8326 Main St., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Red Mill Inn
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American Seafood Steak Williamsville
"Red Mill offers everything from a 10-ounce portion of the Prime Rib to a heart-stopping 32-ounce version; we went with the smaller one, but the huge slice couldn't possibly have been only 10 ounces."
Rarely do our editors' opinions diverge sharply on any facet of a review, but it happens, and this time, the subject is Williamsville's Red Mill Inn - a landmark on Main Street near Clarence. Once known as the Old Red Mill Inn, the restaurant may have updated both its menu and its name in 2009, but it has preserved both its classic exterior watermill and its emphasis on traditional American food, describing itself as a "prime rib and seafood house." Familiar with the place from both the Taste of Williamsville and Taste of Clarence, as well as visits in prior years, our group of four revisited the Red Mill Inn this weekend, agreeing entirely on the excellence of the service, as well as the food, which we'd place firmly in the "good" category with some above-par exceptions, but differed sharply on the decor. Your personal perspective will depend to some extent on what you focus on when you visit the place.
Mixed First Impressions. It's impossible to ignore the many signs of Red Mill Inn's age, which are most obvious in outdoor placards dating part of the structure to the 1800's and the restaurant to 1961; parking outside also gives you a chance to see firsthand some rusty, boarded-up train cars that are parts of the small but cozy complex. They're simultaneously classy and sad, evoking not only a bygone era of champagne-fueled luxury transportation but also the challenges of maintaining that era's relics. And it's obvious that the Inn has a lot to maintain.
Apart from some work that's still needed on the floors and carpets, however, the inside of the place is often charming, its rustic dining rooms at times as wonderfully warm and homey as any we've visited in Western New York. The servers are dressed formally and are appropriately attentive without hovering; they and the overall look of the place suggest that the appropriate attire for patrons is business casual, give or take a little. Signs in the entry tout appealing, inexpensive Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Martinis ($6) - good, we'll note - and other specials, which work well together to create a somewhat upscale but approachable dining experience similar to the nearby Kennedy's Cove, only with more space and somewhat more affordable dishes. One of us preferred the look and feel of Red Mill Inn to Kennedy's Cove; the other felt otherwise, suggesting that the place was in visible need of repairs.
Familiar Choices. New menus introduced in 2009 continue to offer American favorites, focusing on prime rib, steaks, and seafood, with surf and turf specials and small sprinklings of international influence. The first page of the simple, two-sided dinner menu focuses your attention almost entirely on the sorts of steaks, soups, and appetizers found at semi-upscale American places all throughout the area, with little ethnic hints thereafter: Chicken Parmesan and a "Far East" Duck Breast with "Asian Spices" sit aside a Turkey Roulade, Meatloaf, and "Yankee" Pot Roast, all in the $13 to $21 range. Red Mill's seafood dishes range from $16 to $30, consisting largely of snow crab and king crab plates, plus swordfish, salmon, and scallop items.
Appetizers. Despite the menu's brevity, it was easy to assemble a meal that sounded good. Red Mill's list of Starters is short but sweet, including three flat bread pizzas, two soups, and four other items: crab stuffed mushrooms, artichoke fritters, clams casino, and stuffed banana peppers. Our group decided to share the latter for $9, and what arrived was one of the best overall values in Banana Pepper plates we've had in this area: three large, properly cooked peppers, more than adequately stuffed with both breading and cheese, accompanied by three slices of lightly broiled, buttery garlic bread. Though the Peppers didn't have a profoundly strong flavor, only a gentle undercurrent of spice that was offset by the mild stuffing, our group had no problem finishing them and the garlic bread. This was in addition to a complimentary basket of warm white rolls and butter that arrived around the same time.
Soup and Salads. Intrigued by a menu claim that it was a 20-year-old "perfect recipe," we also ordered the Seafood Bisque ($2.79/cup, $6/bowl), and two people ordered different versions of the Caesar Salad ($3/$8.79). The Bisque was a half-flop, with only the smallest bits of various fish inside, and a broth that was lighter in thickness and cream than most bisques we've sampled. Otherwise, however, it tasted good, seemed to include just a little alcohol - brandy, perhaps? - and was strong enough in seafood flavor to be worthy of finishing anyway, with a couple of crackers that made up for the lack of fish in the bowl. Additionally, two different people enjoyed their Caesars, which looked ordinary enough but came with a nice dressing that complimented the copious croutons, shredded cheese, and sliced romaine lettuce. One person ordered it with a topping of Atlantic Salmon, which he pronounced perfectly grilled and delicious. Another member of our group ordered the "Traditional Chicken Parmesan" ($15), a filling, satisfying plate with enough angel hair pasta, rich marinara sauce, and cheesy, breaded cutlets to take home and enjoy later.
Beef's Big Here. As noted in our coverage of the Taste of Williamsville and Taste of Clarence, we previously came away with less than positive impressions of the Red Mill Inn's "house specialty" prime rib as an ingredient in sandwiches, but due to their prominence on the menu, we felt obliged to give both the prime rib and another steak a shot. Red Mill offers everything from a $20, 10-ounce portion of the Prime Rib to a heart-stopping $49, 32-ounce version, and even though we went with the smaller one, the plate that arrived was packed with meat - the slice couldn't possibly have been only 10 ounces. Relatively low on fat and obviously as slow-roasted as it was promised to be, the thick slice was cooked to medium-well at the edges and just shy of medium in the center, then served with a large pile of mashed potatoes and natural juices. It wasn't as juicy and succulent as we might have hoped, but the size and lack of fat were both positives. Garlic mashed potatoes on the plate were fine, but served with a weak gravy, alongside a small pile of nice, fresh green beans and carrots.
The other steak we sampled was a USDA Prime Sirloin ($21), which we ordered with the standard preparation - a house rub and red wine demi glace - rather than going with $2-$3 upgrades such as blackening, onions, mushrooms, or Maytag cheese crusting. Though each of these variants appealed to us, we were interested to see how the steak measured up in flavor and quality without them, and the result was a little better than average: a roughly 8-ounce, decent cut of beef, cooked to medium rather than the medium rare we'd ordered, with only small traces of the lightly sweet demi glace. We actually enjoyed the green beans on the plate more than the steak, finding the included french fries to be pretty good, too - crispy, and only a little light in salt.
Notably, we decided to order the plate as a Surf and Turf version with a side of Snow Crab ($7), receiving a second plate with one claw, three legs, and a cracking tool to break them apart. Served with melted butter and a lemon, the crab was just a little oversteamed, such that pieces came out of the shell just a little on the dry side, though the portion size was entirely reasonable for the price. It was a nice complement to the steak, which otherwise might have been too small to satisfy as an entree.
Homemade Desserts on a Big Tray. Presented with an oversized and very appealing dessert tray that was filled with homemade options - largely cakes - we opted for something untraditional: the Almond Florentine Plate ($6), filled with six oversized cookies made from honey-glazed almond slices on beds of caramelized chocolate, topped purely for decorative reasons with a large dollop of whipped cream. Cookies, particularly very good ones like these, are a surprisingly powerful draw: the two members of our group who initially begged off of dessert found themselves enticed first to try tiny bites, then asked for seconds and thirds, enjoying the candy-like interplay of the sweetened nut shreds and the milk chocolate foundations. Everyone at our table enjoyed them.
In sum, we'd classify the Red Mill Inn as a good restaurant at the core with some highlights that occasionally take it a notch up the scale: regardless of whether we viewed the decor as thoroughly charming or somewhat worn out, we were impressed by our friendly and accommodating server, generally pleased with the food, and intrigued enough by the place that we'd be willing to come back again. With a little work, the Inn could clean up just enough of its rough exterior and interior edges to satisfy more people; thanks to both geography and the nature of the establishment, it's easy to picture it becoming a universally thrilling meeting place for people in both Williamsville and Clarence.