Thursday, February 1, 2007
Is it possible for Tony Tollner and Bill Cox to miss the mark when it comes to creating dining venues? I doubt it. Rio Grill, Tarpy’s Roadhouse, and Montrio Restaurant are the products of their golden touch. Now they’ve opened Willy’s Smokehouse and All American Grill near Cannery Row.
Perched at a high table in the bar, I wondered aloud exactly what makes this restaurant design successful. It might be the simplicity of lines—they didn’t go too kitschy with the southern motif. It’s certainly the old brick walls and open beam ceiling of the warehouse, once a fish processing plant operated by sardine cannery industry founding father Frank Booth. It’s also the arrangement of space—the large, open room that’s slightly divided so it feels warm.
The bar’s selection of bourbon is impressive. I like a good Kentucky bourbon and soda, so I found most of the house cocktails on the menu too dressed up. But in the interest of scientific research, I tried the High Noon Mint Julep, light on the sugar, please. It’s made with Knob Creek bourbon and fresh mint ($8.50) and is a delicious shortcut to entering the world of Willy’s.
Terms leap off the menu: Moonshine, Cider, Mississippi Mud, Catfish, Slow-Smoked, Pudding, Sugar-Roasted, Pulled Pork, Collard Greens. If such words don’t jump-start your juices, there are plenty of less geographically-oriented fixin’s like T-Bone Steak ($31.45) and Herb-Crusted Chicken ($16.85).
I’ve enjoyed barbecue at points throughout the American South and the Caribbean and I know that barbecue is partisan. Definitions are fast and loose, based on whether direct or indirect heat is used, a lid or open-grill is employed, or the process is quick or slow. For most American enthusiasts, barbecue is a slow process using indirect heat and low smoke on pork—though beef brisket is a specialty of Texas—and the sauce may be based on mustard, vinegar or tomatoes. In some parts, whether you like ribs dry or wet tells folks a lot about you.
I normally don’t make room for starters, but again, this was fieldwork. Starters are a real strength of Willy’s. The Smoked ’Choke ($8.70) was one of the best versions in the hood, with a black, fire-roasted char, bread crumb and Gouda cheese stuffing, and Tabasco butter. I overheard a complaint that the Grilled Pasilla Pepper ($8.75) was too hot and spicy, and ordered one immediately. Two peppers stuffed with corn, red bell peppers, and cheddar cheese may have been the dish of the night. Mouths full, my man and I nodded at one another repeatedly, eyes wide.
After a dandelion greens and butter lettuce salad (hearty, with mildly sweet dressing to complement the mildly bitter greens, $6.95), I turned to other forms of sensory stimuli, and noticed the great bluesy music and the art. Cow hides and paintings of cowboys suggest a pan-southern experience. A touch of Venetian is thrown in, with Murano-glass inspired red lamps. The medley works.
Entrée categories include “Sandwiches,” “Bar-B-Que,” and “American Grill.” We liked the fact that the barbecue entrees come with a choice of two of four sides. I got a Combo Platter of pulled pork and St. Louis-style spareribs, with creamy corn pudding and coleslaw ($21.95). According to local-boy chef Gene Moana, previously of Rio Grill and Montrio, the St. Louis style refers to the cut—the knuckle is removed to enhance dining ease for sophisticated customers who might take umbrage at spitting out cartilage. Moana seasons the ribs overnight, then smokes them for six hours at 190 degrees over oak and almond wood. He practiced outdoors on an old potbelly stove behind Tarpy’s, doing demos for five weeks in order to select one recipe.
Willy’s approach is familiar to southerners—the ribs arrive with a light mop of sauce, plus three bottles of sauce: Mild, Hot and Georgia Mustard variations. Experiment and combine. The ribs are meaty, moist, and should certainly please connoisseurs.
The pulled pork is unbelievably tender, but compared to the other dishes, it needed flavor. I guess that’s why there’s sauce on the table, but I’d like it to arrive with more seasoning. Moana assures me Willy’s is a work in progress and “aggressive” menu updates are already underway. I also tried a few bites of the excellent, tender beef brisket. One wouldn’t guess that it’s a tough cut of meat by the time Willy’s gets through slow smoking it for 18 hours.
My scientific method had deteriorated into mere anecdotal forms of investigation when I proceeded to analyze several desserts. They were big and satisfactory, but didn’t make me swoon. The Deep Fried Twinkie ($7.65) tastes like a doughnut but deserves mention because it exemplifies the playfulness of a Tollner-Cox dining experience. They do feel-good and fun very well. And I want to hang out at their restaurants because they have a knack for hiring nice people.
WILLY’S SMOKEHOUSE AND ALL AMERICAN GRILL
95 Prescott Ave. (at Wave), Monterey • 11:30am-10pm daily (until 11pm Friday and Saturday) • 372-8880.