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photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Cookies And Fish FTW

The Willow’s goofiest entrée kicks butt

by Aidan Morgan




With Valentine's Day just around the corner and beckoning us down that dark alley, it's a good time to reflect on the difficulties of love. Because love is tough. Every one of us has tried our hand at love, usually wearing clumsy wool mittens and with our hats pulled down over our eyes. Love is the thing that everybody wants but nobody can do with any degree of grace or competence.

For romance to work, you need a friend. A Sherpa for love's heights, a wingman for your pre-dawn raid. You need a friend who will serve up food in a quiet and dimly lit atmosphere, arranging everything to please your senses. Someone who'll even let you pay massive amounts of money to impress your potential partner. That someone is called a restaurant.

(Wow. That metaphor really got away from me. And I think it took my car keys.)

The Willow on Wascana is one of Regina's best known fine dining restaurants, with a focus on ingredients sourced from Saskatchewan farms. If you miss the glory days of the Heliotrope Restaurant, you can visit the Willow and take solace in the fact that their vegetables are all grown at the Heliotrope Farm in Craven.

Since the ingredients are local, the menu at the Willow depends greatly on the season. Their winter 2010 menu is full of sweet, earthy dishes, with regular appearances from squashes and root vegetables. Right now it's hard to order an entrée without a carrot or a pumpkin making its way into the mix. If you're not a root vegetable fan, you may want to try the cheese plate ($21) or the bread pudding ($14). Interestingly, the bread pudding is served as a main course, full of mushrooms, apple and chorizo, which would be pure heresy to my English grandmother. Pro tip: don't take my grandmother on a date to the Willow. She'll complain about the pudding for the next three years.

The Willow also has an impressive wine list, although many of their bottles are not listed on the menu. As the manager told me, "We've got, like, 20 more wines in the back." The Willow has a wine club, which you may want to ask about if you're a serious oenophile. If you're just interested in a glass or two to go with your meal, I recommend you try out the Kung-fu Girl Riesling. The servers are skilled at making suggestions for the clueless.

The best way to familiarize yourself with the Willow's cuisine is to go for the tasting menu ($67), a six-course extravaganza that will, without fail, impress your lucky date. The tasting menu allows you to sample a large selection of the Willow's offerings and get a sense of the possibilities of regional food. Pace yourself, though - even though the portions are a fraction of the entrée sizes you'll still leave with belly full and brain buzzing. If you want to really up the endorphin factor, you can also add a tasting flight of wines ($33) to go with your meal.

The tasting menu starts off with an amuse bouche, which is precisely what it sounds like: a small treat to start the evening and introduce you to the flavours you'll experience over the course of the meal. On the night that we ate there, the amuse bouche was a small beet tartare with roasted garlic mascarpone cheese on top, matched with an amazingly fresh tomato bruschetta. The bruschetta was so good that I could have probably ended the meal portion of the date then and there.

The first 'real' course was the squash custard ($11 entrée), a curious and delicious dish that blurs the categories of starter and dessert. I would hesitate to compare it to a typical custard, but the squash has a beautiful texture and an airy, light consistency, with bitter and flavourful greens on top. Look closely and you'll see a ring of truffle oil around the edge of the plate. Do yourself a favour and dredge your forkfuls of squash in the oil. This dish is all about unusual flavours getting together and making something greater than the sum of its parts.

The lamb ragout ($14 entrée) came out next. It was something of a letdown after the excellent squash custard. The noodles were hearty and thick but the lamb had a nasty sharpness, which is an excellent quality in old cheese but not lamb. I like old cheese a lot, but I don't want lamb to remind me of it. Is that so wrong?

I think the taste came from the balsamic reduction drizzled over the plate, which felt too sweet and too sour at once. I've heard of others who've struggled with this plate so maybe it's time for the Willow to rethink it.

After I took a few sips of wine to banish the ragout, the Willow redeemed itself with Lake Diefenbaker steelhead trout in a gingersnap crust, served on top of celery root and braised beet greens ($26 entrée; the fish is usually snapper). This one wins for best course of the evening. The dish is almost too cute, as if the chef were winking at you from the kitchen. The preparation of the fish was excellent: tender and moist without being soggy or bland. Cookies and fish is not a combination I would ever imagine, but wow does it work. I felt a distinct pang of disappointment when I realized there was nothing left on my plate. But it was the good kind of pang.

The corn bread crépinette ($28 entrée) was the dish I'd been most curious about. A crépinette is a small flattened sausage parcel wrapped in caul fat instead of intestinal casing. The Willow's version is cornbread-stuffed chicken on top of a sugar pumpkin mash, root vegetables and a rhubarb gastrique (a type of reduction with sugar, vinegar and fruit). As with the squash custard, it behooves you to dredge your food in the sauce, which carries a nicely tart taste on top of the caramelized sugar and vinegar base. One word of warning: the outer edge of the crépinette is extremely salty, so take care before you take too large a bite.

In a clever move on the part of the kitchen, the dessert is composed to resemble the amuse bouche, with two items at either end of a long rectangular plate, connected by a line of sauce. I tried the bacon chocolate brownie, which comes with an actual piece of candied bacon on top. Romance might be a letdown after you try the bacon because it's pure fantasy fare, the Playboy bunny of the food world. The brownie was tasty but unbelievably sweet - so much so that I could only get through a few bites. I had to put down my fork because sugar crystals were clouding my vision at that point. Like love!

Because I'm lactose intolerant, I stayed away from the roasted pine nut ice cream. (Didn't want it to overwhelm the Lactaid.) My date reported the pine nuts lent a unique and enjoyable flavour to the dish, and the ice cream was actually not very sweet. I suspect that it would have cut the sweetness of the brownie a bit and made it easier to finish.

According to the manager, there is no special Valentine's Day menu planned, although the chef may tweak the tasting menu. I recommend that you reserve a table soon, because the space will fill up quickly.

Along with innovative and excellent food, The Willow is long on atmosphere, with a great view of Wascana Lake and the Legislative Building. Hours are 11:30 am - 4:30 pm, 4:30 - 11:00 pm on Tuesday through Saturday, and 4:30 - 11:00 pm on Sunday and Monday. Go there with someone you love. Or at least someone you're planning on loving. If you know what I mean.

And if you see my runaway metaphor driving around in a Kia, tell it to come home.