The Review / Billy Club
House Grind Burger
Photos by kc kratt
The danger is that Western New Yorkers may grow completely numb to the once exhilarating anticipation of a new restaurant—it seems that a compelling venue opens monthly. Here’s one newcomer that started adding to the embarrassment of riches last June. It’s almost a formula: a long-shuttered building is put in the creative and energetic hands of locals with just enough experience to know what mistakes to avoid, but not enough to be risk averse. The results speak for themselves: Allentown’s Billy Club, concocted by a pair of young but veteran barmen, almost hits you over the head with them.
Although its name evokes visions of an after-hours place for cops, Billy Club’s decor, while masculine, veers more toward nautical. Interior walls are battleship gray, knotted lines hang from overhead lamps cords, and there’s plenty of polished brass. Add a carrara marble-topped bar backed by blond wood shelves and the complete look is clean and modern, in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous barn wood and exposed brick common to restaurant rebuild version 1.0.
The bar is the prominent feature, providing ample work space for owners Dan Hagan and Jake Stawser to rattle their cocktail shakers. A slim bar menu offers a selection of ten craft cocktails, with canned beers and wines by the glass on the flip side. While restricting beer offerings to canned might be questionably hipster, the choices are meticulously curated: a nice range of food-friendly lagers, pilsners, saisons and witbiers, providing interesting variety beyond the standard palate-wrecking IPAs. The wine list is slim, and there’s one set price for all bottles or individual glasses. Our selection of a Spanish tempranillo was satisfying at the $32 price point. Cocktails are a strong point for the bar. Gilbert Grape is a fizzy vodka drink with a sweet tart combo of lemon and concord grape that goes down a bit too easily. The Desperado tames a rocks glass of tequila with a bit of sugar and warm spices. And it’s hard for any loganberry fancier to ignore the Buck Wild, which pairs the local icon with a bit of bourbon and ginger beer. The intense berry flavor is understated and the cloying sweetness kept at bay with ample sour lemon. It’s a far more enjoyable mixture than any of my previous loganberry experiences, which were mostly reminiscent of cough syrup.
The kitchen sticks to this ethos of playing to strengths. While menu choices are a bit restricted, with salad and fish offerings noticeably absent, it isn’t hard to find something tempting. Before booking a reservation, however, keep in mind that what you see is what you get; the nightly specials lists is typically limited to a few additional small plates. Given that caveat, dishes at Billy Club are complex compositions built from multiple elements that span the full range of tastes, artfully composed on small round plates.
Flat 12 mushrooms
When a fried potato dish starts with a complex base layer of sour tamarind, tangy basil yogurt, and buttery creme fraiche and is finished off with a garnish of fried garlic, the time and effort quickly adds up. Another show stopper is the prime hanger steak. Hanger steak, an odd cut similar in shape to pork tenderloin, can be both revered and reviled for is strong iron-y flavor. At Billy Club, the hanger’s bias cut slices are tender and taste of nothing but exceptional beef. It’s paired with nutty, gnocchi-like potato puffs, charred scallion, and a blue cheese “jus” with enough bite to satisfy but not enough to scare the cheese-timid. This isn’t your dad’s meat and potatoes; dishes like these are complete home runs and drive the point of the compact menu.
Chef Scott Crombie’s desire to pack sweet, sour, salty, and savory as well as multiple textures into every dish works with a fair amount of success. A dish of roasted cauliflower starts with golden browned florets that have a meaty richness as if lovingly basted with animal fat. A chunky pool of coriander quince glaze lends some sweet and sour, assertively smoked pears offer another complementary note; the dish is finished with a palate-cleansing dose of whole cilantro leaves. A simply seasoned, yet expertly cooked confit duck leg is perfectly paired with roasted potatoes and further complemented with dollops of sweet squash, a salad of bitter greens, pickled shallots, and crunchy pine nuts. I want to love the chef’s presentation of Flat 12 oyster mushrooms, a similarly heady mix, but this time veering into Southeast Asia with notes of coconut and kaffir lime. The sweet and salty composition is balanced and exotic when all the elements are in a single forkful, but more often than not, a bite is overwhelmed with lime.
Shrimp and grits; hanger steak
There are a few spots on the menu where simplicity shines. Bone marrow is cooked to a consistency sufficient for spreading on toast points without being overly greasy. The meatball bomber features hefty meatballs in a bright, fresh tomato sauce served on a crisped roll that maintains its integrity to the last bite. The charcuterie board bookends a decadent chicken liver mousse and whole grain mustard with imported prosciutto and salami. The burger arrived with a blushing pink center and is made with a tight pack of finely ground beef that comes off like a hunk of tender steak. And the shrimp and grits, punctuated by smoky bacon, provide rarely seen, intact shrimp in all their delicious glory. Maybe a challenge to eat, but better than leaving flavor in the kitchen.
It’s clear from the diminutive dining space with its few dozen seats that Billy Club combines cocktail lounge and fine dining, so pick your spots wisely. We found that weeknight and early weekend meals were relaxed and the service attentive, but the volume noticeably increases as the night progresses and the bar fills.
Jeff Biesinger is Spree’s fine dining reviewer.