in Fells Point is not a restaurant. Let's just get that out of the way. It is a lounge that happens to serve food. This knowledge does not make the food better or worse, but it does soften the blow of a bad meal.
Owned and operated by the group that owns Stuggy's and Rye, Willow is dark, brooding, and holds no traces of Sam's Kid, which used to inhabit the spot. It's a gritty reboot of a space whose shabby-chic decor feels as if it were decorated and lit by a person who has only seen bars in European beer commercials. Although the comfy chairs and couches are relaxing, eating food on them will always make you look and feel awkward, so we opted for a table.
An order of tostones ($7), chunks of plantain that are fried, smashed and then fried again as chips, made for a good start. The hot and crispy tostones were complemented with a queso and salsa mixture. The meal was quickly derailed, however, by the spicy crab guacamole ($14). What looked and tasted like canned crab sparsely dotted bland guacamole, which was served with fried tortilla chips and covered with two sauces out of squirt bottles, giving the visual effect of a newly started Pollack painting. The crab was watery, the chips were stale, and a chipotle sauce blew out the whole plate with its heat. But it was the presentation of the guacamole that stuck out the most. The guac was served in a glass bowl half-filled with lettuce, making it appear deceptively full. This sleight-of-hand makes diners feel as if they are being short-changed. Coupled with the lack of crab and the $14 price-point, it becomes even more frustrating. At least the jalapeño-infused sour cream splattered across the nachos with the chipotle sauce was flavorful and pleasant.
Luckily, the cocktail menu (created by Doug Atwell and Julia Momose of Rye) has plenty of attractive alcoholic offerings. The autumn grey ($10) combined Earl Grey tea-infused gin with jasmine-orange tea syrup, lemon juice, prosecco, and lemon oil, giving it a pleasantly citrusy effect dominated by the orange and bergamot flavors. The gin wasn't overpowering and added a needed floral note. An ancho tequila cocktail aptly named smoke ($13) was a satisfying mix of the tequila, mescal, agave, and orange and lime juices. The guajillo chile and salt rim on the glass gave it brightness and spice to back up the dulling effects of the smokiness.
The rest of the dinner was a cavalcade of one disappointing plate after another. The menu at Willow is set up so you can have their six protein offerings either as tacos, quesadillas, nachos or taco salad. While this modular form of culinary dress-up can be effective, the base filling has to be cooked properly, otherwise all of the dishes will suffer. A trio of tacos ($9) exemplified this problem, starting with a dry chicken molé, drizzled greedily with molé sauce and topped with a chunky curtido (a fermented cabbage slaw) that tasted more like oregano. The roasted pork adobe was moist but its sauce had an overwhelming metallic, cinnamon aftertaste which ruined the slow-cooked pork. The vegan tofu taco was a novel idea-spiced tofu and roasted vegetables served in an eggplant "tortilla"-but the execution was poor. The raw tofu wasn't spiced, the roasted vegetables consisted of a grilled spring onion, and the tortilla was a thin slice of raw eggplant that tore apart when picked up and lent the dish a bitter vegetal note. The Korean BBQ quesadilla ($11) sounded fantastic but was more like leather, and it felt like it been sitting under a warming bulb for a long, long time. When pried open, the drab meat offered no sign of Korean influence and was flavored with a Mexican hoisin sauce. The crab and shrimp BLT nachos ($16) contained the same insipid crab as the guacamole, though they offered a healthy helping of shrimp. The bacon was sparse and the tomato was nonexistent.
Desserts suffered from overcomplication and poor technique. The s'mores cookies ($8) looked and tasted like large brown candles that had melted down. The toasted cinnamon-bourbon marshmallow fluff and graham cracker-spiced hazelnut chocolate mousse was a translucent slick that oozed out of two indistinguishable chocolate-chip cookies. Beyond the overall cloyingness was the attempt to try and cram as many flavors into something which is simple at its core. It was inedible. The churros ($5) were crunchy and warm but wrecked by an overabundance of smoked paprika and a congealed dribble of chocolate in the corner of the plate on which it was served.
Willow creates well-thought-out libations in a brash and dark setting. It's not that the food is an afterthought. Quite to the contrary, the cuisine has been over-thought, muddying what should be simple and fresh. Until they simplify their menu, it will be very apparent that Willow is a lounge and not a restaurant.
Willow is open seven days from 5 p.m. to 2 A.M.