Diner: Upscale Watering Hole

Lebanon's Wild Bill's is an intriguing mixture of common and eccentric

I still don't know what to make of Wild Bill's New American Grille in downtown Lebanon. It's part local watering hole and part fancy-pants restaurant. Believe me, I've been in a local watering hole or two, and Wild Bill's certainly seems to be one upon arrival. The bar is right up front, and a few tables are scattered about with locals hanging out having a brew and chowing down on bar food.

But, hidden between the wings, fried pickles, skins and the like are some extraordinary dishes waiting to be found. Now don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against bar food. But I sensed it wasn't what Bill's was all about.

Our table was in a strange tunnel that attaches the front bar area with the dining area and kitchen. To the right in this tunnel was a window that revealed what appeared to be stainless beer brewing tanks, although there was no home brew mentioned on the menu. Odd.

Anyway, the server came and didn't seem to know much. He didn't mention a special, although the menu said there was a daily pasta special. When I called later to confirm some things, they said there was always a menu insert. News to me — and my server.

We ordered appetizers from the eclectic selection and considered our dinner selection. I decided to wait to order dinner until we got the appetizers, because I was interested in knowing which way the place was leaning. My date had a Log Jam ($5.95), fries smothered with cheddar, bacon and scallions — classic bar fare. I had the Coconut-crusted Scallops ($8.95), a fancy starter for a bar. The smothered fries were a bit limp, but the cheddar was sharp and tasty and big bits of bacon were abundant. However, the scallops were wonderful. I began to wonder if there were two kitchens, because it seemed unlikely that these two items came from the same place. The scallops were served with a cool yet spicy habanero pineapple sauce, perfect with the golden coconut crust. Any New York bistro would have been proud to serve them.

The appetizers helped determine our entrée selection, as I began to see that there was talent here. So we decided to forego the abundant burger selection, complete with bison burger and oyster Po-Boy, for more sophisticated fare. When they arrived, I was glad we did. But not before the salad course, which really surprised me.

I have noticed that restaurants often shine in the smallest ways. But those small things can make all the difference when the evening is remembered. The house salad at Wild Bill's is one good example: mixed greens with shaved Romano cheese, tomatoes, red onions and (get this) roasted pumpkin seeds topped with the house jalapeno lime vinaigrette. It was a real taste sensation. Our other entrée came with the house Caesar, which was all right but paled next to the house salad. No bread was served with the salads, although it did arrive with our entrées.

For dinner I had the Blackened Strip Steak ($19.95). It was tossed with what Chef Bill Schroeder calls a "spicy nut and Maytag blue cheese salsa." There were, by my count at least four kinds of nuts, Cajun spice and blue cheese all piled high on the steak. Very nice, but nut heavy. My steak was a bit over-cooked, but the flavor was great — Angus I'd bet. Our second plate was the Honey Mustard Chicken Breast ($13.95), a breaded and baked (not fried) chicken breast in a sweet honey sauce with a hint of mustard. It was too sweet for me but, once again, a side dish made the meal — savory grits with Pecorino Romano and thyme, moist and flavorful, and a little out of place next to the uninspired chicken.

Our server brought our bill prematurely, and we almost didn't get the dessert I'd heard about. But we decided to try it anyway. It was a Chocolate Crème Brulée ($4.95) with Chili Peppers. This not the sort of thing I normally order, but I'm happy I did. Again, it shows how every place can make a special dish, and this was indeed special. The custard was creamy and noticeably spicy, but the glazed sugar and the sweet whipped cream on top took the bite away and left my mouth pleasantly balanced between spicy and sweet. It was a nice take on the classic dessert.

All in all, I liked Wild Bill's. It's a hard place to describe, and the menu is eccentric. But I think anyone could find something they'd like there. I wish it was around the corner from my house: That crème brulée might be addictive. And I'd guess Wild Bill's could be, too. ©

Wild Bill's New American Grille
Go: 20 East Silver St., Lebanon

Call: 513-934-1300

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday & Saturday; 11 a.m.-Midnight Friday

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Quesadillas & fish

Grade: B