The Village of Williamsville has no lack of places to get a drink. When BillyBar opened in the former Sweet Jenny’s shop on the corner of Spring Street, it aimed to broaden the definition of a Williamsville bar. It offers custom charcuterie and foie gras torchon, which few corner taverns offer as standards. Even though one of its sandwiches is filled with duck confit and roasted tomatoes, there’s a beef on weck, too, and chili and wings. High cuisine or down-home chow? BillyBar wants you to be able to have it both ways.
After it was a scoop shop it became a Coffee Culture, and now it’s lined with a bar, where cocktails are shaken and oysters shucked. It was dim, and the rock soundtrack was loud. BillyBar is owned by Bryan and Tara Bryndle, who also own the Snyder fine dining star Tabree. But it’s a bar. It’s not reasonable to expect fine dining cuisine there, especially since it doesn’t have a full kitchen, with no grill or fryer.
So if you’re not feeling like oysters, clams, shrimp or lobster tail from the ambitious side of BillyBar, you can still get steak tartare ($11), lobster roll sliders (3 for $15) and octopus with chorizo ($11). From the tavern menu side, there’s bruschetta offered with steak ($12), chopped stuffed pepper ($10) and margherita ($9) toppings.
The cocktail menu, with its bar-trying-harder touches, is worth perusing, too. The house-smoked pickled onions in my Gibson ($10) were enjoyably tangy coriander-infused bites. Our server was personable and reasonably attentive to our needs.
Wellfleet oysters arrived first, glistening and firm on a bed of ice with mignonette, cocktail sauce and lemon wedges (six for $13). Slurped out of their shells, they were a fine reminder of Cape Cod.
Lobster roll sliders sported chunks of fresh lobster meat dressed with mayonnaise, scallions and chunks of celery. The flavor of the lobster and toasted brioche bun was decent, if pale. The filling was mostly outside the puffy buns, with an unfelicitous lobster-to-bread ratio.
Bruschetta margherita was baguette topped with fruity roasted tomato and fresh house-made ricotta and a sprinkle of basil chiffonade, well-constructed but meekly flavored. The menu said the tomatoes were charred, but I couldn’t discern smoke.
Wedge salad ($9) had hunks of head lettuce topped with chewy bacon, sliced red onion, grape tomatoes and an unusually sour creamy dressing with bits of cheese. The dressing sparked an argument over whether it was supposed to taste that way, and it was scraped aside.
Lobster cocktail ($17) was three fat shrimp and half a lobster tail, split lengthwise. The shrimp were hearty and impeccably fresh. The plate’s owner couldn’t get the lobster meat out of the shell, and requested a suitable fork, eventually freeing bites of lobster.
The octopus with chorizo arrived in a small casserole, with toast. Lengths of octopus tentacle were covered by a braised meat mixture that tasted like American chili more than Spanish sausage, to my disappointment. I fished out pieces of chewy octopus to cut them on my plate, and eventually pushed it aside.
The “garbage” sandwich ($15) and beef on weck ($12) were better. The former piles bruschetta toppings (duck confit, steak, roasted tomatoes and onions) onto a baguette and tops the pile with arugula. I don’t usually recommend eating garbage, but in this case I will make an exception. It was a meaty, flavorful combination on bread that was up to the task.
The beef on weck also was on baguette, making it reminiscent of a French dip even though the bread sported salt and caraway. The thinly sliced beef and powerful horseradish made for good eating, though when I am eating tavern food, I would like more beef for my $12.
Steak tartare had two bruschetta-sized toast slices topped with chopped raw beef in a faintly mustardy sauce, with lots of capers. A raw egg yolk was carefully placed between them. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to involve the yolk myself, as one does with the egg atop loco moco, but the beef looked creamy enough, so I left it alone. It was a decadent little snack.
The charcuterie (large, $18) and foie gras ($20) were outstanding. Both are based on Tabree work. The cured meat board held slices of primal satisfaction: salami-like soppressata, spicier coppa and a smooth, earthy liver pâté studded with pistachios and wrapped in bacon. The meats were accompanied by syrupy sweet-and-sour preserved fruit, whole-grain mustard, pickles and toast.
The foie was a sophisticated snack, two slices of creamy goose liver torchon paired with a toasted brioche and a cherry mostarda.
Then there were the wings ($12). These were baked, with a molasses sauce, and one bite reminded me why restaurants don’t usually offer baked wings. The skin becomes flabby, and when coupled with sugar, unpleasantly sticky. Absent any crisping activity, baking turns my beloved chicken wing into something I don’t eat unless I have to. So I stopped at two. They came with more of that sour cheese dressing, and no celery, carrots or other vegetation, for the most dismaying plate of wings I’ve encountered in a long time.
As we left, the conversation turned to how one place could serve up highs like that foie gras, and fumble Buffalo basics like wings and blue cheese dressing. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m sure BillyBar is trying to figure it out.
BillyBar - 6 plates (out of 10)
Bar from Tabree owners hits high and low with seafood, charcuterie.
WHERE: 5590 Main St., corner of Spring Street, Williamsville (634-2572)
HOURS: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $9-$20; shellfish, $2.50-$30; sandwiches and shared plates, $12-$18.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.