There was a moment during dinner one night at Willeyville when my wife asked about a particular item on my plate. "I forget; grab the instructions out of your purse," I told her.
What I meant to say was "grab the menu," which she had surreptitiously folded and deposited earlier that night, but the verbal slip was telling. There are moments and dishes at Willeyville where contentment can give way to confusion, or worse, consternation.
Take the Crispy Confit'd City Chicken ($18). When my wife ordered her entrée, there was no mention by our server that city chicken is in fact pork. It was a harmless oversight in our case, but one that might miff others with strict dietary or religious constraints. Another dish, the Baked Semolina Gnocchi ($12), looked so unlike any gnocchi we'd seen that we assumed our server delivered the wrong dish. It was the right dish, and it was fantastic, but the seared planks of plush Roman-style gnocchi with pesto-spiked cream sauce more closely resembled firm polenta.
Not only is it sometimes hard to nail down a dish; it's not easy to peg Willeyville, a restaurant that chef and owner Chris DiLisi bills simply as "modern American." That might be less of a problem had DiLisi not set up shop in an out-of-the-way spot next to two well-known chefs with easily identifiable concepts. That spot is the east bank of the Flats, and those chefs are Fabio Salerno and Ken Stewart, who run an Italian joint and a steakhouse, respectively.
The last time I saw limos rolling through the Flats, they were ferrying gaggles of girls on a bachelorette bash. These days, those limos are delivering thick-walleted high rollers who don't think twice about dropping $65 for a hand-trimmed filet. By those standards, Willeyville is an absolute steal, with all but one of the menu items priced under $20.
Despite being occasionally duped and confused, I always found more than enough reasons to return to Willeyville. DiLisi is a highly skilled chef, who for five years ran the kitchen at Baricelli Inn. His creativity and enthusiasm are apparent with a quick scan of the menu, which includes six sections and more than 30 options. With some minor menu editing, Willeyville can mature from eager upstart to solid player.
Everybody is doing tacos these days, but DiLisi's adobo-flavored shrimp tacos ($12.50) manage to stand out in a crowded field. The intensely flavored seafood gets an unexpected boost from bits of tangy chorizo. Diners roll their own using warm, fragrant corn tortillas. (On a later visit I noticed those great corn tortillas had been replaced by flour.)
DiLisi's ingenuity is on full display in the Duck2 ($22), a veritable buffet on a plate that includes a textbook leg of duck confit, a few wheels of bacon-belted duck breast, a sizeable slice of savory cabbage-and-feta strudel, and a smattering of golden plums and baby parsnips. It's a robust meal filled with loads of textural twists and turns.
Not all of Willeyville's dishes are culinarily complex. A pair of big, juicy and flavorful pork meatballs ($9.50) are dressed in a bright marinara, sprinkled with good cheese, and paired with large planks of grilled bread. Also delightfully uncomplicated is a bowl of bucatini ($12/half), with the long, hollow tubes barely sauced with crushed plum tomatoes, parsley and pecorino.
The chef makes his own fresh ricotta, and you can sample three versions of it on the ricotta tasting ($10), a light and refreshing change of pace from the typical heavy-handed cheese plate. Diners who like their calamari ($10) lightly breaded, fried perfectly crisp, and drizzled with a finely tuned sweet and sour glaze will appreciate Willeyville's flawless version.
DiLisi would do well to ditch the oddly textured rock shrimp ceviche ($7.50), which arrives brown and slimy as opposed to white, bright and citrusy. In the mussel poutine ($11), soggy fries proved no match for the heavy blue cheese sauce above. A beautiful looking Bibb salad ($8) bombarded our taste buds with tart cherries, tart pickled onions and a tart vinaigrette.
Willeyville is an attractive restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and a fully exposed kitchen. All that separates the bar and dining room is a low-backed banquette, creating a contemporary and open floor plan. Sitting on the bar side one Tuesday night, we were thrilled to learn it was Retail Wine night, meaning that our bottle of Belle Glos Clark & Telephone pinot noir cost just $45 instead of almost twice that. It was precisely the kind of unexpected treat that will keep Willeyville on my restaurant radar.