Hand-carved haven | VailDaily.com

Hand-carved haven

Wren Wertin
Bill Suarez is the owner of Billy's Island Grill in Lionshead.

“I love the restaurant business,” he said. “I haven’t had to give up a lot in my life. I’m 55 years old, and I’m still doing all the things I loved at 20. I want my staff to be happy, and pass that along to the customers.”

Located where the old Chart House used to be, he kept the tables with their island map centerpieces, but that’s about all. From there, he worked on a re-design that allows the large dining room to feel cozy. The bar is separated from the dining room by a painted glass wall, complete with sea scenes. It’s a comfortable place to wile away an hour or two, but it’s the food which will have people coming back. After teaching skiing for 25 years (and counting), Suarez knows what vacationers want to eat.

The coconut crunchy shrimp ($9.95) rest on a pile of tart Asian slaw. The crust is light and crisp, and a good contrast to the meaty shrimp. It goes beautifully with the plum sauce and its underlying sweetness. For those wanting something a little lighter, the steamed artichoke ($6.95) is easy to share. Skip the drawn butter and go for the pungent garlic aioli – and don’t forget the heart.

At Billy’s they hand carve the steaks which gives them several advantages, not the least of which is scraps. They marinate and grill them and presto – teriyaki steak bits ($5.95).

“Hand carving the steaks means we cut each steak for how it will be cooked,” said Suarez. “So rare is fat and round, while well done is flatter and wider. And it allows us to get better meat.”

A self-professed steak man, he prefers the dry-aged 16-ounce New York strip steak ($28.95). We opted for the Captain Struve Special ($23.95), which was inspired by a dish the Ore House serves. Suarez was a waiter there for 22 years, and a manager for three. The bacon-wrapped filet is topped with chunks of crab and smothered in bearnaise with a hint of a kick. It’s the height of decadence without remorse.

“Just like the comedian who knew a joke was good when he stole it, I know a dish is good when I steal it,” he said honestly and unapologetically.

If something lights his fire, he’s bound to be serving it soon.

While tooling around Baja California, he and a couple of friends stopped at a dive of a restaurant. They ordered the house special, jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon and stuffed with asadera, a Mexican cheese. At Billy’s, it’s Cabo shrimp ($22.95). The bacon crunches up, and would take over the dish, save for the creamy cheese that cuts the flavor.

They have a rule at Billy’s. If somebody asks if a dish is spicy, they can’t order it. Though most of the food isn’t spicy, the dishes with kick have really big kick. A good example is the serrano chile pasta, a frequent item on the special list. Made with pureed serranos, fresh spinach, herbs and spices, the sauce is an exclamatory green. It’s served over pasta with blackened chicken or tuna. I chose the tuna, seared rare. With blackened fish, the seasoning often takes over. But this was subtle. The fresh tuna flavor still shone through, and was a good complement to the pungent, spicy pasta.

During the course of the evening, both diners and staff seemed upbeat and happy. This is a direct result of Suarez’s take on life.

“Be happy,” he said. “We’re all living in a beautiful place doing the things we love. We don’t get too snooty here, though we always want to be professional. It’s easier to wait tables in the mountains than in the city. People like the friendliness of it all.”

“This place has a little to do with me, and a lot to do with a lot of other folks,” he added.

Our server was able to pair wines by the glass with each course, and did a good job of it. The wine selection isn’t vast, but does cover all the bases nicely; the prices are very reasonable.

“I like to keep it simple,” said Suarez. “But everything I serve I want to be the best I’ve ever eaten, with big portions. My philosophy is freshness and quality, and careful preparation.”

Billy’s Island Grill is located in Lionshead. They begin serving dinner at 5:30 p.m. For more information call the restaurant at 476-8811.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.

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