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Newly Opened Hook & Hoof Shines in Willoughby, Even If Its Menu is Out of Step With the Season

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We walked the entire length of Willoughby's historic downtown, passing familiar haunts like Pranzo and Lure, and newer spots like Wild Goose and the Morehouse, before landing at the front door of Hook & Hoof. After crossing the threshold we were immediately immersed in something that felt ... differen t. The slender bistro had an undeniable energy that grabbed hold of us right away and didn't let go until we were back out on the main drag hours later. From the sharply renovated interior and crisp but playful service to the smartly crafted cocktail list and the drool-worthy roundup of unconventional menu items, our first impressions landed squarely in the positive camp.

Partners Hunter Toth and Chaz Bloom managed to work miracles on the old Fanucce's pizza shop, reshaping it into an attractive 70-seat restaurant. Though small by modern standards, the svelte space boasts three distinct zones, each with its own vibe. We were seated up front in the spirited barroom, just inside the massive front window (that we desperately wished could open to the warm summer breezes). In the middle of the restaurant is an eight-seat chef's counter that puts diners face to face with the cooks in the kitchen. In the rear is a more tranquil dining area largely removed from the hustle and bustle up front.

When I first spoke to chef Toth about his plans, he said he was eager to merge his love of whole-animal butchery with hyper-seasonal cooking to craft timeless dishes using modern techniques. A cursory glance at the menu seemed to back up some of those claims, with ingredients like lamb belly, bone marrow, beef cheeks and an item listed as the "Butcher's Cut" peppered throughout.

We passed on Prohibition-era cocktails like the Last Word, Sazerac and Vieux Carre in favor of a few craft drafts ($6) and a bottle of sparkling rose from Spain ($40) off the impressive drinks menu. Starving from the drive, we immediately tossed in orders for a pair of appetizers. We were just getting to work on our beverages when the lamb belly meatballs ($12) landed on the table. Given that there were four of us, we did our best to behave. But we disappeared those balls at superhero speed because they were just that good. Four deeply flavorful balls sat in a mildly spicy arrabiata sauce capped with fragrant melted Taleggio. Of course, there was plenty of grilled bread for scooping up the bits and gravy.

Our table had the same reaction to the beef cheek toasts ($13), two lengthy bias-sliced toasts mounded with butter-soft shredded beef set atop a thin schmear of tangy goat cheese. The subtle sweetness and heat from a chili pepper and cranberry compote turned out to be just the right accompaniment.

It was a feast for the senses when our server dropped off the next course, a spread that included a bone marrow and arugula salad ($9), braised short rib-stuffed pasta shells ($23), grilled swordfish ($29), and an impressive tomahawk pork chop ($27) that extended six inches off the plate.

It was about a third of the way into the meal that our boundless infatuation eased off a little. That high energy had edged into modest discomfort as the noise of the room seemed to converge right at our table. And here it is, literally the summer solstice, and it tastes as if we're deep into fall, thanks to the preparations. That thick-cut, bone-in pork chop was absolutely perfect, but why the heck is it paired with Brussels sprouts, bacon and apple? The kitchen nailed the swordfish, but then set it alongside roasted carrots, cauliflower and spuds in a sweet cinnamon-based glaze. A hot crock of creamed kale with cipollini onions, while every bit of savory and sumptuous, would have been right at home on the Thanksgiving table. The soup of the day? Chili. And that adventurous Butcher's Cut? A strip steak.

I can appreciate the pushback of timid diners when it comes to truly exotic cuts, and I do admire Hook & Hoof's attempt to push the diner and the conversation in the right direction. But where are seasonal ingredients like asparagus, peas, radish, favas, squash, beans, tomatoes and others? Save the root vegetables, hearty greens and autumnal preparations for fall and winter, when everything else vanishes.

This might sound like quibbling, especially when everything else really is top-notch. But seasonal food is local food, and local food is more flavorful, more nutritious and better for the local economy. Seasonal cooking also gives diners a solid reason to return, which I plan on doing very soon.

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