December 2005

The right kind of buzz can make a restaurant s reputation. But how to create that buzz? If you're Tracy O'Grady, the chef at Ballston's new Willow, you spend a decade as sous chef at Kin­kead's, compete in culinary cook-offs like the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon (to cooking what Cannes is to cinema), and pair up with the name behind Firehook Bakery, pastry chef Kate Jansen.

But the media-savvy O'Grady went a step further. She wed Brian Wolken, Willow's operations director, in the restaurant's dramatic red-velvet-curtained dining room on opening day with former boss Bob Kinkead walking her down the aisle. Instead of the usual primping, the bride spent the morning whipping up hundreds of hors d'oeuvres for the reception/opening. It was a good story, and it ended up in the Vows column of the New York Times style section.

But buzz can take you only so far. In the end it's the cooking that counts. And O'Grady s modern European Continental cuisine, with its forays into rustic Italian and classic French, has flashes of brilliance. It's there in the way she mates potato latkes and smoked salmon with beet caviar and horseradish creme fraiche–combining flavor and texture is this chef's forte. And in her small but luxuriant chopped Caesar salad tempered with fresh lemon. I love the sensation of biting into her fritters, one oozing creamy ricotta, the other a crisp package of fontina and prosciutto. All that time frying clams at Kinkead's has obviously paid off.

The starter to moon over, though, is wild-mushroom ravioli scattered with tiny cubes of crispy veal sweetbreads on a bed of wilted spinach ringed with truffle jus; the earthy mix makes for marvelous eating.

Pastry chef Jansen's thin flatbreads with toppers like wild mushrooms, fontina, lemon, and white-truffle essence seem right for nibbling with a martini or a sidecar at the bar. There the crowd skews younger than the one in the dining room, with its Gustav Klimt-inspired textiles and Vienna Workshop-style mahogany furnishings.

My favorite entrée is rack of pork Milanese with its sheath of mustardy breading. Pounded down to about an inch, it's amazingly tender, and its costars–smoky ham-hock jus, sweet caramelized onions, and creamy-cheesy spinach tart–make for a perfect, balanced plate. Roast salmon crusted with bits of bacon in red-wine-and-shallot sauce puts a distinctive spin on a fish that's on every menu. Pan-seared scallops also get their kick from bacon, though this time the bits stud a ragoût of Brussels sprouts. A drizzle of Dijon cream adds the right sharp note.

O'Grady achieves what she's after most of the time. But even she's not immune to the sins of excess so prevalent these days. Tomato-orange broth, olive relish, and orzo do nothing to enhance a delicate wedge of halibut. A clever take on clams casino is buried under too many bread crumbs. And occasionally a sauce–an overly lemony Romesco is the most striking example–is not quite right.

Given the pedigree of the pastry chef, desserts can be strangely unfulfilling. Raspberry creme brulee is runny and forgettable. And though I m fixated on chocolate, the Belgian-chocolate parfait didn't deliver much of a chocolate rush. For that I turned to the cookie plate with its dense chocolate-hazelnut ice cream made to Jansen's specs by Moorenko's in McLean, and Lilliputian mint brownies, linzertortes, and fabulous chocolate truffles. The finish with the most moxie is the port-roasted pear with its delicious walnut crust, dollops of bleu-cheese creme fraiche, and tart pomegranate sorbet.

As consistently good as much of the food can be, Willow has front-of-the-house kinks to work out, namely servers who utter the words "I don't know" too often.

That's certainly fixable. Willow has the hard part the food mostly figured out. And it s still got buzz.