Chow Bella – Willow in Downtown Sacramento

 

Right here we rebuild: Just before the pandemic, transformation was Sacramento’s primary storyline, pushed by the deal that was struck for a downtown arena a ten years ago. Even though Covid stalled the rejuvenation momentum, the newly opened Willow cafe marks a stage toward renewed resurgence, for downtown’s advancement and for the city’s challenging-strike cafe scene.

Aspect of The Exchange resort, Willow breaks by way of pandemic-induced civic fatigue with clean, artful structure and thoughtful can take on Southern Italian-Mediterranean cuisine. The eatery opened in September, about a yr immediately after the hotel, but it was really worth the wait. Converse about transformation: The hotel and restaurant’s lead designer and task supervisor Whitney Johnson (the visual power behind common region places like Shady Woman, Kru and Hook & Ladder) turned what she says was “an empty, unbuilt space” on the floor floor of the century-outdated California Fruit Building into one particular that offers an classy, joyful confluence of purples and golds, florals and stripes, and the occasional tassel and pom pom.

“It’s coloration, muddle, grandma chic—a great deal of blended styles and mixed textures, but performing so in a way where it’s however approachable,” Johnson suggests of the restaurant’s appear. But Marie Kondo would not flinch ended up she to walk by way of Willow’s spacious eating place, with its decidedly non-maximalist wood flooring and abundance of gentle coming by way of home windows dealing with J and 4th streets.

If the dining room rose from the studs, its appreciable culinary achievements appear down to the spuds. I preferred each and every dish I tried using for the duration of my meal visit, but the “patata di carbone” starter manufactured with squid ink was, possibly inevitably, the most indelible. Government chef Russell Middleton steams German butterball potatoes, then blanches them in squid ink, right until they emerge blackened and with hints of brininess. Served complete, in a pile, the potatoes were cooked perfectly—creamy nevertheless however of ample consistency to stand up to a dip of mascarpone and cream cheese expertly pricked by garlic and chive.

“My thought approach was campfire potatoes or type of an elevated baked potato,” Middleton, previous chef de cuisine at Reasonable Oaks’ Shangri-la and sous chef at Grange, says of his inspiration. The dish’s evocations are even additional specific: the subtle “sea” style places the campfire in problem firmly on a seaside.

The patata di carbone starter characteristics squid ink potatoes with chives and mascarpone.

Advanced convenience is a prevailing topic at Willow, where the foods and support are great-eating excellent and the chairs are plush, padded and set on casters that prevent din-exacerbating floor scraping.

“Going by means of [the worst of] Covid and coming out of it, we really wanted to concentration on the legitimate essence of hospitality, which is inviting somebody into your space to take treatment of them from top rated to base,” Johnson claims. “That is why every thing is upholstered. There are really couple of difficult surfaces.”

Johnson commenced operating with home owner Sunny Dale five yrs in the past on strategies to change the business office creating into a resort and construct a restaurant. In search of a style and design through-line amongst the two tasks, Johnson assigned each space a linked however unique persona.


Read through A lot more: The Scene Setter – A profile on Sacramento inside designer Whitney Johnson


“We designed this id of Mr. Exchange, who is this illustrious planet traveler,” she suggests. “You did not fairly know what he did for a living, but we knew he was extremely productive and very worldly and labored in the exchange of products and services. We desired the lodge to be extremely buttoned-up and mimic who we considered he would be, stylistically.” The darkish blue hallways depict his fits, Johnson claims, and the “really architectural” light fixtures his cufflinks.

The next persona, Willow, is Mr. Exchange’s spouse, whose lifestyle is “equally eccentric, equally opulent,” but who does not depart home. “So every little thing he does is to retain her pleased at their estate,” Johnson claims, together with sending presents from his travels to embellish their abode. The eatery is her vision of their formal eating room. 

The married pair seems of an era nearer to 1914 (the yr the setting up was built) than now—you can envision them back then, with Mr. Exchange functioning diligently to please his fruit-packing heiress spouse and impress her disapproving, land-baron father. Johnson’s style, on the other hand, aims for timelessness. “There were sides to the structure that have been from 1914,” she suggests, “but it also has to be contemporary. It has to have that draw and that tactic of ‘Oh gosh, I experience like I have seen this, but I can’t place it.’ ” Modern day Italian streetscape photography Johnson discovered via San Francisco’s Missing Artwork Salon gallery increases the sense of anachronism all over each and every corner.

The exterior of Willow in the California Fruit Building

Willow and The Trade Sacramento resort are housed in downtown’s historic California Fruit Setting up.

“We spent a ton of time stating, ‘OK, what’s lacking in Sacramento?’ ” recollects Johnson of brainstorming sessions with Dale and Willow’s food and beverage director Nick Duren, previously of Grange and Canon, and Johnson’s fiancé. Adds Duren, “We ended up wanting at what prospects were obtainable in downtown Sacramento, and to increase to the [city’s] cafe scene in normal.” What downtown—and midtown—appeared to absence, especially after Biba Caggiano’s demise in 2019 and the closure of her eponymous establishment, was locally owned, upscale Italian. (Capitol Mall’s Il Fornaio belongs to a West Coastline chain).

The team did research and located similarities involving the food stuff-rising areas of Southern Italy and Northern California. For instance, both sites are “very olive-oil-driven,” Duren observes. Thus, no require to import: Willow employs Séka Hills olive oil from Capay Valley, together with other homegrown substances like eggs from Vega Farms in Davis and hachiya persimmons from Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle. Guided by Duren’s eyesight for the cafe to focus on dwelling-made pastas and “unique proteins,” Middleton’s mainly household-design and style menu features lots of equally. The “secondi” entrées, which are explicitly designed for two or 3 persons, incorporate a “mixed grill” with rabbit and lamb, and there is a “Tutta La Pasta Fatta in Casa” segment showcasing quite a few solitary-serve dishes.

Willow's mussels in pomodoro broth

The mussels in pomodoro broth with blistered tomatoes and sourdough batard are a standout on the menu.

My dining lover and I selected the branzino, a whole white fish cooked a la plancha, as a principal. The flaky fish was stuffed with dandelion greens and lemon and served on an herbaceous pool of chimichurri. Just about every chunk introduced a new dimension, relocating from pleasantly bitter to bracing prior to settling on umami. 

The simplest dish we ordered—bucatini caeio e pepe—might’ve been the most fantastically executed, with the pepper offsetting the cheesy richness and the pasta adequately al dente to provide a bit of welcome resistance.

We had been tempted to carbo-load on numerous pasta dishes, but as an alternative requested excess starters. The tender mussels were bathed in a hearty yet not mind-boggling broth of pomodoro and vegetable inventory, with blistered tomatoes supplying sweetly acidic punctuation. And the saltwater-blanched, ice-zapped and julienned pods in the opening-menu snow pea insalata ended up crunchy and extraordinarily new tasting. Salty pancetta and pecorino held the salad from veering as well wholesome for an indulgent night out.

Even though Willow does not yet give lunch, it serves breakfast in addition to supper. It also “supports the lodge with all foods and beverage requires,” including in-area eating, Duren claims, nevertheless he’s quick to add that The Exchange and Willow are different operations under Dale’s possession. Or as Johnson places it, Willow is “not a lodge restaurant, but a cafe adjacent to a resort.” Although proximity and Johnson’s creativity and creativeness recognized thematic visible connections, the hotel and restaurant are not much alike—and neither is a lot like everything else in city.

Willow. 1006 4th St. 916-938-8001. willowsacramento.com

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