Last weekend was my 50th birthday. For months I had been preparing for this major rite of passage only to learn that it was really quite painless! I had planned to keep it low-key and let it quietly pass; but my family had other plans. My mom, sisters and cousin were all coming with their families to help me celebrate! When I thought about it, I realized, if someone wants to travel to help you celebrate…you let them!
At that point I began talking to the wonderful people at Willow. Willow is a superb upscale restaurant in Arlington, VA whose chef, Tracy O’Grady has made a national name for herself. Innovative seasonal dishes in an inspired atmosphere, this was definitely worthy of the semi-centennial milestone.
My mom had so kindly insisted on paying the bill, even though a headcount came to 18 people! In an effort to help Willow manage a crowd that size on a Saturday night and in an effort to preserve my mother’s budget, I set out to plan a set tasting menu. I wanted the group to experience as wide a range as possible of the food at Willow.
I worked with Gabriella Abruzzi their event planner and we came up with a fantastic menu that showcased their creativity and skill. It offered a 5-course tasting menu, one for each decade.
Once the menu was determined, their Sommelier Kevin Pruett selected a different wine for each course, each perfectly suited to just that dish. (with 5 courses, the evening already looked promising!)
I will take you through this amazing meal, and apologize that I don’t have pictures of all of the dishes…I was so blown away at the arrival of each dish that I forgot to photograph them a few times!
As the evening began, it was special right from the start. We had a beautiful long table (with a lot of wine glasses on it!) and the fantastic waistaff supplied us with Willow’s amazing flatbreads.
The first course was a Wild Mushroom Bisque. This was served without spoons in a demi-tasse and garnished with a parmesan crouton and a chive oil that added a shamrock-like green focal point on the top. The soup is made with sherry, so the wine was a light Fino sherry. It was perfect with the soup.
If I had suddenly been called away after having just this soup, the night would have been a success!
Fortunately I was not called away and it only got better. The next dish was a Duo of Apple and Pear Salads. This was an apple with gorgonzola cheese next to a poached pear stuffed with goat cheese. They were nestled in a light bed of spring greens and the salad was composed like a work of art. This was served with a light Alsatian Pinot Blanc. The sweet fruit combined with the pungent cheeses to create a dish greater than the sum of its components.
Throughout the evening the wines were like a subtext, slowly, but decisively moving from subtle and light to progressively more assertive wines. This in itself was like a journey of its own.
The next dish was possibly the star of the evening. It was the Seared Day Boat Scallop served with a potato ravioli, shiitake mushrooms, brussels sprouts, bacon pieces an apple ragout and two sauces, a mustard sauce and a parsley sauce.
This dish was as good as anything I have ever eaten. It looked beautiful, and the flavors worked together like a symphony, each doing their part for the greater good of the dish! It was served with a California Semillon Blanc and all of the flavors continue to linger in my mind, a week later.
It would only get better as the waiters filled our glasses with a deep ruby-red Syrah from California’s North Coast. This would accompany the Duo of Beef. This dish is simply brilliant. While I certainly appreciate a fine tender piece of steak like a filet mignon, as a chef I also have a deep appreciation for the lesser cuts. I admire a chef who can take a piece of beef that is so tough you can’t get a knife through it, and cook it into something deeply flavored, tender, and memorable.
This night, we got both! The Petit Filet Medallion was served with a horseradish cream and cooked and seasoned as if for the Gods! It was beef at its finest. Right next to it however, was the Braised Prime Pot Roast. This required only a fork, and fell apart into tender concentrated flavor at each bite. The meat was accompanied by roasted winter vegetables and sparked the unnecessary debate of which people liked better. Still, it was family and this was the only argument of the evening! (By the way, neither was better!)
The meal ended with a Praline Mousse Birthday Cake made by Willow’s pastry chef Kate Jansen. It was served with the final wine of the night (at Willow anyway), a Virginia sparkling wine. The cake was the perfect ending to a memorable experience, and like all of the other courses, would have been worth going just for that course!
As the night wrapped up we had laughed and enjoyed each other’s company and it was clear to me that I am as fortunate as any person could be. I had my sister Linda and her family. They had driven from Connecticut, and their oldest had driven from college in Pittsburgh! My sister Jane and her family from Philadelphia, my cousin and friend Meghan and her “family” from Baltimore, and a longtime friend and neighbor from my youth Russ who goes back to Laconia, NH with our family. We also had our family’s good friend Mary, and my own family, my wife Alice, and two of my three children, Andrew and Margaret. We were minus one college student, Julia.
Sadly, my mom who generously funded this extravagant evening fell ill at the last minute and could not make it. Thank you Mom! You have been there for me for 50 years and we missed you at dinner.
You don’t look old enough to have a 50-year-old son!