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Willow serves fresh Mexican fusion cuisine

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Willow manages to be a lot of things all at once.

The Fells Point restaurant, opened in July by the team behind RYE and Stuggy's, shares its name with the graceful weeping willow tree. With gray walls, hanging lanterns and gauzy curtains, Willow's interior is in sync with the moody look of its namesake. The space — like the staff — is casual but stylish.

Willow's menu, on the other hand, is full of fresh takes on Tex-Mex and bar-friendly pizzas and burgers. Flavors occasionally veer into sophisticated territory, but overall, the food is straightforward, fun and approachable.

Unlikely as it sounds, the combination works.

On a recent Thursday night, Willow was crowded, with nearly every table taken, though the vibe was calm.

We kicked off the evening with a round of drinks and an order of crab guacamole ($12). Prepared tableside, the guacamole was super-fresh, with a nice balance between heat, lime and avocado.

Tableside guacamole preparation is popular these days at better Mexican restaurants. In some cases, it's all theater but no real benefit. At Willow, the opposite was true. After a brief consultation about our desired level of heat and whether we like cilantro, our server retired to a small cart in the corner of the room to prepare the dip.

When he returned to the table, he left us a medium-size bowl of chunky guacamole topped, at the last minute, by a generous helping of sauteed lump crab meat.

Scooped up with warm chips, the guacamole-plus-crab combination was fantastic, melding sweet, spicy and citrus flavors.

Having scraped every last bit of guacamole from the bowl, we could have skipped dinner (or ordered more guac). Instead, we moved on to a Korean barbecue-inspired quesadilla ($13) and slow-roasted pork tacos ($14).

For the tacos, Willow's kitchen roasted pork shoulder for 24 hours, then sauteed the pulled pork in adobo sauce, made in-house over about four days. All of that time was well spent, rendering the meat impressively tender and full of rich spice.

Taco condiments included queso fresco, more guacamole, fresh salsa and dirty rice. Simply prepared, each showed off the clean flavors of high-quality ingredients.

The Korean barbecue quesadilla made use of several of the same sides but amped up the creativity. Flank steak, marinated for 24 hours in sweet and salty Korean barbecue sauce then grilled and topped with shredded radish, was a surprising and effective match for the traditional Mexican flavors in guacamole and salsa.

Willow's dessert menu was brief, but we couldn't resist a small order of churros ($5) with chocolate hazelnut sauce. The small fried pastries arrived warm, dusted with sugar and paprika, adding a hint of savory to the traditional dessert.

Our only quibble with Willow came not with the food but with the service. The staff wasn't lazy by any means, but the small restaurant was full, with only three people acting as bartender and wait staff for the whole place.

The staff was constantly on the move — and for most of the meal, we were well tended. But occasionally, demands of the diners overwhelmed the staff, resulting in lengthy waits. (In our case, that wait was for the bill.)

But with drinks in hand, the wait wasn't so bad. Fans of RYE will recognize — and appreciate — Willow's approach to cocktails. Drinks start with fresh ingredients and are made with care, often incorporating house-infused liquors.

A glass of "ginger red" sangria ($7) was a slight twist on the fruity wine drink. Ginger root, star anise and vanilla flavored the wine, giving it a sweet, spiced scent underscored by orange.

The chai tea gin cocktail ($10) was even more unusual. A combination of chai-infused gin, raisin syrup, herbal bitters and lemon juice, the drink was so neatly balanced between sweet, tart and bitter, we struggled to differentiate one flavor from the next.

Our favorite drink was the ginger rum mojito ($9). Made with ginger-infused Flora de Cana rum, lime, mint, soda and more ginger, the cocktail sounds like a fairly standard mojito. But the addition of ginger to the mix made a big difference, adding spice that elevated the drink from average to great.

At the end of the evening, we got to appreciate that flavor again, when the staff treated our table — and the table next to us — to shots of ginger-infused rum. The drink was subtle and sweet, with very little alcohol burn; easy to imbibe straight up, without the cushion of additional ingredients.

The rum was carefully infused with interesting flavors, blending familiar ingredients to create something entirely new. Like the rum, Willow takes the traditional elements of a Mexican restaurant, twists them, and conjures up something exciting and fresh.

Willow

Back story: Opened last summer by the team behind Stuggy's and RYE, Willow brings a moody space, intriguing cocktails and a modern approach to Mexican food to lower Fells Point.

Parking: On-street

Signature dish: A large quesadilla stuffed with cheese, onions, tomatoes, radish and hoisin-marinated flank steak elegantly meshes Tex-Mex presentation with the trendy flavors of Korean barbecue. The fresh, bright flavors of guacamole and salsa fresca round out the plate.

Where: 811 South Broadway, Baltimore

Contact: 443-835-4086; willowbaltimore.com

Open: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday to Sunday

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Rating: ***

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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