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Review: Willa Jean 

The enormously popular bakery has top-notch baked goods, but not service to match

click to enlarge Chefs Kelly Fields (left) and Lisa White of Willa Jean.

Photo By Cheryl Gerber

Chefs Kelly Fields (left) and Lisa White of Willa Jean.

At Willa Jean, there are chocolate chip cookies laced with flecks of sea salt, crusty baguettes, inky loaves of pumpernickel, croissants enveloping thick strips of chocolate and showered with pistachios and tiny pumpkin bread cakes that are almost too cute to eat. It's a near- perfect bakery operation, but Willa Jean isn't just a bakery; it's a full-fledged restaurant, an all-day, every day operation. Its goals are ambitious and it meets them with varying degrees of success.

  The restaurant design hits the mark. The large, lofty space with floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick walls and bright, industrial accents makes for a beautiful dining environment any time.

  As a bakery, the operation is close to flawless. The croissants are as buttery and flaky as ones I've eaten in Paris and the puffed rice treats — made with Valrhona chocolate — are by far the best I've ever had.

  Like pita bread is to Mediterranean restaurants and ciabatta is to an Italian eatery, biscuits embody the real soul of Willa Jean. The multilayered golden domes are flaky and moist, perfect with a pat of butter or jam. They also provide the foundation for several "build-a-biscuit" options, including a version with fried chicken and Tabasco honey.

  Besh Restaurant Group chefs Kelly Fields and Lisa White opened the restaurant in August on the bottom floor of the Paramount building. It's one of a crop of new eateries that have opened in the South Market District development. Whether because of the big names attached or the result of a massive public relations push, the restaurant became enormously popular immediately, most noticeably during weekend brunches, when wait times can reach 90 minutes.

  The place can be busy, but service at the restaurant takes the biggest hit. While the restaurant doesn't appear understaffed — an army of black-and-white checkered shirts fill the dining room at any given moment — there are moments when lack of communication between staff members is evident, and dining setbacks have included forgotten orders, plates that sit untouched for too long and glasses that need refilling.

  At breakfast and brunch, portion sizes are pared down considerably, which can be refreshing, except when the price tags don't match. A generous serving of smoked salmon on pumpernickel for $12 felt appropriate, but at $18, poached eggs with blue crab were somewhat of a letdown. The dish consisted of two slightly dry English muffins topped with a handful of lukewarm lump crab, poached eggs and whipped hollandaise, which was light and airy with a hint of citrus — the saving grace on the plate.

  Smoked salmon is cured in-house and of the saltier variety, but still very good. Velvety slices top thick wedges of toasted pumpernickel, which get a healthy slather of fresh farmers cheese speckled with herbs, briny capers, cucumber shavings and red onions. An accompanying arugula salad felt rushed and arrived not properly dressed.

  Lunch and dinner portions are larger, and there's a great deal of attention to fresh ingredients, including an arugula salad brimming with legumes — kidney beans and butter beans — tossed with shaved cauliflower, cucumbers, radishes, and peppers and tied together with herb-heavy vinaigrette.

  Thick slices of focaccia brushed with chimichurri encase the market vegetable sandwich, where a medley of roasted onions, tomatoes and summer squash meet raw arugula, shaved carrots and fennel. It's a hearty, flavorful filling, but the ratatouillelike consistency of the roasted vegetables soaked through the bread quickly, making it a better dine-in than takeout option.

  Banana bread is so deliciously puddinglike, it can suffice for dessert. When given a quick press on the griddle, the slices form lacy sugary edges that are caramelized with the heat. It's available all day.

  Overall, Willa Jean is an excellent bakery still in the process of figuring out how to offer a reliable full-service restaurant experience.

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