Willow Inn Danny Smiles

Willow Inn is worth the trip for uncomplicated British fare by Danny Smiles

We spoke with the acclaimed Montreal chef about his latest gig in Hudson, Quebec.

“It’s somewhere between Norm’s and St. John,” says Danny Smiles, describing the direction of the menu at the Willow Inn in Hudson since he took over running the restaurant roughly a year ago. 

The St. John that Danny is referring to is none other than Fergus Henderson’s London Institution famed for his signature style of nose-to-tail cooking and for unpretentious and uncomplicated British fare. Norm’s, which is a reference to another great, albeit less storied eatery — Norman’s Café — takes the level of pretension down even further. It’s a bare-bones London shop known for beans on toast and unfussy fry-ups. The red thread that runs through all three restaurants is an appreciation of ingredients, simplified cooking and an innate British austerity. 

For people familiar with Danny’s cooking, British food isn’t likely what comes to mind. Danny built his reputation on the back of le Bremner’s seafood, pasta and clever (if slightly esoteric) composed plates. Le Bremner, in a lot of ways, was emblematic of a certain style of Montreal cuisine — rooted in old-world European (read: French and Italian) technique but free to be playful and iconoclastic.

Chef Danny Smiles is doing something different at the Willow Inn in Hudson.

The 200-year-old Willow Inn, however, is something entirely different. A few years back, the Willow Inn underwent a major renovation. Owners Patricia and David Ades brought in interior designer Sophie Fidler to bring the rooms into the present era, all while retaining the hotel’s British charm and patina. Danny, for his part, is trying to do the same from within the kitchen.

A few Sundays back, I took the scenic drive from my apartment in the Plateau to the black and white manor on the shores of the Ottawa River. The Willow has launched a beautiful and delicious-looking brunch menu, but when I went, the daytime weekend offering was built for lunch. The Willow Inn is located just on the outskirts of Hudson’s town centre and sits on a beautiful piece of waterfront land that backs onto the river with views of the Lake of Two Mountains. It takes about 45 minutes to get out that way, but as you drive down the country roads lined with old-growth trees and picture-perfect English cottages, you feel a lot further away from the city. 

I arrived at the inn on a particularly frigid but blue-skied winter day. I really can’t say this enough: the region is absolutely bucolic. Though I can easily imagine the Inn with its tidy garden and beautifully manicured grounds in the spring and summer, the property looks serene under a blanket of freshly fallen snow. There’s a very welcome traditional aspect of the hotel, it’s not trendy or cutting edge, it’s restrained and intentional, and most importantly it’s a reflection on its time and place. I can’t help but think, “Is this really the uptight traditional restaurant style we’ve been rebelling against all this time?” Maybe we got it all wrong. The guest experience at the Willow is imprinted with traditional English elegance from the moment one enters the bakehouse-green reception accented with classic William Morris wallpaper. A friend of mine got married at an estate in England that was rumoured to have once been Winston Churchill’s summer home — the Willow embodies that kind of Britishness.

The restaurant is divided into three adjoining yet distinct dining areas. One arrives in what is known as the taproom, which is essentially the bar and a few two-top tables. To the left of the taproom is a welcoming seating area with comfortable-looking tufted banquettes and robust pub tables. Opposite that and toward the back of the restaurant is the primary dining room with its massive panoramic window that looks out over the Lake of Two Mountains. The dining room is spacious and inviting, arranged around an ancient stone hearth. At the centre of the room is a table set for eight under which an ornate Turkish rug has been laid. Seated at my beautiful table set with fresh tulips and a view of the frozen lake, I could hardly think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

Willow Inn Danny Smiles
Refined but uncomplicated cuisine by Danny Smiles and charm to spare at Willow Inn.

The menu is simple and straightforward: four starters, four mains, two desserts and a handful of snacks. We ordered a half-dozen oysters to begin with. They arrived perfectly shucked and with the typical accoutrements. Danny mentioned that they go through more oysters at the Willow than they ever did at Bremner, a number that seems nearly impossible until you look around the dining room and see at least a half dozen oysters on every other table.  We also ordered a few devilled eggs topped with plump Cantabrico anchovies — they were absolutely delicious.

Moving on, we ordered bowls of clam chowder. The creamy soup was served in a wide and shallow bowl and was full of plump steamer clams, rounds of fingerling potatoes and finely diced mirepoix. It was unctuous the way a good chowder should be, but overall light and refined — a coastal classic done right. We mopped up the dregs of the bowls with a few slices of well-buttered sourdough bread from Hof Kelsten. Following the chowder was a mound of bright purple treviso, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette with flecks of orange zest, chives and parsley. I’m a sucker for bitter lettuces but I’m confident in saying it was a lovely salad suitable for any palate and a refreshing way to transition to our main courses.

My date went for a lovely sounding leek and potato tart topped with Piave, a nutty cow’s milk cheese from northern Italy that falls somewhere between aged cheddar and parmesan. I, on the other hand, got the fish and chips. It’s worth noting that nowhere on the menu is fish and chips written — the menu is too urbane for that and instead lists the dish under the name Fried Newfoundland Cod. The leek and potato tart, roughly six inches in diameter, was understated but nonetheless refined. Its light and flaky pastry gives way to a rich and generous filling that is offset by the sharp bite of the Piave and the acidity of a few pickled mustard seeds. It’s the perfect dish for a lighter lunch.

The fried cod — well that was a revelation. A single (yet substantial) piece of golden fried fish finished with a pinch of Maldon salt was served with a tight quenelle of smash peas, a bit of lemon and an excellent tartar sauce chock full of capers and cornichons, just the way I like it. This fish was absolutely exquisite. It’s rare, and slightly paradoxical, that an order of fish and chips is more about the fish than the frying. How many of us think of heavily battered pieces of fried haddock in a grease-saturated cone of newspapers when we think of fish and chips? It’s not to say there isn’t a place for that, but it’s a gut buster that is more about eating something fried than eating a quality piece of fish. 

Willows Inn is worth the trip for uncomplicated British fare by Danny Smiles

At the Willow, the fish is in a light, pale golden batter — more like tempura than a proper beer batter. It’s decidedly crisp and devoid of any pooling grease, which suggests it had a bit of time to properly rest on a cooling rack after leaving the fryer and landing on the plate. The cod is perfectly cooked, flaking in an attractive and satisfying way. It’s worth keeping in mind that Newfoundland cod has been fished to near extinction, it’s only recently that this prized fish, thanks to the work of restorative and sustainable fishing practices has made the fish available again to consumers. To put it in fish and chips is almost like putting wagyu beef in a burger or truffles on mac and cheese — it risks being a complete waste of the product. Fortunately, that’s far from the case here, the fish is treated with respect and the frying only adds a textural element to a wonderfully cooked and delicious piece of fish. The chips, which I neglected to mention before, came served in a side bowl along with a bottle of Sarson’s malt vinegar — only the best at the Willow. They were very good fries; cut thick with the skins on and fried until they reached a deep shade of golden brown. Just the kind of fry you’d want with your fish and chips. I washed the lot down with a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. For me, the meal was absolute perfection.

Anyone who knows me knows that my favourite meal is lunch, and a vacation lunch — well that’s the top. There’s a real romance to spending a few hours in the afternoon enjoying beautiful, simple food in a nice environment with people you love. My lunch at the Willow Inn perfectly captured that feeling while being less than an hour from my front door. After such a long time away from restaurants, it was this lunch that reminded me why I value going out to eat so much and that I don’t need to travel half-way around the world to get it. If you’re looking to escape the city and to enjoy one of the best meals served anywhere on or off the Island of Montreal, I can’t recommend the Willow Inn more highly. ■

The Willow Inn is open Thursday to Saturday for lunch and dinner and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday for brunch. For more, please visit their website.

For more on the Montreal restaurant scene, please visit the Food & Drink section.