It’s hard to say that any single location in Brooklyn is still an “unsuspecting” place to find a trendy New American restaurant. But 506 Franklin Avenue in Bed-Stuy–a former tax prep storefront wedged under the elevated entrance to the Shuttle train–comes pretty darn close. An oddly angular room with soaring ceilings topping awkward little nooks and crannies, it does not seem like the likeliest place for chef John Poiarkoff and owner Carver Farrell of The Pines in Gowanus to open their second neighborhood restaurant, Willow, which debuted about eight weeks ago.
It is however, the best restaurant I’ve been to in Brooklyn this year.
Willow is the kind of place you’re going to try not to like if you’re a hipster-hating, foodie-bashing variety of Brooklynite. The menu starts with “pickled things” and “four bites”–a daily-changing selection of four bite-sized morsels served on a thick wooden slab, for $10 a person. I was highly skeptical of spending four pizza slices worth of moolah on what is essentially four amuse bouches, but any doubt washed away with each tiny bite I dropped into my mouth. From simple Meyer lemon cream-topped stalks of asparagus to a velvety fish mousse on a sunchoke crisp, each of these four bites burst with unique flavors–salty, spicy and lots of citrus in all of them–setting the tone for a very exciting menu.
At first glance, Willow’s menu of small plates sounds like it could be found at a hundred other places in Brooklyn–meats sourced from Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley Meat Company along with hyper-seasonal produce (RAMPS!!) from the likes of Star Route Farm in upstate New York. But Poiarkoff’s dishes manage to stand out by a long shot.
The light and airy texture of that sunchoke crisp returns in the form of a tapioca crisp that holds up fluke crudo topped with uni (sea urchin) and green strawberries. I sometimes find the uber-hip flavor of sea urchin a little too intensely ocean-y, but here, little dollops of uni paired with the fish and tart berries balances out perfectly. A beautiful radish carpaccio seems like it should be a simple, palate-cleansing in-between dish, but, filled with flavors of Szechuan peppercorns, kumquat and chilies, this super-citrusy salad is one that I just couldn’t stop reaching in for more of.
There are less crazy options like golden-fried potato pierogies (are these old-world dumplings having a moment?) topped with sour cream, morel mushrooms and yes, ramps. And there are crazier options like an impressive boar belly plate. Yes, boar belly. While that sounds like a perhaps desperate attempt to out-do the now-ubiquitous pork belly, it’s also a delicious dish: salty, melt-in-your-mouth slivers of fatty belly meat paired with springtime snap peas and rhubarb, then served over a creamy sunchoke puree. It’s the type of rich, indulgent dish that I don’t need more than a few bites of, but that lingers in my memory weeks later.
The only miss for me was a softshell crab dish with a gin batter and remoulade of ramps (hello, again). The whole-battered crabs were tough to dig into, and their flavor overshadowed by the bite of the ramp-spiked remoulade. (Maybe it’s time we all stopped freaking out about ramps every spring—I mean, they’re really just onions, right?) But that was a very rare miss on an all-around inspiring menu.
I was also pretty blown away by the Crybaby cocktail–rosemary syrup and oaked gin topped with lemon, a spritz of yogurt whey and a dash of sour beer–a tart concoction that bursts with flavor the same way each of theses dishes do. Willow is now open for weekend brunch as well–look for kimchi fried rice and poached eggs over mushrooms with snap peas; like all of the menus, the options here will change as frequently as all that seasonal produce does.
This restaurant will undoubtably draw complaints about being too pricey for a corner that includes both a Popeye’s and a Crown Fried Chicken (veggie small plates are $8 to $10; slightly larger meat options range from $18 to $25), but for my money this one is worth the splurge. I doubt they’ll have any trouble filling those 30 awkwardly-angled seats.
506 Franklin Avenue (near Fulton); 718-399-2384; willowbk.com