring local produce, meat, and grains while incorporating classic French and Italian influences.

Heirloom Tomato Salad Photo by Lisa Shapiro

I visited Willow once for dinner once in 2006 but Restaurant Week lunch was my first opportunity to return. Their Restaurant Week three course prix-fixe menu included many choices for each course. For the appetizers, there were five choices, two of which were vegetarian. All of the dishes were excellent seasonal dishes that showcased the bounty of of the summer season and included locally sourced ingredients. Some of the choices included the Yellow Tomato and Yellow Pepper Bisque with traditional Tomato Bruschetta with Basil, or the Fried Green Tomatoes with Dilly Beans and Shrimp and a spicy Remoulade or the Liberty Town Flat Bread with Mustard Barbecue Sauce, Smoked Pork Shoulder, Smoked Mozzarella, and Cheddar and Pickled Onions. I was told recently by a friend who is a chef that chef O’Grady was one of the first chefs in the area to put flat bread on a menu. I ordered the local Heirloom Tomato Salad with Mascarpone Basil Mousse, Herb Vinaigrette, Balsamic Gastrique and Garlic Croutons. The salad was perfectly seasoned and was quite vivid. While the yellow tomatoes added color to the dish, it’s not the only thing that it contributed. The yellow tomatoes taste sweeter and less-tart taste because they have a higher proportion of sugar, which often masks the acidic flavor. The vinaigrette also helped to balance the acidic tomatoes. The Mascarpone Basil Mousse was silky, smooth, and tasted like fresh basil picked from my garden. The house-made croutons added a nice crunch to several bites. It was the perfect portion for a first course; however, I did not really share any like I normally would. My husband doesn’t like tomatoes. He calls them the devil’s fruit. His loss.

Cucumber and Avocado Gazpacho Photo by L. Shapiro

My husband ordered the Cucumber and Avocado Gazpacho with Crispy Yucca Chip with Lemony Greek Yogurt. This dish, like the Heirloom tomato salad is a very light and refreshing summertime dish. I ignored the fact that I know that avocado is very high in fat; otherwise, the dish is very healthy. The cucumber and avocado gave the soup a nice bright green color and there was just a hint of purple from a few red onions. Again, the soup was a perfect portion for a first course and I don’t think most soups are designed for sharing. We did; however, ask for a second spoon so that I could try it. The gazpacho tasted more like cucumber and less like avocado, which I expected, and I enjoyed the texture from the shaved green onions, fresh cucumber cubes on crunchy red onions. The Lemony Greek Yogurt was tart but was a nice accompaniment to the spoonfuls it touched. I imagine that the recipe also included lime juice and perhaps some red wine vinegar. Perhaps Chef O’Grady will share the recipe with the world one day. Interestingly enough, guests can find some of her recipes at the hostess stand as you pass the bar/lounge area. I picked up the recipe for both the Corn Ricotta Pancakes and the Creamy Orzo and English Pea Risotto.

After being pleased with my first course, it made me even that much more excited for

Swordfish Medallions Photo by L. Shapiro

the main course. I ordered the Parmesan Crusted Swordfish Medallions with Barley and Zucchini Risotto, Broccoli Rabe and Smoked Tomato Butter. The dish was beautifully presented and there were so many different components on the plate, each with a different texture that it’s almost difficult to choose where to start. The Barley and Zucchini Risotto was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and the creamy supple texture was an excellent accompaniment alongside the crispy coating of the fish. In my opinion, perfectly cooked risotto should not be crunchy or sticky enough to cling to a spoon or fork, nor should it be so watery that it runs off the plate. Surprisingly the Broccoletti, which is slightly bitter, has a texture that is hardly similar to our common friend, Broccoli. I usually only see Broccoli Rabe with heartier dishes, but it was delectable. The Swordfish was tender, flaky, and juicy yet the Parmesan crusted coating was crunchy. The Swordfish had a mildly sweet flavor and a moist, meaty texture. I loved every bite and the portion size was very generous. My husband ordered the Ratatouille and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Summer Squash Corn Pancake, Sautéed Spinach and Yellow Pepper Vinaigrette. Since I am allergic to peppers, I didn’t really have the opportunity to taste the dish.

Chilled Lemon Soufflé with Blackberry Whipped Cream. Photo by L. Shapiro

Desserts are the creation of Pastry Chef Kate Jansen, who co-founded the Firehook Bakeries in 1992 which W magazine ranked it one of the Top five bakeries in the world. I had the Chilled Lemon Soufflé with Blackberry Whipped Cream. It was served in a panna cotta glass, and since panna cotta is a very popular summer dessert, I’ve had quite a bit lately. The Lemon Soufflé was creamy and refreshing. The fresh blackberries, syrup, and  whipped cream were rich and sweet and helped to balance the sourness of the lemon in the Soufflé.

Passion Fruit Meringue Photo by L. Shapiro

My husband ordered the Passion Fruit Meringue Tart with Strawberry Sauce. A scoop of fresh strawberry sorbet adjacent to the meringue was pierced with a golden crescent shaped cookie drizzled with strawberry sauce. My husband insisted that his was the better of the two desserts and I generally agreed. I was intrigued by the fact that Chef Jansen changes her dessert menu daily with a “Layer Cake” du jour. Our server told us that the layer cake was a walnut cake instead of an almond, or the other way around. He got confused and corrected himself so now I can’t remember what he said. Either way, I’m sure it was scrumptious. I’m looking forward to recommending Willow to my friends and readers.

Also, an even better deal than Restaurant Week, of which Willow is extending another week until August 28th, is that Chef O’Grady offers many wonderful  small plates on her bar menu for an unbeatable pice — just $5. Try Crispy Fried Crab or Pork Rolls with Mustard Crème Fraiche and Spicy Soy-Lime Vinaigrette, Miniature Fish & Chips,  Hot Crab & Artichoke Dip, or Salmon Sliders. For the vegetarians, enjoy Portobello Mushroom “Fries” or Warm Gruyere Cheese Puffs.

Nationwide Ice Cream Social Scoops for Success July 15 at Kimpton restaurants.

Ice Cream cone; Kimpton hotel; Scoops for Success; Ice cream social;You scream. I scream. We all scream for Ice cream! Celebrate National Ice Cream Month with local DC area Kimpton hotel restaurants on Thursday, July 15 from 5-7 p.m. in the living room lobbies of all participating Kimpton hotels for their “Scoops for Success” event. Guests will enjoy scoops of ice cream with all the fixings for $3-$5 with with the full amount from every signature ice cream dessert sale will be donated to Dress for Success. Dress for Success Washington, DC is an international non-profit organization that provides interview suits, confidence boosts, and career development to low-income women and is devoted to helping women reenter the workforce.

Enjoy scoops of delicious house-made ice cream at DC participating restaurants including, Bar Rouge, Firefly, Helix Lounge, Poste Brasserie, Topaz Bar and Urbana. Or BRABO, Jackson 20, and The Grille in Alexandria, VA  or the Domaso Trattoria Moderna in Arlington, VA. Also, throughout the month of July, enjoy ice cream specials and and $1 from each is donated to Dress for Success.


Restaurant 3 offers DC Diners a ‘Week of Bacon’

3 Bacon Sampler

3 Bacon Sampler

Restaurant 3 , a family owned Clarendon neighborhood restaurant that gets its name from its place in the line up in the business, (after Whitlows and Mama Quans) will delight Washingtonian bacon lovers by paying homage to bacon with a week of tastings, festivities and bacon themed happy hours. Owner Jonathan Williams and Executive Chef Brian Robinson will put the spotlight on the cured meat by dedicating an entire week to its smoky salty goodness by celebrating the “Week of Bacon” from October 21-27, 2009.

Each day for the duration of the week of bacon, the restaurant will offer a daily Bacon Happy Hour, where bar guests can feast on bacon bites such as bacon on a stick & bacon-wrapped shrimp and wash it all down with $3 craft beer draft specials.

Executive Chef Brian Robinson cures all his own bacon in-house and is a firm believer in the foodie philosophy that, “Everything tastes better with bacon,” a philosophy that he looks forward to sharing with his guests through his gut-busting Bacon Tasting Menu being offered throughout the duration of the Week of Bacon. Priced at $30 per person, the menu will feature some of Robinson’s favorite food and bacon pairings such as Bacon & Eggs and Maple Bacon Ice Cream.

Bacon Bacon Bacon!

Bacon Bacon Bacon!

Course 1
Bacon & Egg Salad
Frisee/arugula tossed with chopped house-cured bacon and topped with a poached egg
Course 2
Bacon Crusted Mahi Mahi
Oven roasted mahi mahi dusted with a finely ground bacon powder and served over a bacon potato hash
Course 3
Bacon studded waffle with maple bacon ice cream

A longtime bacon lover, Chef Brian Robison began curing his own bacon over 10 years ago. At 3, Chef Robinson has been able to experiment with several different cures and produces several dishes featuring his various styles of house-cured bacon. 
For More Information: Restaurant 3 is located at 2950 Clarendon Blvd. in Arlington, VA, across the Clarendon Metro Station. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. and for dinner and brunch on Sunday from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., 3 is a neighborhood Clarendon eatery featuring Southern cuisine with imaginative twists, an impressive beer list and specialty cocktails.  For reservations please call 703-524-4440 or visit the website at www.restaurantthree.com

Restaurant Week Lessons Learned at Me Jana

Me Jana Outdoor Patio

Me Jana Outdoor Patio

I have officially confirmed my own advice about not going to restaurants that offer small plates, tapas or mezze, for Restaurant Week. I learned my lesson first hand. On Monday afternoon, I had lunch at Me Jana, a fine Lebanese restaurant in the Courthouse area of Arlington. The restaurant is named after an old folk ballad that is traditionally sung to “welcome” friends and family and reminisce about the “good ol’ days.”

We arrived on time for our 12:30 p.m. reservation received a pleasant greeting by the manager at the front desk. He asked if we would like to be seated inside the dining room or outside on the patio. It was such a lovely sunny day; I opted for the patio seating. Despite the loud busy view of the street, the patio is almost serene and relaxing. Me Jana has put a lot of effort into making the patio green and plush with large decorative flower boxes with shrubbery (see photo above).

Me Jana Sampler platter

Me Jana Sampler platter

On the Restaurant Week menu, offerings for lunch, a choice for first course includes a sampler platter comprised of fattouch, baba gannouj, hommus, and a cheese roll. The fattouch is a deliciously fresh salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, radish, green pepper, parsley, in a mint and lemon vinaigrette (see photo on left). The tomatoes were a little soft and mushy, especially since summer restaurant week falls in the middle of  tomato season, the tomatos out of all the ingredients, should have been the most flavorful. Nothing is better than a delicious, fresh, homegrown tomato with a viniagrette. The small crisps in the salad provided excellent texture and the bright red sumac added a lemony flavor to the salad. Since I just dined at Zaytinya, all of these Mediterranean inspired traditional dishes are becoming more familiar. The Hommus at Me Jana is very flavorful even though it is a traditional receipe with chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. It is served alongside of a basket of fresh homemade pita bread. The Baba Gannouj is very similiar in texture, ingredients, and presentation than the Hommus but it is made with smoked eggplant. I particularly care for it. I’m not surprised, I have never liked eggplant. The cheese roll besides the fattouch was my favorite of the sampler platter. It is served warm, filled with manchego and feta cheeses and wrapped in phylo and fried until it is golden and crispy. It wasn’t served with a dipping sauce, but I can imagine that it would have been delicious with an apricot chutney or perhaps a sweet yogurt sauce. The combination of all of these small plates into the one sampler was an excellent way to try several trafitional favorites at a good value. On the regular menu, if diners ordered each mezze separately, the portions would be larger, of course, but the cost would be nearly $38.

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Rammy’s Winners — drumroll please …

Chef Tony Chittum accepts the Rising Culinary Star Rammy Award

Chef Tony Chittum accepts the Rising Culinary Star Rammy Award

Last Night, Sunday, June 7, 2009 the 27th Annual Rammy’s Awards Gala was hosted by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.  From the looks of the crowd of over 1,400 restaurant industry guests at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Woodley Park, I’d say that DC is in fact doing fine, just fine. Some attribute the success to the local economy to the fact that we are the nation’s capital – where government work is a sure thing. This showing of DC restaurant industry staff was a pretty good indication that the DC Restaurant scene is very much alive and well. The National Restaurant Association has reported that the DC restaurant industry is growing. Other cities are stumped and are looking to discover what DC is doing so well – this night is a tribute to what DC does so well.

The Rammy’s Awards are an effort to honor restaurateurs, chefs, and food service industry employees for their hard work and dedication to the industry that we love. This year’s “theme” was “Celebrate! Restaurants”  in recognition of how many people dine out in order to celebrate so many of life’s celebrations, including birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, and even the occasional celebration of friendship on any given weeknight.

Mistress of Ceremonies, Sue Palka, Meteorologist, Fox 5, said, “Restaurants are the real heart of the neighborhood and the community.” This was also a theme for other presenters such as Dr. J.C. Hayward, Anchor, WUSA 9 and Vice President of Media Outreach who spoke about the importance of the community and how the “future of the restaurant industry is in the hands of the next generation – with clear guidance and dedication of today’s culinary professionals.” Dr. Hayward presented the awards to young local aspiring culinary professionals for the RAMW Education Foundation Scholarships.

The Winner of the 2009 RAMMYs are:

  • Chef of the Year: Robert Wiedmaier – Marcel’s/Brasserie Beck/Brabo Tasting Room & the Butcher’s Block, Washington DC –
    • Chef Wiedmaier invited all of his staff on stage to help him accept the award. It was quite touching. Fun-loving Liz Glover and Stephanie Green, (“Glover and Green“) from the Washington Times presented the award. The ballroom roared with laughter as Liz Glover sang and then questioned the audience, “Oh wait, this isn’t’ American Idol?”
  • Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year: Restaurant Eve, Alexandria VA –
    • Chef Cathal Armstrong accepts the award with spunky wife Meshelle by his side, who kisses the Rammy trophy in her hands. Cathal says, “I was born in Ireland, but made in the USA”. The crowd goes wild. The other partners and staff join him on stage, including mixologist Todd Thrasher.
  • Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year Rasika, Washington DC
  • Rising Culinary Star Anthony Chittum – Vermilion, Alexandria VA
    • Tony Chittum was also nominated last year for Rising Culinary Star. Second times the charm for this well-deserving Chef. (see photo)
  • Best New Restaurant Cork, Washington DC
    • Khalid Pitts, accepted the award on stage along with his wife and co-owner, Diane Gross who refused to limit their acceptance speech and long thank-you list, despite the 30 second time limit. Even after the music started playing, similiarly to other awards shows, Pitt shouts “Oh, no … don’t turn on that music. This is my time!” He earned a laugh after saying, “This is my Cuba Gooding Jr. moment.” You could barely hear them – or anyone anyways – the ballroom was very noisey with chatter. 
  • Power Spot of the Year Central Michel Richard, Washington DC
    • The Honorable James P. Morgan, United States House of Representatives presented the award to Brian Zipin, General Manager and Wine Director at Central. He was also nominated for Restaurant Manager of the Year. Executive Chef, Cedric Maupillier who joined Zipin on stage was nominated for Rising Culinary Star.
  • Neighborhood Gathering Place The Liberty Tavern, Arlington VA
  • Hottest Restaurant Bar Scene Co Co. Sala, Washington DC
  • Pastry Chef of the Year Kate Jansen – Willow, Arlington VA
    • Presenters included our hometown Top Chef season-five finalist, Carla Hall and fellow contestant, Ariane Duarte. This year’s nomination was her third and in her acceptance speech she remarks, “Maybe 3 times a charm.” She also said, “This means more to me than you could ever possibly imagine,” and thanks Tracy O’Grady for her inspiration.
  • Associate Member of the Year Belair Produce Inc./Watermark Foods
  • Wine and Beverage Program CityZen, Washington DC
    • Wine Director Andrew Myers, who has been working in local restaurants for the last 23 years, accepted the award with his wife standing beside him as she drys her eyes. He’s a very memorable guy, as Myers was featured in the Washington Post Magazine last year that uncovered a very unique side of Myers including his love for “ink” and heavy metal. 
  • Restaurant Employee of the Year Juan Francisco Lopez – Marcel’s/Brasserie Beck, Washington DC
  • Restaurant Manager of the Year Ryland Johnson – Zola, Washington DC
  • Your Favorite Restaurant (voted by online/newspaper ballot) Teatro Goldoni, Washington, DC
  • Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award Dimitri Mallios
  • WHERE MAGAZINE Visitors’ Choice Award The Prime Rib
  • 2009 RAMMY Honorary Award Billy Martin’s Tavern
  • 2009 RAMMY Honorary Award Frans Hagen

 Kudos to Jill Collins and Dusty Lockhart for an amazing evening. ~ A special Thank you.