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The Willows
Out of a possible 5

Family-friendly Willows just spreading its wings

Sometimes, I just can’t help myself.

And that day at The Willows Restaurant and Lounge in Huntertown, seeing the big sandwich the young man at the neighboring table was eating, it looked so good I just couldn’t help but interrupt him in mid-bite to find out what it was.

“That’s the Col. Klink,” his father said as the boy chewed away. “He orders it every time we come here.”

I apologized for being so rude and then joked around with the father about how his son probably had no idea who or what a Col. Klink was, and walked off doing my best Sgt. Schultz impression: “I see NOTHING! I know NOTHING!”

What I did know was that I had to try that sandwich on my next visit. And it didn’t disappoint. The Klink is a hot hoagie containing ham, smoked turkey and roast beef topped with melted Swiss cheese. It was loaded with warm, thinly sliced deli-style meats that must have been of high quality because the flavor of each was distinct and the juices practically ran out of them. The bun was nicely toasted and the cheese oozed out of the sides. It was just a supreme sandwich. It was easy to see why that boy ordered it every time.

The Willows Special chicken wings were also worth having every time. A friend strongly suggested I try The Willows’ wings, and it was that recommendation that drew me to the place. They were big and meaty and fried to super crispy perfection. The Willows Special wings were coated with a mix of the restaurant’s mild Buffalo, teriyaki and the garlic-butter Cajun sauces. The sweetness of the teriyaki hit the palate first, followed by the peppery heat from the flecks of Cajun spices that clung to the skin. They were pretty much perfect. I also liked the creamy honey mustard wings, but they didn’t measure up to the awesomeness of The Willows Specials.

The wings were necessary as an appetizer because the house salad and chili disappointed. The salad consisted of just iceberg lettuce, a couple of white onion rounds, a pale tomato and shredded cheese, and the soup was mild to the point of bland with the only flavor coming from the ground beef. Not surprisingly, the lemon-pepper chicken salad was not much better than the house salad. It was made the same way, but at least had a nicely grilled and seasoned moist chicken breast on it. But it also was missing a promised breadstick.

The arrival time of the soups and salad posed a problem during one visit. On a busy night when a bartender was forced to try to wait tables in the family room while still manning the bar in the lounge, the soup and salad arrived at the same time as the main courses. Other than that, there were no issues with the service at The Willows, and I really had a pleasant experience in that family room during both visits.

It is decorated in a modern coffeehouse style with clean carpet and snazzy copper-topped tables etched with the restaurant’s logo. Old photos and a wire sculpture of a willow tree adorn the walls, and it was impeccably clean and neat throughout, including the restroom, which was one of the best I have seen recently. The only negative in terms of atmosphere was that music from the lounge leaked into the family room. It was a bit distracting but did provide me with a few chuckles one night. I had never heard Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” immediately followed by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” from a jukebox anywhere else. If that wasn’t enough, the next song, which kicked off karaoke, featured what I could only assume was a really drunk guy belting out No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl.”

Feeling fully entertained, I turned my attention to another impressive dish, the 8-ounce rib-eye, which was on special one night. The steak looked great with its crisscross grill marks, was seasoned with just a little salt and pepper and proved to be of decent quality – just enough fat and not at all tough.

The sides also proved to be tasty. The roasted baby red potatoes were slightly sweet and needed little butter, and the green beans were flavored with onions and bacon.

Both of the fish entrées available on Friday night were also above par. The beer-battered pollack consisted of three 2-inch-by-10-inch filets coated in a dark brown, crunchy batter that encapsulated the slightly sweet whitefish and kept it super moist. The breaded cod was lightly coated in a gritty breading that was crisp and less oily than the battered. The cod filet was about 3 inches wide and about 6 inches long, but it was much thicker than the pollack and the richness of the fish made it seem more filling.

The garlic chicken and pasta was good, but it caught me off guard. Described as linguini pasta, tender strips of chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic and parmesan cheese, I assumed it would be a somewhat light blend of these ingredients in olive oil or a butter sauce.

What I received was a big heaping plate of pasta drenched in Alfredo sauce so heavy I couldn’t stomach more than just a few bites. The big, meaty mushrooms added to its richness and the chopped tomatoes sprinkled on top didn’t stand a chance.

The desserts, especially the dried-out carrot cake, were pretty forgettable with one wonderful exception: the tuxedo mousse cake. A triple-layered dessert with a standard chocolate cake underneath a layer of creamy chocolate mousse and a dark speckled white mousse, it had a surprisingly soft texture and was quite light despite its intense chocolate flavor.

Restaurant: The Willows Restaurant and Lounge

Address: 1601 W. Gump Road, Huntertown

Phone: 637-5411

Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: Full bar

Smoking status: Smoking in bar only

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Chicken wings (55 cents each with minimum of six), chili ($1.95 cup; $3.50 bowl), lemon-pepper chicken salad ($6.95), Col. Klink sandwich ($5.25), fish and fries ($6.95), garlic chicken and pasta ($8.95)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3 star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.