In Portland, Willow Offers Industry Cooks Affordable Fine Dining
Only if you count the woman with the blue bangs by the wall do you get a dozen people behind the L-shaped countertop. She’s not a talker, but she’s got this unblinking, dreamy look. Maybe that’s why chefs and co-owners John Pickett and Doug Weiler hung her there. “We created our dream restaurant,” says Weiler. Certain restaurants may have 11 people waiting for a table, but that’s the max number of seats at Willow.
A prix fixe restaurant located above a bespoke coffee roaster in Southeast Portland’s Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, Willow opened in 2016 and lies on the Southeast 11th Avenue corridor butting up against historic, residential Ladd’s Addition’s. In some ways, it’s definitive nouveau Portland: walking distance from a two-story areperia as well as the country’s first dedicated gluten-free brewpub. (Don’t mock it; the chefs came from Ad Hoc and The French Laundry!)
One of the restaurants Pickett and Weiler have on their résumés is Portland’s Bluehour, where they met. When the duo discovered a shared vision for how they’d want to do their own restaurant, a year-and-a-half-long hunt for this space began. And with barely double-digit seating, they landed on the plan of doing two seatings. “The twice-a-night dinner party was born,” says Pickett.
Dinner party is the most apt description because the space is more or less a second-floor flat, down to the stacks of plates and bowls on bookshelves in the corner along with fewer serving glasses than I owned when I had a bachelor pad. When you walk in, you’re greeted by one of the owners with a welcoming handshake. Nary a host—nor waiters, bartenders, or bussers. The two owners, with just the help of a third cook, prepare everything on three induction burners, three circulators to sous vide, a tiny convection oven, and a dehydrator.
“We try to create dishes that—if we set it out and put it in front of you—you’d think it was cooked traditionally, to have everything taste like there’s soul in it,” he explains.
Dishes tend to have a familiar name or ring to them—cheeseburger and fries, beer-braised beef, or simply vegetable crudité—but the mise en place Matisse-like courses delight the eyes as much as the mouth.
Dinners are always six courses, and priced $50. Guests leave neither stuffed nor even a skosh hungry; they’re sated. “We’re not a tasting menu,” notes Weiler, “we’re feeding people.” Even the most beautifully appointed plate or bowl with a two-bite “course” is a bit cruel, especially the more delectable it is. Imagine the horror of sinking your teeth into a savory “brownie”—braised short ribs with grits and a ginger-mushroom purée—but as only a one-chew sensation. Dinners at Willow are a meal, not merely an activity.
Actually, dinner is not always $50. The first Tuesday of each month, Pickett and Weiler open their bite-sized bistro to line cooks. Absolutely anyone in the industry who works to prepare lavish meals for patrons—but cannot customarily afford to eat the food they cook given their notoriously low wages and the higher cost of dining out at nice restaurants—is welcome to sign up for a special price of just $13. That means any cook can nab one of the five pairs of seats for an affordable price, with drinks priced à la carte.
Willow offers four ways to imbibe. There’s the house wine pairing (four wines for $25) or the reserve wine pairing (four for $50, including such delights as a 2014 Vignoble Guillaume Chardonnay from France or a famed local Pinot Noir). There’s also a beer pairing (four for $25 because when weisswurst and pretzel is on the menu, a glass of Ayinger Weizenbock is in order) and Willow has conducted occasional beer dinners partnering with a local brewery, in a city world-famous for its breadth and excellence of such craft breweries.
Fourthly, there’s the seldom-ordered but truly inventive flight of nonalcoholic drinks for $22. The “burnt wine” I found deliciously tannic and complementary, and I heard about a celery kvass—no doubt an improved-upon version of the Russian fermented bread beverage. Weiler, a native New Yorker, once created a hazelnut egg cream infusing some Oregon terroir that paired with a rice pudding dessert. One adventurous couple ordered the wine, beer, and nonalcoholic courses—and that sounds like the best way to go to enjoy every facet of Willow’s creativity.
Of the affordable dining options for line cooks, Weiler explains, “We’re developing relationships with young, ambitious people and creating a culinary network.”
It’s that emphasis on relationships and socializing that provides the exclamation point for the Willow experiment. Even the non-line cooks, the bulk of Willow’s guests who reserve seats online, end up fraternizing. They sit at the counter together, then retire to the living-room area where Weiler and Pickett provide coffee (from their downstairs roaster) and maybe an extra little sweet bite. “It makes guests feel special, like they’re at their own private restaurant,” concludes Weiler, “everybody feels like a VIP here.”