When I first spoke to Lionel Weal, the executive chef for Twin Willows, he was preparing to cook for the family. No, not his family, but instead the one he has inherited by joining this three-decades-old Narragansett institution. Various members of the owner’s family are his taste testers every Tuesday when he’s figuring out weekly specials. Following on their extensive remodel a couple years back, it seems the refresh continues at Twin Willows with Lionel’s hiring, but they’ll continue to do their unique combination of classic seafood and pub fare with a slight Irish touch. I spoke to Lionel about how he approaches making changes at such a local fixture, his critical girlfriend and his mom’s upside down pineapple cake.
How do you go about deciding what works on your menu?
I listen to the pickiest people, because I want to be able to cater to everybody. If you can find the pickiest person, see what they like and tie it all together, it can get you places. One of the pickiest people I know is my girlfriend. She’s a tough critic. Basically, if I can put a smile on her face, then I can put a smile on most people’s.
What’s one of the specials you just tested?
One thing I was testing was a grilled pork chop dish served with grilled asparagus. It’s with apples, pear, jalapeños and sage, which turns into an applesauce. A lot of people are scared of spice. When they hear jalapeno, they think it’s going to really bite them, but it doesn’t. Every chop I do, I marinate for at least 24 hours in herb oil.
The diners probably know the menu better than you do. How’s the feedback been?
The feedback I’ve been getting is great. I get stopped quite often walking through the restaurant: they know my name, but I don’t even know who they are. People give me ideas, and I try to throw something out there for them.
You take requests? Like what?
One of the customers is a regular; he’s been coming for years and years. He asked for American Chop Suey, so I did it for him. The guy is in his 80s, and he rated it as one of the best ones he’s ever had. That was a big honor, because often at that age your taste buds are set in their ways; if they don’t want it, they don’t want it. So for him to sit down, enjoy it and recommend it to other customers is a big thing for me.
Do you have plans for changes beyond the specials?
I won’t do the menu change until May or June. Right now I’m figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, what flavors they like, what vegetables they like, so I know more about what areas to touch. This place has been open for going on 33 years, there are people who have been coming here all their life, religiously, so I have to slowly but gradually change it. I have some great stuff coming up. Right now I’m working on a vegetarian menu, and I’m looking to bring in different flavors and backgrounds of food to Narragansett.
What got you into cooking originally?
My mother, Owena. My mom is a great cook, she was very well known in her home town for her cooking. They loved her fried chicken and upside down pineapple cake. I remember watching people’s reactions to food and seeing the smile my mom had sitting back watching people at church or at home enjoying her cooking. I just love putting the meal out and seeing people’s reaction when they take that first bite.
865 Boston Neck Road, Narragansett