Sharply designed Willow succeeds with handcrafted cocktails
Suave Latin-infused lounge and bar in Fells Point is a winner
Bartender Megan Deschaine (left) chats with patrons Jason Williams, (second from right), and his companion Lorna Hennessey (right), at Willow in Fells Point. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / August 14, 2012)
The elegant, dimly lit upstairs is lined with plush seating, including two large leather couches in its center. Downstairs, a back lounge and front-of-the-house seating area play bookends to the striking, triangular-shaped bar. A large, vintage-looking chandelier anchors the layout.
The immaculate liquor bottle display makes quite a centerpiece behind the bar. The spare backlighting draws you in, and the three rows of mid- to top-shelf liquors are presented like trophies. It's a classy display — something James Bond might have in his home.
In the wrong hands, this could be dangerous territory. A new bar's aspirations to swankiness can feel awkward and, at their worst, fraudulent.
Low lights and a lone TV (off on a recent Saturday night) are deliberate design choices, but they don't automatically make a bar more interesting. In fact, a bar's lack of normal comforts can sometimes make it work even harder to impress.
Yet Willow succeeds, by balancing keen design with the real reasons to visit: well-crafted drinks and warm staff. While the impressive look makes it notable, especially in Fells Point, the strong drinks and the bartenders' hospitality left the biggest impressions.
Surrounded by 25 others in the main bar area, I began the night with a cocktail called an Eastside ($10), Willow's surprisingly complex take on the gin and tonic.
Bluecoat green tea gin from Philadelphia, mint syrup, lime juice and club soda meshed OK, but not as smoothly as I had hoped. The ginger mojito ($10) was a vast improvement, its mixture of lime juice, club soda, orange syrup, muddled mint and Flor de Cana ginger rum from Nicaragua coalescing in refreshing harmony.
Then the night shifted gears with "abbreviations," or Willow's longer, more ostentatious name for shots. It's a questionable decision — if the shots are bland or forgettable, branding them with an unnecessarily cute name would be indefensible.
But again, Willow delivers on its promise. These shots can instantly ignite your taste buds (and your night), wonky names or no.
The Cliffrise ($7) is enough of a reason to check out Willow. When I ordered it, the eyes of the lead bartender, Julia Momose, lit up. Her look didn't lie: The mix of El Jimador jalapeno tequila from Mexico, lime juice and house grenadine was a shock to the tongue — swift, spicy and addictive. The grenadine sits at the bottom of the double shot glass, giving the impression of something fiery while actually finishing sweet.
The Basil Harlot ($7) wasn't as much of a knockout, but it made a smooth counterpoint to the Cliffrise. Its mixture of Prairie Organic basil vodka, mint syrup and grapefruit juice was as light as it sounds; a pleasant final note of the visit.
But Momose — who was friendly and informative all night — had one last offering. After handing over the check, she beamed while discussing the fall and the new seasonal ingredients. The cocktail list would be changing soon, and she invited us to come back later in the month to see for ourselves.
As if to sweeten the deal, she grabbed three shot glasses and poured the Yasuraka mix, a simple blend of Hakutsuru cucumber and melon sake with lavender syrup. It was the type of gesture people tell their friends about.
Willow comes very close to achieving the "high-class, low-key lounge" concept it describes on its website. The most glaring mistake I noticed was the Top 40 station playing Selena Gomez, Katy Perry and Cee-Lo Green, a badl fit for a lounge that would benefit from a low-key playlist.
Soundtrack aside, owner Ryan Perlberg — who also co-owns the neighboring bar Rye and hot-dog joint Stuggy's — has another winner. Willow values substance over style. It's not hard on the eyes, either.
Back story: Willow, owner Ryan Perlberg's third Fells Point spot in recent years, continues to diversify South Broadway, adding a Latin-fusion lounge and restaurant to the mix. Willow focuses on its handcrafted cocktails and shots (called "abbreviations").
Parking: Metered parking on the street. It's Fells Point, so there are parking garages within walking distance, too.
Signature drink: The Cliffrise abbreviation ($7) is a fiery shot of jalapeno tequila, lime juice and grenadine. Sip it at first and shoot the rest. The ginger mojito ($10) was one of the best versions in Fells Point.
Where: 811 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Contact: 443-835-4086, willowbaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily