The iconic Rex has come into her own. The restaurant and hotel created, by H. Alfred Heimer and Buffalo Bill Cody, has been renamed Buffalo Block at the Rex. The name pays tribute to the durable paving bricks from yesteryear joined with the spirit of Buffalo Bill.
From its early rough and tumble beginnings in 1909 across Montana Avenue from the roar of the iron vein, she has matured into an elegant beauty. The Rex, previously owned by Gene Burgad and his partners, was abruptly shuttered the day after Valentine’s Day in 2017 to be refashioned by Rick and Nicki Larson.
“As a family, we’d been patrons of the Rex for as long as any of us can remember. When it came time to get together for a good steak, it was always our go-to place," they said. When the Rex closed, the Larsons, local business owners, thought that the establishment still had potential.
Architect Dennis Deppmeier echoed that sentiment. “The Rex building is part of the historic district, and it was fundamental that what we did was respectful, a period-style solution.” The project, according to designer Jeremiah Young of Kibler and Kirch, began with “completely erasing the inside. We wanted to honor what was there, the richness, but not be a slave to it.” In doing so, the team fulfilled the Larsons’ desire for a traditional and timeless decor with unpretentious elegance.
My husband and friends, Sandy and Ken Kunkel, were invited to the soft opening before the official public unveiling. After walking through the updated wood and glass double doors, we stepped into a tiled white marble foyer leading into the space that once housed the bar. All that remained of the original interior were the wooden beams above and some bricks on the wall.
The central rectangular bar structure was gone, replaced by tables and booths finely finished by Dovetail Designs. A new mahogany bar positioned on the west wall stood sentry over a cozy space, anchored by grey and yellow velvet channel-back chairs, inviting a casual bite or a lingering sip.
Moving beyond the hostess station, the new Buffalo Block called to mind fine dining restaurants in New York and Chicago. Just beyond the hostess station were the glass doors of the meat-aging refrigerators and storage lockers for regular customers to house their personal wines and spirits. We continued into the fine dining section, a long space open to the kitchen at the north end, accented by the old brick walls, and doors to the Montana Avenue patio on the south. The intimate space featured walnut panels and comfortable booths and table seating.
Gone was the old bar, making the room seem much larger, yet quieted by forest-green carpeted floors and upholstered furniture. We were seated at a booth with prime viewing into the shiny state-of-the-art kitchen featuring an Argentinean wood-burning grill.
This was theater. We were entertained by the seemingly choreographed dance of Chef Austin Stewart and his staff in the kitchen, staged with smoke, steam and fire. The waitstaff led by Sarah Jaroch swept in and out taking orders. Sandy’s “French 75” cocktail with gin, St-Germain and sparkling wine effervesced with sophistication, while my “Casino” with vodka, citrus and bitters fancied with egg whites was tantalizingly pretty.
I eagerly anticipated my prime dry-aged ribeye before it was set in front of me, inhaling the aromas of smoke and caramel. When the menu described the steak to be “wet-aged for 30 days then dry-aged for 40 days” I had thoughts of decaying meat. However, the refrigerated aging process controls the breakdown of muscle, and can be either “wet,” where the beef is wrapped in plastic, or “dry” which allows for evaporation.
Either way, the result is a tender steak exploding with savory umami flavors. A special touch was the extra-large linen napkins with an embroidered buttonhole for attaching to a patron’s shirt.
The new menu featured side dishes. Ken’s baked potato arrived at the table with fanfare and accoutrements of chives, sour cream, bacon and butter in little individual dishes. My husband’s asparagus with two dozen roasted spears came with a grilled lemon while my lobster mac and cheese” served in a mini skillet exuded unctuous goodness.
The grand finale was the S'more Baked Alaska, described as "a rich ark chocolate cake with house-made chocolate almond ice cream in a delicate Swiss meringue.” The dessert, anchored by a grid of chocolate sauce, showcased a palm-size square of dense chocolate cake topped with ice cream cloaked in charred meringue, finished with a dusting of graham crackers.
In keeping with the high standards of H. Alfred Heimer, the new general manager Mitch Fox stated that Buffalo Block’s mission was “to offer an elevated experience to guests looking for a place where they can be comfortable and welcomed in a very warm way without feeling any stuffy pretense.” The current rendition of this establishment sets a new standard for the Billings food scene. The new Buffalo Block is aging beautifully.
Stella Fong, author of 'Historic Restaurants of Billings and Billings Food' hosts 'Flavors Under the Big Sky: Celebrating the Bounty of the Region' for Yellowstone Public Radio.
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