Billy’s Island ‘steak house’ |

Billy’s Island ‘steak house’

Greg T. Spielberg
AE Billy's PU 9-9

LIONSHEAD ” Perhaps the most common Vail Valley gastronomical misconception is that fresh fish can’t be had in the mountains. Some people worry that their seafood has been aging on flatbeds for days before it gets to a restaurant. Tell that to Billy Suarez.

“When it’s busy, we get fresh fish in six days a week. When it gets slow, we get it in five days. We don’t have fish sitting around,” said the owner of Billy’s Island Grill in Lionshead.

Suarez is strict about his fish. The tuna comes from Hawaii, and the restaurant uses five different purveyors between the Northwest, Denver and the 50th state to ensure freshness. If dealers aren’t up to Suarez’s expectations, they’re dropped or put on probation.

Suarez is a self-proclaimed “steak man,” but Billy’s Island Grill’s decor drips with the sea: the blue-print carpet, the marlin above the bar, the candle holders filled with sand and the map of French Polynesia on a dinner table.

While there is construction across the street, you don’t notice it. Billy’s deck blocks off most of the view with tiki torches and shrubbery, bunting and large blue umbrellas. A summertime ambiance flows through the restaurant from the inside out, past a spacious, low dark-wood bar and lengthy open-air entrance.

A perfect entry into the island experience is the ceviche appetizer ($10). Large, cool pieces of tender Alaskan halibut complement the more textured Gulf shrimp, both of which are lime-cured and tossed in a cilantro marinade with salsa fresca. The ceviche is served in a curled tostada, perfect for breaking off and sharing with friends tapas style.

You can order a beer to your table or climb into a captain’s chair at the bar, but if you’re inclined to go for seafood, order a boat drink or mango margarita. The margarita is blended and served in a tall glass that will see you through until the main course (or dessert). “Big” boat drinks come with Bacardi Light, Meyers, Mount Gay, Pina, orange juice and cranberry juice. Or you can build your own out of a handful of mostly Caribbean-themed spirits.

The crispy spring rolls ($9) are an inventive take on a classic appetizer, as seafood, rather than vegetables, dominate the dish. Billy’s stuffs them with shrimp and scallops, and they are served with sweet chili sauce.

Another creative appetizer is the calamari steak strips ($9). More tender than the standard circular servings, the pre-cut strips are a good choice if you want to fill up on your appetizer rather than an entree. The California cold-water steaks are what Suarez calls a “poor man’s abalone.”

Billy’s aesthetic continues with its plates. They are varied and original,tints of blue in different shapes. The tuna nachos are served on a beautiful triangular service that looks like sea glass. While nachos ($11) suggest a heavy dish, they are light and fresh. Cucumber salad and Thai red-chili aoli complement slices of fresh ahi tuna served atop crispy won tons.

The appetizer menu is dominated by seafood, but Suarez prides himself on the quality and consistency of his steaks. After all, he was one of Russell’s opening managers and worked at the Ore House in Vail Village for quite some time. When opening Billy’s in 2002, Suarez wanted his restaurant to be a little different.

“I’ve always been a steakhouse guy,” said Suarez, and it’s evident when he begins to talk about his meat selection. Suarez wanted an establishment that could serve both top-notch seafood and red meat. And based on the large number of returnees, it seems he has succeeded.

Since 2002, winter business has increased 10 to 15 percent over the same month in the previous year.

Suarez said, “As word gets out, people try you and become very loyal to places they like.”

And, although construction has impacted business in the summer, last winter saw Billy’s bringing in more customers than it had in any other ski season.

All steaks are brought in from the Midwest and are corn fed. Half are dry aged and half are sirloin. The prime ribs and New York strips are aged 28 days minimum in wooden coolers to give the meat its distinct flavor and tenderness.

“Many restaurants buy (steaks) pre cut and then individually wrap them. Ours our cut to specifications that we set,” said Suarez.

This means that a rare cut will be thicker than a steak ordered well done. And that filets and sirloins will get individual treatment to produce optimal results.

The Captain Struve Special ($28 for a 6 oz., $36 for a 10 oz.) is a decadently-cut filet wrapped in bacon and smothered in crab meat and bearnaise sauce. The Struve is best served rare as the tender beef is the perfect opposite to crunchy bacon.

Ordering uncut meat from suppliers means fresh beef for smaller portions like kabobs. Rather than use pre-packaged beef, the meat at Billy’s is separated from the large cuts at the time of the order. The beef kabobs ($20) ” pieces of filet and sirloin skewered with bell peppers, onion and mushrooms with island rice ” are one of the most delicate items on the menu and a must-have for dinner.

Like the appetizers, the fish entrees are thoughtful and well paired. Dana’s seared tuna ($28) is a yellowfin steak served over Asian cole slaw and wasabi mashed potatoes. The margarita shrimp pasta ($28) sees jumbo prawns marinated in tequila, lime and cilantro.

Make sure you’ve planned for dessert as the key lime pie is one of the best in the valley. Tart with a crumbling crust and topped with meringue.

Vail, Colorado

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