by Brian Clarey
Times sure have changed since I used to bartend a lunch shift way back in the day.
I’m talking about 20 years ago, when I manned the taps at a place called the Scotch ‘n’ Sirloin in Carle Place, NY. It was right by the county courthouse, and each lunch shift my bar would be filled with lawyers, judges, probation officers and plainclothes cops. The fare was steakhouse standard: steaks and chops, baked potatoes, a salad bar — remember when salad bars were everywhere? — and a few token pasta and chicken dishes.
But mostly they came to drink. One judge liked Finlandia vodka on the rocks with olives. A detective drank a perfect Rob Roy, another liked his Manhattan drenched in bitters. A probation officer named Big Bill got a jump on his daily bottle of Jack Daniels.
I thought about that as I sat at the bar at Willow’s Bistro for lunch last week… alone. There wasn’t even a bartender on shift — they didn’t need one. Because nobody really drinks at lunch anymore. Not even me.
I came to Willow’s because these days I’m way more about the food. And I don’t have time to sleep off a three-martini lunch.
Chef Will Kingery has been earning laurels since he opened the place back in 2010 with a commitment to local ingredients and artisanal fare. It’s built for foodies, in a repurposed cotton warehouse with a wide porch, great lighting and high ceilings that allow the room to open up like an old bottle of cabernet. The open kitchen percolates with activity behind a fine wooden bar. And the parking is terrible.
The menu changes with the seasons, and on the whims of the man who makes it. There’s a special scallop dish every day, scribbled on a chalkboard deep with daily creations.
The regular list of burgers and sandwiches is a short but impressive stack — I imagine he sells the crap out of the fried green tomato BLT. And the salads don’t look like anything else in the market. No chicken Caesar here.
And with the list of small plates, I get the feeling Kingery is just showing off: ceviche, escargot, baked brie, duck confit, mussels, gator tail…. On my next visit, I am ordering exclusively off the appetizer menu.
But this time, for some reason, my eyes settled on a salad: grilled tempeh with miso atop arugula. I paired it with a cauliflower soup.
If Big Bill ever saw me order a vegetarian lunch, he’d laugh me out of the barroom. Thankfully, he’s dead.
The soup was everything it needed to be, with cauliflower that maintained its integrity in the hot, creamy broth.
And I’ll be thinking about that salad for weeks.
Its genius lies in the interplay between the lightly charred miso-cured tempeh, triggering that savory fifth taste known as “umami,” and fresh clementine wedges that lent a burst of sweetness to the affair. The bitter arugula makes a compelling counterpoint.
Screw the salad bar. Nobody mixes up the greens like a real chef.
There’s plenty to drink here, too. Bartenders muddle craft cocktails with fresh ingredients; the wine list is symbiotic with the food; and even the sangria is mixed in house.
But nobody drinks at lunch anymore. Not even me.