by Timothy G. Beeman II
This weekend I wrote of news that Chef Travis Myers had made the move to Willow’s Bistro. I also wrote a promise that I would discuss the tasting that Stephanie and I were privy to thanks to Chef Myers. I’m here to fulfill this promise. This was no ordinary course menu tasting, but we’ll talk in courses, anyway.
We had two requests: no onions (me) and no beans (Stephanie).
Course 1: Panko crusted fried scallops with Herb Milk Gravy and Pancetta.
What came first was this fantastic seafood masterpiece. Willow’s always has a scallops special and this was not exactly the special of the day. The special was beer battered but this was what Chef Myers wanted it to be, instead. He wanted it as panko crusted and I think that while it would have been spectacular either way, I appreciated the panko fried version because that was the vision the chef wanted. The scallops were perfectly cooked, tender yet firm, not slimy at all. The flavors in the panko mixed with the herb milk gravy and the salty pancetta were bursting. Exploding even. This was a great start.
Course 2: Salad of artichokes, olives, sun dried tomatoes, aged balsamic and olive oil with traditional bruschetta rubbed with Garlic and olive oil.
Stephanie has never been a fan of olives but she took several bites of the kalamata olives that were scattered through. This was partly the preparation and partly because she doesn’t like the traditional green olives enough that she was surprised that there is a meatier taste to the kalamata than the green. I love all olives so that was a no-brainer for me. The sun-dried tomatoes were sweet and candy-like, as they should be. Chef Myers did come out to ask if shallots were okay instead of onions. I gave the go ahead. They were soft and had lost their oniony threat. The aged balsamic and olive oil drizzled about the salad brought all the veggies’ flavors out of hiding and this was a delicious salad. The bruschetta that you find in most restaurants around here throw a tomato salad on top of their charred bread, but according to Chef Myers, traditional bruschetta really only consists of charred bread that is brushed with olive oil and rubbed with garlic. I had a couple of those and I am not a hard bread fan.
Course 3: Seared tuna with an orange soy shiitake mushroom sauce.
One of my favorites of the day, which is saying something because the whole tasting was amazing. The tuna was seared and rare on the inside. The most perfect way to eat tuna, in this author’s opinion, is seared. The sauce was a perfect blend of orange and soy. I will never say that mushrooms are my favorite food; not a fan of them other than on pizza, usually. Shiitakes tend to be a little more delicate, in my opinion, than the regular fungus and these were both delicate and delicious. I ate several of them and I cannot decide if it was that I liked the mushrooms so much or I was trying to get all that orange soy sauce that I could. Not only were the mushrooms better with that sauce, the seared tuna was juicier and more flavorful with it. You could still taste the tuna, to be sure, but the sauce brought that forward and accentuated the flavor.
Course 4: Pear chicken salad with house smoked peanuts, Goat Lady Dairy feta and shallot vinaigrette.
Salads are usually not my first choice when there are other choices on the menu. This salad however, would be one that I actually order from the menu, eat and probably order another. The seasoned chicken breast, peppery and bright, was an adept companion to the pear. Pears have a toned down, yet distinctive flavor that allows the chicken to breathe and come to the forefront of the flavor bar. The in-house smoked peanuts created the understated, yet very appropriate, crunch that salads sometimes beg for. The Goat Lady Dairy feta which, while definitely having the feta flavor, was more along the creamy-textured lines of chevre. Add all of this and the shallot vinaigrette and you have a smokey, tangy and salty treat that compliments the light meat and fruit flavors. The field greens were the right choice as bedding for this fantastic dish.
Course 5: Roasted shallot crab cake with orange caper crème fraîche.
You’ll hear this a lot from me in this article but “I don’t usually” eat crab cakes. I think they are usually too gamey and heavy when, to me, crab meat should be lighter in flavor and texture. I think it could be that there is too much breading and not enough crab or just no balance. This, though, was balanced and tasty with the shallot keeping the crab meat honest. Flaky while keeping its cohesiveness. It was also a great size: not too large and not too small, just right. The orange caper crème fraîche was a creamy embellishment to the seafood profile. Orange, to me, is a natural partner with seafood selections. It was light and fluffy with salty undertone from the capers. Then, topping it with the arugula salad brings the peppery green addition to enhance the orange caper flavors and adds an additional, soft-punch crunch to the crusted crab cake. While I don’t usually eat crab cakes, this was a fantastic course.
Course 6: Deep fried alligator with honey chipotle red cabbage slaw and honey drizzle.
My favorite dish of the day, this. I believe it to be the most unique, as well. Only once had I ever had alligator and that was close to twenty years ago, in Florida. Stephanie had never had it. The texture of the alligator was something different. It was like a mix of chicken and fish. It was stiff meat (a la the chicken consistency) that still flaked like a piece of cod or flounder. And based on that description you would expect the flavor to be similar. You would be correct. There is no true line in the flavor, either. There is a fish flavor and a chicken flavor. But, there is much of each. You add the crunchy deep fried shell and the honey drizzle and that sweet bee nectar makes this deep fried treasure truly pop while melting in your mouth. But, wait, there is more. The honey chipotle red cabbage slaw was delicate but made a statement on the meat. Instead of canceling each other, the sweet and heat create a flavor profile that was unique and possibly understated. Without it the overall dish, while still flavorful, would have been missing a major element. An element that brought a different, softer crunch that compliments the breading of the alligator. Chef Myers told us that he wants to change the slaw to something different but this, to us, was a perfect pairing.
Course 7: Whipped pimento cheese, pepper maple bacon, fried green tomatoes and arugula salad on charred bread.
By this time we were getting quite full. But we were still interested in all the flavors that Chef Myers was throwing at us. Southern and somewhat tame, this, the food finale of the extravaganza, was still no slouch. Mistake not that for weakness; this was a great and needed finish. First, there’s the whipped pimento cheese. Light, fluffy, cheesy, creamy. Thick-cut pepper maple bacon. Crunchy, peppery arugula salad. Fried green tomato discs. A slab of charred bread. To quote Chef Myers: “everything is better on charred bread.” I do not eat fried green tomatoes but I had one and some of another. Stephanie, who loves them, thought these were just right. The sweetness of the tomatoes jumped in and meshed wonderfully with the spicy, sweet and savory bacon to make the whipped pimento cheese shine. After cutting off a few pieces of the bread, I found myself using the bacon to scoop the cheese like a spoon and sprinkle the arugula on top to create a flavor meld that didn’t need the bread. I would have eaten the whole thing, by myself, had we not been fed so well.
Bonus: Red wine sangria with lemons, limes, oranges, blueberries, blackberries and cherries.
Really, I’m just going to say that the sangria was some of the most flavor-rich that I have ever had and I love a few other establishments’ red sangria. It is all in the intensity of the wine and the medley of fruits. I just wanted to include the picture to demonstrate yet another reason to visit Willow’s.
I mentioned in the preceding article that the word that Chef Myers stated more than any other in the conversation we had was “passion.” He demonstrated this passion in every dish – possibly every bite we took. He accompanied every single dish we were given and explained the dish, the flavors he was looking for, the reason he chose it and the passion he had for it. Each dish was a tour of flavors and Chef Myers is an experienced and passionate tour guide. Even after the food was on the table he made sure it was plated correctly (and picture worthy) after transport and before we ate any of it.
The bottom line is that Chef Will Kingery and Norb Cooper have unearthed a beast in Chef Travis Myers. Their risk-taking faith in Chef Myers is going to prove to themselves and the culinary community that he is a true diamond in the rough. The customers of Willow’s, those faithful many, will continue to come, they will begin spreading the word that The New Kid is making waves, new culinary seekers will come. You should be one of those. Salute Chef Myers and thank you for hosting us.