Located on Bay Street in Harbor Springs, Willow is a skipping stone’s-throw from Little Traverse Bay. Inside, chef/owners Chris and Daniel Rutkowski, are passionately engaged in the business of creating memorable and quality cuisine.
According to their website, Willow offers “modern American cuisine with an authentic approach to farm-to-table cooking, in which ingredients drive the menu. The food is simple, but creative and refined, with a lean on Midwestern roots and an expansive culinary rapport.”
The Rutkowski brothers hail from the Detroit area. They attended culinary school together in New York and after a stint working in the Big Apple, Chris moved to Chicago and Dan moved back to Detroit. Dan soon decided to head north and open Willow and it didn’t take long for Chris to follow, arriving in Harbor Springs with nothing but a backpack and the desire to help his little brother achieve his goal.
Chris Rutkowski explains what raises the bar for Willow is not just the locally sourced, farm-to-table foods, but the care in which these chefs elevate their food from simple to exquisite.
“I think in my own mind, the biggest difference is in using the best ingredients, you see that a lot, but we really do take that to heart,” he says.
They Rutkowskis believe in the importance of using local, highest quality ingredients and letting them speak for themselves.
“I love food so much. I’ve been a foodie for a long time,” Rutkowski reflects. “It is really crazy how amazing it is up here, the quality and level of produce we have up here, that spoke to us,” he says. “Anyone can elevate a humble beet. In X number of hours you take this beet and make into a beautiful dish,” he explains with reverence.
Even the french fries are made with great care.
“We hand make them each day. They’re hand cut, blanched slowly, fried, cooled down and fried again. They take a very long time to make. It may sound simple but those fries have been an eight-hour process,” Rutkowski says.
The Willow menu is fresh and innovative. Focusing on staples that customers are familiar with, options are interesting and fun.
“The menu changes quite often, whenever we feel like it needs to be changed,” Rutkowski explains.
Changes occur every few days based on what’s available and what looks the best to the brothers. Not only are they flexible in their menu but they are also willing to accommodate the needs of their guests.
“We let our guests know we can offer a lot of vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, choices,” he says. It’s important to the chefs to not alienate any diners.
Artfully cultivating an experience, the Rutkowski brothers plan for Willow’s diners to stay for hours, have a uniquely interesting meal, and above all, enjoy themselves. Willow creates a fun experience with a good mixture of approachable, yet special, ingredients that “blow your mind a little bit,” as Rutkowski puts it. Moreover, he says of the experience they “definitely didn’t want it to be categorized as fine dining, that’s not how we see ourselves.”
Rutkowski highlighted some of his current, favorite menu fare.
“For appetizers, we break it down into a breads and smear,” he says. The artisanal bread is often sourced from local bakeries such as Crooked Tree Breadworks. The smears vary from a green tomato preserve with allspice, clove and honey to a smoked trout spread, to a peach and lavender jam.
Brussels sprouts are fresh, served with agave chili, parsley and fresh lime juice.
Steak tartare is made from a hand-cut filet, served with tater tots, mustard aioli, harissa ketchup and radishes.
The scallop dish consists of three U/12 Hudson king scallops seared, served with pickled fresno chiles, gold pea tendrils, sunchoke chips, a cauliflower puree and fresh chimichurri sauce. It’s “a favorite of the guests,” Chris says.
Check out Willow at www.willowharborsprings.com or make a reservation on opentable.com.
Written By Jennifer Murphy, Photos by Ryan Gearhart