Escape at Billy’s Island Grill
VAIL – After a long day at the office, I couldn’t wait to meet my date for dinner Thursday night. I was expecting a nice evening spent in good company, eating good food. What I didn’t anticipate was spending an evening in the tropics for amazing cuisine, far away from a mountain town in Vail, Colorado. We arrived at Billy’s Island Grill in Lionshead at 6:15 and were immediately seated by the attentive wait staff. Illuminated by the glow of the afternoon sun, we dined in the corner of the spacious deck under a canopy of umbrellas and a garland of bright flowers. Spanning the length of the patio, sliding doors opened to reveal bar with a view. Beyond the bar, a large indoor dining room complete with paintings of the seaside and a generous aquarium, awaits guests. The deck filled up by 7 p.m. and by then we were well into our first course.Our waiter Tim Wins had so many favorites, we were forced to sample several. The tuna nachos ($8), sweet slices of prime Ahi wonderfully offset with drizzled Thai red chili aioli on crunchy triangles, rest on delightfully refreshing cucumber salad. If you don’t see them on the menu, ask for a special order. They’re on the lighter side, and they’ll make your mouth water. We finished every last one and washed them down with a light 2002 Sterling Vineyard sauvignon blanc at Wins’ suggestion. Although they are “the biggest in town, the jumbo shrimp cocktails ($12) are also lighter fare. And if you like ceviche, the classic south-of-the-border creation at Billy’s ($9), made with fresh Chilean sea bass and Gulf shrimp, is so fresh and tasty. It’s a must-order. If you’re a bit hungrier, the sharable crispy spring rolls ($8) stuffed with shrimp, scallops and Asian stir-fry dipped in a sweet chili sauce hit the spot. Probably the most popular app on the menu is the coconut crunchy shrimp ($11), large prawns, layered with coconut flakes and a panko covering, tempuraed to a golden brown, are smashing when dipped in the tangy plum sauce.
When owner Billy Suarez says, “It’s the food that will keep people coming back,” I have no doubt at this point. And we haven’t even gotten to the main courses. My date happily remarked that he didn’t feel as if he was in Vail, but a laid-back beach town with great atmosphere. We weren’t totally fooled though. After all, our table did overlook Vail Mountain. Billy’s hasn’t always had such a scenic view. The buildings in front of the steakhouse were demolished with the onslaught of the Lionshead renovation and will return upon the project’s completion in the spring.But like Suarez said, it’s all about the food. And he is as much a facet of the restaurant as what’s on the menu. When you meet him, it all makes sense.The laid-back California native attributes the grill’s vibe and the eclectic menu to his travels. “I know good food when I steal,” said the nonchef, Suarez. “It’s an old Milton Borough joke. He used to say to Johnny Carson, ‘I know a good joke when I steal it.’ We just took the best of Southern California and a little bit of Hawaii.”Suarez settled in Vail in 1972 right after he got out of the army. He worked as a ski instructor by day and a server at the Ore House by night, with dreams of owning his own restaurant. “The owner was a cowboy, and I always wore Hawaiian shirts,” Suarez said of his time at the Ore House. “It was kind of a standing joke. After 20 years, I finally had a place to wear my Hawaiian shirts.”He refers to his 3-year-old baby to a steakhouse with a touch of Latin, and with good reason.
At Billy’s they hand carve the steaks, which gives them several advantages.”Hand carving the steaks means we cut each steak for how it will be cooked,” Suarez said. “So rare is fat and round, while well done is flatter and wider. And it allows us to get better meat.”My date is sold as we order our entrees and opts for the Captain Struve special ($36), a 10 oz. medium-rare filet covered in crabmeat wrapped in bacon and smothered in béarnaise. He guiltlessly indulges, as every bite exceeds his expectation.The dish was named for legendary local Craig Struve, the TV 8 legend whose home turf, until the recent relocation to Avon, was across the street in the Sunbird. A seafood lover myself, I can’t refuse the Dana’s Seared Tuna ($26), also named after a local character fond in Suarez’s heart. Asian cole slaw coveted slices of rare seared yellow fin tuna. Combined in my chopsticks with wasabi mashed potatoes and dipped in salsa fresca, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be eating.Wins brought us an earthy 2001 Edna Valley pinot noir that balanced the steak and the fish.”The food will rock your boat,” Suarez promised at the beginning of the meal. Yes indeed, especially when you sip on the grill’s famed mango margaritas made from fresh mango.The Alaskan king crab legs (I pound $38, 2 pounds $68) are another hot item. Or choose from the surf and turf menu for the best of both worlds.Wins paired several wines
Of course, there’s always room for dessert. Everything’s homemade so my date and I knew we couldn’t go wrong. When the mud pie arrived, a slab of coffee ice cream with chocolate chips and a chocolate cookie crust topped with homemade whip cream we knew we were getting our money’s worth. “You know you’ve got a real dessert when it comes with a steak knife,” my date exclaimed.Winning the approval of the tourists is one thing, the locals is another. Billy’s does both.”We’ve been very well accepted by the locals,” Suarez said. “I think we’ve done way, way better than we expected. Billy’s Island Grill, located in Lionshead, begins serving dinner at 6 p.m. For reservations or for more information, call 476-8811 or go to billysislandgrill.com.Tropical steakhouse
Billy’s Island Grill, LionsheadOpen for dinner at 6 nightlyFor reservations, call 476-8811Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 619, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado