Willow is the new Charlie Palmer restaurant at Rhinebeck’s Mirbeau Inn and Spa.
It’s always a bit risky (and some might say unfair) to hit up a restaurant in the first week.
And doubly so on a Friday night (with a chef in the party).
But we were looking forward to trying it–friends had “previewed” it at brunch on the opening weekend and wanted to go for dinner.
Unlike recent, much anticipated openings that were hugely disappointing, Willow came through with delicious food.
The room is much more formal than we’ve gotten used to seeing. No dark grey walls or Edison bulbs to be found. A fireplace at one end, with framed vintage Hermes (I’m assuming) scarves on the other and interesting carpeting to mute noise. It looks very much like what it is—a hotel dining room in an upscale inn.
I started out with the Shelter Island grilled oysters, with pancetta, garlic and parsley oil. They were delicious, plump and juicy and the garlic and parsley made a nice sauce for them.
Other appetizers that were passed around the table were a salad of beets and endive blanketed with a blizzard of ricotta salata. I’ll have to take everyone’s word that they were good. Frank had the tuna tartare Niçoise with olives, haricots vert, potatoes, radishes and a tiny “HV” quail egg. It was good, but someone went a little overboard with the olives—almost overwhelming the tuna. We were all happy when John went for the fois gras (and was willing to share). It was a nice piece of seared fois gras with a couple of brioche slices and a row of apple slices. All good, but as I said to John, almost everything goes with fois gras (and tastes wonderful).
Thinking there might be dessert, I went for the small portion of gnocchi with wild mushrooms. It was a risky move, as good gnocchi are rare, but the risk/reward paid off with delicate, melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi. The mushrooms led to one of the funnier moments of the evening. There was a small bunch of (I’m guessing) hen-of-the-woods and somehow my knife had disappeared. When I asked for a knife, the server returned with a huge streak knife, capable of doing serious damage. We will now jokingly refer to any steak knives as “gnocchi knives”.
We all decided that John’s halibut was the best-looking plate of the evening and the fish was perfectly cooked on a bed of risotto with chanterelles.
Frank had the chicken—it’s his new test for restaurants—how well can you do chicken? They passed with flying colors—crispy skin and tasty meat. He wasn’t fond of the sunchokes that accompanied the chicken—they seemed a little overcooked, but the “heirloom” spinach was very tasty. He also ordered the Brussels sprout side dish—roasted with an agrodolce sauce, chipotle aioli and another blizzard of ricotta salata. It was a good combination and once we got the grilled lime that came with it to actually produce juice, it made it even better.
Our other friend had the duck breast with farro and huckleberries. The duck was nice and rosy and tasted good, but I was missing the crunch of duck skin. The combo of farro and huckleberries was a nice change from the usual duck with a fruit sauce.
Having saved room for dessert, I went for the bittersweet chocolate cake with salted caramel and chocolate bourbon ice cream. After being assured by our waiter that the cake was nut free, I was surprised when the base of the cake turned out to be marzipan (almond paste).
Which brings me to the big issue. Service. Our waiter was a great guy, helpful, eager and completely overwhelmed. When asked, he admitted that his training was basically “sink or swim.” If you remember the scene in Ratatouille where Linguini is roller skating through the restaurant you get the idea.
Luckily, that’s something that some training can rectify, but it was a bit surprising in a fine dining restaurant that has Charlie Palmer’s name attached.
What’s more important is that we had a great time that night and the food was terrific. We’ll definitely be back and look forward to being there when the kitchen and staff have had the time to get into their groove.