Restaurant Review: The Willows, Bristol
Block Island swordfish with charred fennel, kale and leek purée.
The Willows in the DoubleTree Hotel Bristol is a suave boîte enclosed in a larger $20-million glass box, the shining result of a 13-month renovation by Hilton Worldwide. Soaring glass walls and carpeted halls lead to 141 totally redone guest rooms, state-of-the-art conference rooms, a sports bar and a brand-new tower with a separate entrance and a Presidential Suite with its own kitchen, theater and $200,000 security system in case you happen to be a star athlete (ESPN is right across the street) or rule a country.
Clearly, this is a highly professional operation, and The Willows looks the part. The lighting is so perfect you don’t notice it and the doggie bags resemble designer totes.
But what about the food, we wonder, when we visit early on. Are we in for another celebrity chef who’ll do a star turn for a while and then return to the television limelight?
Consulting the menu, I discover that the executive chef of The Willows is Leo C. Bushey III, Connecticut native son and culinary genius, whose cooking I have followed for years: at the Russell in downtown Hartford, at The Hartford Club, at Aqua Oyster Bar, which dazzled so many discriminating diners and won so many awards it put little old Vernon on every gourmet’s ‘gotta go’ list.
I welcome him back (silently because as always I am here anonymously) and turn my attention to an intriguing list of small-plate starters. There are 13. There are four of us. Choosing is an agonizing pleasure. Options range from rich and filling to light and bright. Playing the field, our meal begins with a work of art: hearts of palm and ahi tuna. How to describe it? We need a camera. Why are we surprised? Leo Bushey wins prizes for innovation. This one involves stuffing pale ivory hearts of palm with rose-colored raw tuna to form columns in a miniature landscape (platescape?) made with peppered chèvre and the red-ruffled leaves of Lola Rosa lettuce. The color scheme and the flavor profile work beautifully together, and a bit of mystery (what does it look like to you?) adds a soupçon of fun.
For contrast, we order the richest thing on the menu—torchon of Hudson Valley foie gras. A golden oldie, yes, but not the way it’s gussied up here, with bite-sized crisp, sweet golden-apple fritters, tiny translucent cubes of muscatel gelée and a swirl of port wine syrup. It may be gilding the lily, but it tastes bloomin’ good.
“Vanilla poached lobster pot-au-feu, pomme purée, pistachio crumb, citrus beurre blanc” sounds even more sybaritic, but I have a few faults to find with it—design flaws, mostly. Why alter the unique flavor of lobster with vanilla? Why serve it with so much soupy mashed potato that it’s hard to take a forkful without muddying it further and obliterating whatever flavor pistachio crumbs and citrus beurre blanc might have to offer? This is a robust dish with plenty of lobster, but for my taste the recipe needs a bit of tweaking.
On the other hand, the wild mushroom ragout with tomato concassé and white truffle emulsion is perfect—deep, dark, irresistibly delicious swoon food. A generous portion served bubbling-hot in a casserole reminds me that Bushey’s interpretation of New American cuisine assiduously avoids the kind of silliness I’ve encountered elsewhere. Plating two trophy radishes with a pile of gratings from a block of pink Himalayan salt? Not for this chef. He may be noted for his fresh ideas, but he keeps in mind that satisfying a diverse dining population should be part of the equation. So, for carnivores there’s a 16-ounce grilled, aged rib eye of beef, an Australian spring lamb rack, and chunky braised beef short ribs, along with lots of more delicate options, such as a dainty dish of North Atlantic salmon en croute, a flaky package of flavor, served with wild mushrooms and drizzled with porcini fumet.
Grilled Block Island swordfish is fresh bounty from the sea—two large pieces of moist, perfectly grilled fish, served with a trendy trio of charred fennel, kale and leek purée.
Pork tenderloin roulade with “arugula, heirloom spinach, sun-dried fruit, roasted Coventry corn, Yukon Gold potatoes, maple cream” is a symphony of flavor and pretty on the plate, especially the yellow gold kernels of corn, as juicy and sweet as if it were picked an hour ago.
Thick chops of Australian lamb, too, are exceptionally tasty (especially if you like the distinctive flavor of lamb—not to be confused with milder versions, which sometimes taste like veal). Here they’re served with a mound of sticky purple rice and garnished with warm grapes and cranberry glaze.
Service is young, polite and carefully schooled but a bit uncertain. Youthful enthusiasm is always refreshing, however, and dessert, which arrives after a short delay, is worth waiting for. Among the highlights: a playful presentation of coconut panna cotta, silky and smooth, paired with a tangy, chewy pineapple fruit strip and a vanilla crisp; chocolate mousse cake; and a gourmet cupcake, in this instance orange with Grand Marnier icing. I like them all, and order a cookie plate to take home. In short order, a sandwich of peanut butter cookies and currant jelly, a gooey coconut snowball and hazelnut-studded chocolate biscotti arrive in a stylish takeout box. The inscription in brown ink on top advises me to “say mmm.” I do.
DoubleTree Hotel Bristol
42 Century Dr., Bristol, 860/589-7766, doubletreebristol.com
Open for dinner 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $20, entrées $21 to $38, desserts $9.