We admit we're the opposite of suburbanites who never set foot in the city: city dwellers who feel mildly agoraphobic in the wide-open spaces of the suburbs. But every once in a while, something out there exerts a gravitational pull that lures us from our urban orbit. Most recently, we were drawn to Willow, a restaurant opened last summer by the proprietors of Aspinwall's Luma.
We drove over the river and through the woods to get there, and our first indication that Willow wasn't just another over-decorated shed in an over-lit strip mall was the parking lot. It's surrounded by wooded acres and, when we turned off our engine, the sound of a babbling brook filled our ears. On our way to the front door -- which looks like it was hand-hewn from some great ancient fallen trunk -- we looked up and saw stars.
Willow is an enchanted forest of dining rooms, eight in all. Each is different but all of them are quietly resplendent with imagery of branches bending in the wind -- from the custom ironwork to the votive holders to the justification of the type on the menu. We followed our host past a softly glowing bar and a lounge full of buttery leather club chairs to be seated in a cozy dining room with wainscoting and a slate-surrounded fireplace. The colors were subdued and the atmosphere restrained -- the better, we supposed, to let our food take center stage.
The menu itself presented a comprehensive selection of current national trends and classic local standards, from seared Ahi tuna to steak salad. The entrées bore the hallmarks of the now-familiar American contemporary style, replete with Asian touches and stacked ingredients. Our waiter was at pains to translate the kitchen's flourishes into terms we could not possibly fail to understand, describing chimichurri, for instance, as "South American ketchup."
Angelique chose a seafood theme for her meal, beginning with shrimp bisque and leading up to an entrée plate of Atlantic salmon stuffed with crabcake. Almost thick enough to stand a spoon in, the bisque was smooth and rich, perhaps a smidge too salty, but studded with morsels of the most tender shrimp. The salmon was beautifully grilled and glazed with a sweet, citrusy sauce of oranges and Grand Marnier. The fish alone would have been a wonderful meal; Angelique thought the crab, though soft and flaky, would have contributed more had it been more seasoned. Wheels of grilled orange slice topped the salmon filet, a lovely, tasty touch.
Focusing on turf to Angelique's surf, Jason started with queso con carne, pulled pork atop a corn griddle cake with peppery melted cheese. The pork was tender enough, but lacked the heavenly blend of meat and fat that makes pulled pork his favorite. More disappointing was the corn cake, which was so sweet Jason thought jam would have been a more appropriate topping.
Jason's entrée, veal scaloppini, was topped with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms in an asiago-marsala sauce. The cutlet was tender and the vegetables' native characters shone through a light sauté, but the sauce unfortunately followed the sugary example of the corn cake.
We moved to the lounge to enjoy our dessert from the pillowy perch of an overstuffed sofa. Chocolate volcano cake was decadently delicious, beyond moist, oozing floes of fudgy lava from beneath a crust of chocolate ganache. Old-fashioned apple pie featured firm, sweet-tart apple slices piled high beneath a crumbly streusel topping. Jason found even this dessert too sweet, although Angelique didn't object.
Like the suburbs or hate them, no one would claim that they're at the vanguard of American culinary trends. Yet the very existence of a restaurant like Willow in the North Hills speaks to the recent remarkable sophistication of the American -- and even the Pittsburgh -- palate. We just wish Willow's chefs didn't think they needed to literally sweeten the deal. It's a wonderful restaurant that otherwise gets so much right; we implore the kitchen to trust its diners, put aside the sugar dish, and challenge our palates with subtler flavors.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars