Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Billy's Place Is Back With New Chef, New Menu, New Attitude

  Peeking through the shutters next to my table, I realize the street scene below could be nearly any urbanscape. A convenience store, an occasional stream of traffic as a traffic light goes green. High rise buildings block the horizon. A Vespa dealer is dark for the night.
Billy’s Place
21 E. Perry St.
Savannah GA 31401 912.231.9049
2nd Floor (Elevator Access)
Tuesday-Saturday open at 4:30 p.m. I recommend reservations.

Want to stay over?
Billy’s Place includes “The Inn at McDonough’s,” four single room accommodations with private bathrooms. The rooms are sound insulated and nicely furnished. For more information or reservations,
  But this scene is not from New York or Florence, San Francisco or LA. The atmosphere is cozy, created by flickering candles that dance in time to the suave cat tinkling the ivories at the piano bar.
  No airfare required. This old-school supper club is just 15 minutes from my Midtown Savannah home. Here, you can relax with a hand-crafted, classic cocktail, choose from an alluring little wine list and bask in the kind of white tablecloth service that is growing more and more elusive.
  Where is this little gem with its 50-ish seats and attentive waiters? It’s Billy’s Place, the second story perch atop the venerable and oddly juxtaposed sister joint, McDonough’s Restaurant & Lounge.
  McDonough’s is legendary for karaoke nights, high-volume bar service and some damned solid food – from breakfast all day to a cheeseburger hot off the grill. It is an institution unto itself, the 27-year-old flagship of owner Billy Lee’s half-block empire that holds two restaurants with bars and a handful of tidy and well-appointed guest rooms. Flanked on the north and south by East McDonough Street and East Perry Street, respectively, and bustling Drayton Street to the east, Billy Lee’s “office” is a prime piece of downtown real estate.
  I raved about Billy’s Place when it opened in 2006 – and frequented its quiet bar and restaurant more than any other of my haunts. Chef Brian Palefsky was in the kitchen – and he’s a dude I’ve followed all over town. During his lengthy stint at 45 South, he prepared for me the best veal chop I had ever had – or have had since.
  Then, on a hot August night in 2007, Billy had a first in his then 40 years of restaurant ownership. A fire started in the office and quickly spread. Firefighters, regulars at McDonough’s, responded in less than a minute. But, as with many fires, the damage from smoke and water were devastating.
  At the time Billy anticipated being reopened in a few weeks. The reality was an extended shut down for both restaurants. When Billy’s reopened in 2010, Palefsky was gone to another kitchen and the restaurant’s new tapas-style menu fell flat. I tried to like it, I really did. The space was the same. The food, the wine, the service were not.
  Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Allen Larkin, a young man I’ve known from his jobs at other Savannah restaurants and in the wholesale wine and liquor business, stopped me at a wine show to tell me he was now at Billy’s Place
  “You should come eat with me sometime soon,” he said. “I’ll call.”
  When I’m INVITED to eat – obviously for a review – you just better have your chops. You gotta be careful what you ask for. Truthfully, some of my worst dining experiences have come during a pre-arranged meal for the purpose of writing a restaurant or chef feature. Odd, but true.
  I stopped reviewing anonymously years ago. It’s a small city. Lots of people know me and what I do. They also know I cook, I consult and I’m brutally honest. I will tell you what I think – but I will also help you get better.
  That in mind, I hit the door at Billy’s Place on a Wednesday night with absolutely no expectations other than giving these guys the chance to show what they could do. It wasn’t wall-to-wall. But two large tables were already pushing the tiny kitchen to it breaking point.
  I grabbed a seat at the bar, basking beneath the cool blue neon “Billy’s Place” sign. Allen and I caught up on restaurant and wine business gossip and he prepared a cool and refreshing cocktail, Spaghetti Western, an easy sipping concoction built on bourbon and Campari.
  My table was soon ready and I took a seat. I scanned the menu, the asked my server to get with Allen and the chef:
  “I’m your guest tonight – cook for me,” I said. “Put your best work forward – and don’t try to over feed me. Also, ask Allen if he will pair a wine with each course.”
  This is the point where some chefs go for the jugular: Steak, veal or some other piece of beef reminiscent of a meal from “The Flintstones.”
  Executive Chef Michael Marchand has clearly played this game before. The Johnson and Wales alum didn’t miss a beat – and played his best hand.
  For openers, the Massachusetts-born chef laid out a spread of Blackened Raw Tuna Sashimi. There are several good line cooks in this town who can fry fish, but not many can handle sashimi with this much grace.   The pan-seared, thin-sliced tuna was served with pickled ginger, seaweed salad, wasabi cream sauce and chili vinaigrette, and was sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.
  There was enough to share, but thank goodness I was dining solo on this spectacular plate. The flavors were strategically positioned against one another. The tuna was that perfect blend of warm sear and cool interior; textures ranged across the board from butter tender tuna to crunchy sesame seeds.
  A Caesar salad broke up the pace between appetizer and entrée. You don’t want to read about Caesar salad – just trust that it was fresh, crisp and delicious.
  When the entrée landed, I was stunned. I had expected beef or veal – and was presented with a Maryland Style Lump Crab Cake. Up until this night, The Distillery’s Crab Cake was by far the best example of a true Maryland-style crab cake in the city – thanks to owner Michael Volen’s upbringing. Now, he has a competitor – and I feel a crab-off coming on.
  Chef Marchand was apparently raised right as well. His Baltimore-style crab cake is baked until golden brown then served with oven roasted Rosemary potatoes, asparagus and fresh greens topped with sliced apple.
  This crab cake has to be baked. I pushed a fork into the cake and found nearly all big lumps of white, sweet and luscious pieces of crab. What is binder in lesser crab cakes serves more as delicate seasoning and wonderfully crunchy bits to contrast the tender crab. A drizzle of remoulade is not overpowering and allows the crab and its flavors to shine through.
  Stick a fork in me. I’m done, satisfied, satiated, and ebullient – but what’s this? Salted caramel cheesecake and port?
Well…yes, please.
  Allen’s wine pairings – all whites – were spot on. I’ll spare you details of the wines. The list is under transition and I suspect it will be a dynamic document under Allen’s watch. There are some crowd favorites on the list – and also some labels for the wine geek.
  I got up, stretched, chatted with some dinners – like Savannah-based sculptor Susie Grantham Chisholm – and moved back to my bar seat to swap stories with Jeff and Jelena Bentley, the husband and wife team behind NuSystem Draft Services. I’ll tell their story later.
  Allen wet my whistle with one more cocktail – featuring aromatic and delicious Darnley's gin. This London dry style gin has the obligatory juniper -- but flavors of elderflower and lemon peel are most prevalent. This is sure to be a summertime cooler in sweltering Savannah heat.
  Overall, I give this re-tool of Billy’s Place an A+ and hope it stays on track. Billy, now in his early 80s, holds court most nights from the east end of the bar – his night owl ways are hard to change. He has a solid young and enthusiastic crew who can only push the bar higher with each passing day. Chef Marchand is just what this kitchen needed and Allen is what was needed behind the bar. With so few seats, Billy’s Place has to do a turn or two on busy nights – and develop high average tickets. It’s a manageable target with this team.
  Food, service, atmosphere – this is an exemplary little dinner club and piano bar well worth a visit.


  1. Thx for the interesting review. I'll visit Savannah in 3 weeks for the 1st time, one saturday night with my wife. I've been very interested by this restaurant following your review, when it comes to the dinner. A friend tells me "you have to go to the Pink House". We are foodies, like small restaurant, simple and natural, good quality ingredients, own and run by the same guy. Do you recommend more Billy? or the Pink? Or anything else? We have 1 single night :-) Thks in advance,

    1. Given your guidelines, I would actually recommend Noble Fare. Very small, owner is chef, his wife is FOH. Perfectly executed menu and a tight little wine list. Located in a Federal style house.
      PH is huge, several hundred covers on a Saturday night, corporate ownership.