My review of Fort Willow: Big Bites, bold flavors, amazing memories

Have you ever been to a restaurant which has a tree made from wooden slats and a swing inside? I have, and I’m here to reveal some of its secrets 😉 Indeed, somewhere in this amazing city of ours there is a charming little dining spot which fits the above description – a place whose quiet ambiance and whimsical decor remind you of childhood, innocence, and endless dreaming. The name of the restaurant is Fort Willow, its location is an unassuming section on Elston Avenue, and its cosmopolitan menu makes up a sophisticated journey through flavors. Do you want to travel back in time and around the world, savoring global flavors while joyfully reminding yourself that life is precious and memories are a cherished part of it? If you do, then Fort Willow is your place to be.

I visited Fort Willow at opening time one Friday afternoon. A mid-size neon sign was there to guide me – a good thing since I wouldn’t have been able to figure out where the entrance was without it. The restaurant is that unassuming!

Once I got past the black doors, a whole different world opened up in front of me. The interior of the restaurant projected calm and serenity due to the non intrusive warm lights and predominant wooden panels inspired by the adventure, comfort and privacy of a childhood tree fort. Designed and executed by Chris Talsma and local craftsman Arlan DeRussy, respectively, the focal point of Fort Willow is a tree made from wooden slats, which ‘grows’ from the floor, and whose branches make up a canopy over the intimate dining room.

I had seen the pictures and had read the reviews, but looking at the tree in person was something else. What an impressive architectural feat!

No journey back to one’s early years is complete without a swing, and the one hanging from the tree at Fort Willow was very inviting. What a perfect place to enjoy a PB&jelly-inspired sandwich, for instance, right? 🙂

The Fort Willow menu draws inspiration from culinary destinations all around the world. Executive Chef Deirdre Quinn and her team have worked hard to make the dishes stand out yet also stay true to their original roots, and this is obvious in the choice of flavors and most importantly spices (which currently come from Epic Spices, a famous Chi Town specialty store). The small plates and bowls are intended for sharing and include: fluke crudo with shaved black radish, picked chilies and scallion vinaigrette; labneh, whipped goat cheese with zaatar and lemon, served with warm naan; crispy cauliflower, served with serrano-poblano hot sauce; duck rillette, with cucumber, red onion and radish; and pork meatballs with hatch green chilies and salsa verde.

As a big meatball eater, I couldn’t wait to try out the Fort Willow meatballs:

Cuddled by a thick velvety blanket of salsa and lightened up by the sour cream nearby, the meatballs delivered flavor without overpowering heat, and as such were a great first plate to enjoy. Serving them with naan was unusual, but not surprising taking into account Fort Willow’s cosmopolitan-oriented offerings.

Trying out the “Big Bite” on the menu was without a doubt the focal point of my dining experience. Fort Willow has recently launched a new series of “Big Bites,” which are special sandwiches with global roots, and each is available for two weeks only. The sandwich I tried during my visit was the PBJ4 Big Bite, which featured sriracha peanut butter, blueberry jam, muenster and slaw, and was served with house-made sour cream & onion chips.

Peanut butter and sriracha? Blueberry jam and slaw? These are definitely not my typical sandwich combinations – but then again, they did remind me of the odd flavor choices I used to enjoy as a child, and as such they suited the overall whimsical, childhood-inspired vision of the restaurant perfectly.

As Executive Chef Deirdre Quinn explained, perfecting this “Big Bite” sandwich required quite a bit of work, and one of the most important decisions they made involved using blueberry jam instead of bacon jam. I can see why the Michigan blueberries won the battle to be featured in this sandwich: big, succulent and sweet, they provided a refreshing lightness which I’m sure the bacon would not have been able to provide. Furthermore, the marriage between these blueberries and the peanut butter was spot on, and the nutty flavor of the latter came in and went by without being overpowering. Without a doubt, the choice of bread was pivotal: crunchy and wholesome, the locally-produced bread elevated the soft elements of the dish and made a great pair with the texturally assertive house-made onion chips.

The flavor combinations might have looked weird, but once I took a bite of it, the sandwich tasted strangely familiar: without a doubt, my mind was telling me that I had tried these all before, perhaps while taking refugee in a tree fort or while playing on the swing during my (very) early years 😉 What was amazing was how the decor and food at Fort Willow had made me plunge right in the middle of a madeleine-like Proustian moment. This sandwich wasn’t just a sandwich – it was a mesmerizing journey through time and places, elevated by quality ingredients and ingenuous interior decoration.

Indeed, many great things happen at the restaurant with a tall tree and a swing inside. Go there, try the food, ride the swing, and you will see what I mean 🙂

*Disclaimer: While I received a complimentary tasting to facilitate this review, all opinions expressed here are my own.


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