INITIALLY PERCEIVED AS a bastion of granola and sprouts, Blue Willow, the cozy, 20-year-old eatery on North Campbell Avenue, evolved through the years into a popular spot to gather for weekend brunch, a casual lunch with friends, and most importantly, a place to indulge in the sinful pleasure of the "chocolate du jour."
Recently, however, the pearl seemed to have lost its luster. The monster omelets that once flopped over the sides of namesake Blue Willow platters suffered a bit of downsizing. The desserts, once distinctly homemade, became vaguely synthetic. And the space itself, always so intimate and welcoming, began to look a touch dingy and frayed. Local competition was fierce, and unfortunately, the Willow looked to be on the decline. When the doors closed last April, many had anticipated it for some time.
But before the death knell sounded for another local restaurant, Janet Seidler, Blue Willow's original owner, seized the reigns. Along with husband Mark and daughter Rebecca Ramey, Seidler set about restoring the eatery's former splendor, both in and out of the kitchen.
The result recalls a blushing bride on her wedding day: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Everything we once loved about Blue Willow is back, along with a few careful innovations that might boost the restaurant to even greater heights. And, of course, the time-honored décor of blue and white remains blessedly intact. Regulars of the restaurant will be relieved to see that the menu has changed little from days of yore. While perhaps surprising in an age of revolving menus and improvisational cuisine, Seidler has cunningly stuck to the formula that earned Blue Willow its reputation. By fine tuning what already worked, she has created a restaurant that sparkles like a shiny new penny, even as it celebrates the legacy of the past. It's a winning combination.
Breakfast was always the hallmark of the old Willow, and given the extensive listing of omelets, buttermilk pancakes, waffles, and egg and tofu scrambles, this still holds true. A recent addition to the morning menu is the option of a side order of one of Lerua's green corn tamales ($2.25). Given the Mexican influence of several morning offerings (most of which are served all day), this is a welcome embellishment.
An omelet of avocado, jack cheese and green chiles ($6.50) may not have been as monstrous as I recalled (the result of a reduction from four eggs to three?), but it burst with the aforementioned ingredients, forming an unbelievably luxurious amalgam of tastes and textures -- especially when enhanced by a dash of Tabasco. Like the Blue Willow of old, the ample portions enable two people with modest appetites to share a dish without feeling the least bit cheated.
Cottage fries -- sliced red-skinned potatoes sautéed with a bit of onion and green pepper -- accompany all egg breakfasts, along with a slice of buttered whole-wheat raisin toast and, sometimes, fresh cut fruit.
The Blue Willow Special ($6.95) -- a fritatta-like cooked round of tortilla scrambled with eggs, tender sliced chicken, diced green chiles, chopped tomatoes, chunky salsa and topped with loads of melted cheddar cheese -- is another popular breakfast item. Dolloped with sour cream and served with potatoes and raisin toast (cottage cheese, brown rice or beans can be substituted for the potatoes), this was a breakfast casserole of gargantuan proportion.
Of course, granola, fresh fruit and yogurt are still available, but when the omelets and egg dishes are this marvelous, it's such fun to splurge.
Although breakfast may be Blue Willow's most popular meal of the day, lunch is just as satisfying. With the exception of pancakes and waffles, any of the breakfast items are still available, as is an appetizing array of salads, sandwiches, soups and specialty items, such as crepes, quiche, burritos, tostadas and spinach lasagna.
The Willow's homemade soups and chili (both meat and vegetarian variations) are prime comfort food. The day we visited, a cream of mushroom soup ($2.95 a cup, $3.95 a bowl) -- velvety broth thick with bits of chopped mushrooms and fresh tarragon -- defined soul food.
The quiche of the day was a simple Lorraine ($6.75), but the nearly quarter wedge of pie was so completely infused with bits of bacon that the cohesive custard filling was almost undetectable. With a deliciously decipherable dice of green onions and a flaky whole-wheat crust, this '70s standard was a sure-fire hit. Soup or salad and a choice of bread accompanied the dish.
Crepes have likewise become passé in recent years, but at Blue Willow they flourish in both main courses and desserts. We sampled the spinach, mushroom and jack crepes ($6.75), and though they lacked razzle-dazzle, they were nevertheless quite good. Tender, chopped spinach and diced mushrooms filled two French pancakes topped with cheddar cheese sauce, which slightly overwhelmed the delicate crepes. The accompanying brown rice pilaf incorporated wonderfully crunchy slices of toasted almond, chopped yellow squash, zucchini, broccoli, carrot and tomato. A bit of cheddar cheese sauce worked wonders for the pilaf and was quite welcome.
After 5 p.m., the menu slightly expands to include spaghetti (with an option of grilled chicken breast and mozzarella cheese) and chicken teriyaki. There's no steak, but baked, stuffed potatoes provide another option.
In the past, the chocolate du jour, a never-ending wheel-of-fortune churning out specialty tortes, pies, brownies and confections, was the most compelling diner attraction. The days of chocolate decadence, French silk pie and bitter chocolate-apricot torte are back! If for some reason the du jour treat fails to please, consider the ever-dense, ever-delicious chocolate sour cream cake or warm chocolate crepes with sliced fresh bananas or strawberries. For non-chocolate lovers, there's carrot, poppyseed or lemon sunshine cake, New York-style cheesecake and a specialty pie made fresh daily.
Two du jour samples, a chocolate decadence brownie and chocolate-filled éclair (both $3.95) attained the elevated stature of those long-ago chocolate delights. The buttery marbled brownie exuded solid semisweet chocolate, and the éclair, with its chocolate custard filling and dark chocolate glaze, were both masterpieces of sweetness.
As before, the small gift shop in front boasts one of the best greeting card selections in town, as well as featuring several pairs of elegant earrings, novelty refrigerator magnets, calendars, ties and knickknacks of every configuration. The covered outdoor patio, with its brick floors, ample greenery and burbling fountain, remains as inviting as ever, and is still equipped with heaters for those seeking fresh air, but not winter's chill. Since the restaurant reopened, the patio has become wheelchair accessible.
Perhaps you can't go home again, but you can return to the Blue Willow and recapture a bit of the past. For once, it's just as good as you remember.
Blue Willow Restaurant, Bakery & Gift Shop. 2616 N. Campbell Ave. 327-7577. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Beer and wine. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu items: $1.50-$8.50.