Bill Roberts has such a (deservedly) loyal northern-suburbs following that his sixth restaurant was packed on a Sunday night a week after its mid-August debut. And his staff's long experience was such that no trace of opening-week jitters could be seen. Long before the time you'll read this, Bill's already felt as comfortable as an old shoe.
The usual eclectic Ron Rea design keeps diners occupied scanning the walls as they wait for a table (there are no reservations for dinner). Random family portraits of stiff bankers and gracious ladies, taxidermy, a model sailboat, blow-ups of paper money (bills, get it?) jostle for space on the dark blue walls of the smallish interior. The tables are bare, with paper placemats. An attractive patio out front is surrounded by greenery to hide the view of the parking lot.
The menu tends toward blasts from the past (though not, thankfully a wedge of iceberg) — frog legs, crab Louie, shrimp cocktail, traditional steaks, tuna Niçoise, veal Marsala, baked Alaska — but includes some updates: a Waldorf salad with quinoa, a Caesar with kale, carbonara with crab, and meatballs served with polenta. The $15 burger is as gussied up as a burger can be, with a blend of four beefs, port-wine onions, arugula, and Roquefort.
Dinner begins with some good salty bread and fruity olive oil. In late summer, drinks included a cucumber Collins and a "Seasonal Press" with blueberries and sprigs of fresh thyme (the latter turns out to be a pretty strong flavor). Ten featured cocktails will change seasonally.
Those fried frog legs, delicate hinges dusted with a bit of pecorino, are a fine starter, though we disagreed whether they tasted like ... chicken. Roquefort-stuffed figs were a bit of a disappointment, the figs oddly bland. More impressive was carpaccio with lots of arugula, cremini, and red onion, with a charred lemon on the side, though a lighter touch with the olive oil would've been even better. And star starters were two soups: creamy artichoke Parmesan and corn Vichyssoise, the cool of the latter making it so refreshing as to belie its thick and hearty ingredients. (Note to servers everywhere: the final "s" is not silent.)
It turned out that the various parties I ate with ordered all three of Bill's pasta dishes, and all three were winners. Crab carbonara is generous with the crab and very sea-flavored, with a perfectly coddled egg. Lamb Bolognese is thick with shredded meat and smoothed with mascarpone. Garlicky seafood pomodoro uses a very light touch to pair tomatoes with shellfish; the shrimp in particular were plump and perfect.
One cute idea from chef Craig Myrand, a three-year Roberts veteran, is prime rib hash, with a big nod to breakfast. A large plateful is served with two sunny-side-up eggs, beef jus, and garlic toast: immensely satisfying. A branzino is served with black beluga lentils, which gleam a little, supposedly making them look like beluga caviar. The slightly smoky fish is served tail-on and stuffed with lemon slices; it's fine, but the firm, whole lentils with tomatoes were actually more interesting.
Other entrées are swordfish with artichokes, mussels with aioli, a pork chop with maple-peach-bourbon sauce and brick chicken. Antipasto is also offered as an entrée, but I hope the chef adds to the rather uninspired listed items: provolone, mozzarella, prosciutto, salami, peperoncini, and pickled vegetables.
It's mysterious why rather upscale restaurants often offer desserts designed to imitate a cheap goody from childhood, like s'mores or Rice Krispies Treats. Myrand has dreamed up a little Creamsicle panna cotta in a cup and reproduces the Creamsicle flavor on the nose, with more expensive ingredients. A sharing-size baked Alaska was untraditional, topped with coconut instead of a fired meringue, solid but not memorable.
Following the successful example of Roberts' Beverly Hills Grill, breakfast will soon be served, from 7 to 11 a.m. It may be more accessible than dinner, where arrival at 7 o'clock can get you an hour's wait. But the bartender offers those cocktails to sustain you.
"Social Hour" is 3-6 p.m. weekdays at the bar, with $5 wines, a $7 flight of bourbons, and $2-$5 small plates. — mt