I hadn't heard much about this place, to be honest the first I'd heard about it at all was the moment I received my daily groupon e-mail alerting me of the 50% off deal. But the moment I clicked on the link which drove me to their website, I was intrigued. I'm in PR. A good website speaks volumes to an overall first impression and ultimately impacts your potential diner's decision making process. At least that's what happened with PID and me. I was sold on the general appearance and Chef Rudman's rap sheet before I'd even glimpsed at a menu. I will say I've been fooled by magical photography and/or Photoshop in the past, but let me assure you that Willow uses no such trickery. The website gallery barely comes close to doing justice to the ambiance at Willow. It's truly a beautiful atmosphere.
As the website promises, the restaurant is nestled safely in a bed of trees, hidden from commercialized society and free from the chaos of evening traffic. Though we opted to forgo the seemingly beautiful patio due to the cold front and drizzle, we could tell upon walking in that things tended to remain quiet regardless of it's proximity to I-279. Though I can't speak to it directly, I'd definitely suggest taking advantage of outside dining here during the summer.
We had made reservations on www.opentable.com and the hostess was waiting for us when we arrived. She showed us through a few rooms (though the restaurant seats up to 300, it maintains an intimate setting by hosting multiple dining rooms, all with a different yet equally appealing feel)...
...until we reached our destination. PID and I were seated by the fireplace, but not before first being asked if it suited us. It did. We sat.
And so it was time for the wine.
When our waiter arrived with water in hand, he was slightly nervous, but extremely friendly. He reminded me of a friend from college and made both PID and I feel comfortable and welcome. I ordered a stem of one of my favorite vices, Rhein River Reisling for $8, while PID went for the Chilean Veramonte Merlot for $11. We were overly pleased with the wine list. We had the option of ordering by the glass, 1/2 bottle or full bottle and the choices went on for 12 pages. There was also a reserve list at which, sadly, we couldn't even afford to tease ourselves by taking a peek.
Then came the bread.
Always an exciting amuse bouche. Though I only indulged in a half a slice, we were quite pleased with the oil and herbs. But that's not what I came for.
Then on to the appetizer.
I'd been excited about this for a while. Without boasting, I would like to shamelessly proclaim that I consider myself a connoisseur of tuna tartar. It is, by far, my favorite dish. You'll learn quickly that if tuna tartar is on the menu, I will order it and tell you what I think, whether you like tartar or not! Willow's Hawaiian Tuna Tartar (for $14) looked promising; a different take on a classic dish. I wasn't at all disappointed, but you'll learn something else about me quickly: I consider cucumber a cop-out. Though refreshing, to me it's less of a flavorful component and more of a cooling agent. I've rarely found it to be particularly appealing in use in salads, sandwiches, kabobs, and especially not tartar. While I do appreciate the palate cleansing affect it has on odorous raw fish in some Maki, tuna is far from an odorous fish. I personally feel the crunch and cool of the cucumber took away from the overall texture and taste of the tuna, avocado and sirachi. Some, especially those who have a greater appreciation for cucumber, may disagree. However, pieces were easy enough to navigate around and the remaining tartar was fresh and flavorful. Another thing I love about ordering tartar at different restaurants is seeing how creative they can be with what to serve with it. In this case, we were served large crispy wonton chips. As I'd suspected, we ran out of chips before we ran out of tartar, but our waiter was quick to bring us more (without us even requesting them) and I was pleasantly surprised!
And finally the main course.
This took us a while on our own accord. Our waiter was very patient, continuously allotting us more time to read the menu (repeatedly) and answering every question we had. I tend to ask for a waitstaff's opinion only if I deem them a reliable source. PID and I both agreed that ours was "normal like us" and thus, reliable enough. After asking us about our tastes and mood, we both, surprisingly, went with his recommendations. PID ordered the Lamb Osso Bucco for $23, and I the Willow Shellfish Trio (entree version) for $25 (what can I say, it'd been a fishy couple of days).
Sadly, after all the hemming and hawing over my abundance of delicious looking options, I was brought the wrong order. The waiter admitted the mistake was his and not the kitchen's -- which I very much respected -- and promised to put a double rush on my replacement. I encouraged PID to dig in, and so he did.
I ordered another glass of the Reisling while I waited.
His meat instantly fell off the bone which we learned was because it had been braised for 5 hours. He was so kind as to let me try a forkfull. I thought the herb demi-glace complimented the salty meat perfectly. He admitted he could have used a bit more meat and potatoes (he's a man, what do you expect), but overall seemed genuinely satisfied and pleased with the meal.
When my originally ordered meal arrived, I had been so pleased with the service, wine, atmosphere, appetizer and PID's delightful company that I'd barely noticed my 8-10 minute wait (or was it longer?). I dug right in and immediately realized it was worth the wait, however long it was. I was half tempted to ask for the recipe right then and there of the Korean BBQ Sauce in which they marinated the shrimp, and the red onion caper sauce was a perfect complement to the all natural crab cakes. Bravo to Chef Rudman and his very apparent 22 years of experience.
We decided against dessert as we're amidst a rigorous diet plan (yes -- this past Saturday was our cheat day, hence the pasta and Panna Cotta) and called it a night.
Groupon: 1 @ $20
Drinks: 2 Reisling @ $8
1 Merlot @ $11
Appetizer: 1 Hawaiian Tuna Tartar @ $14
Meals: 1 Lamb Osso Bucco @ $23
1 Shellfish Trio @ $25
Tax: @ 7% (in Allegheny County) $5.67
Tip: @ 20% for excellent service $17
Groupon discount: - $40
TOTAL FOR TWO: $78.67
In my less-than-professional opinion:
I was thoroughly delighted with our entire dining experience in both taste and setting. I'd not only recommend it, I'd recommend it to people who owe me dinner because I plan on coming back sooner than my wallet might allow it. Though PID and I are far from wrecking the planet by reproducing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the restaurant offers a separate children's menu, making this a family friendly destination (though I'd still recommend your first visit to be of the 1:1 date variety).
I don't even think PID minding me forcing him to miss a Monday Night Raw...