Hillstone, you say? What is that? Isn’t that where Houston Restaurant was? What’s with the name change, same food, same decor, confusing? Stop…..Calm down…It’s okay. Take a breath, sit down pour a glass of wine and kick your feet up.
As in business sometimes there has to be a reshuffle, refocus, rebrand, and change to facilitate growth. The Hillstone company, having several boutique restaurants in their portfolio, felt it necessary to transition some flagship restaurants back to the their roots. Houston Restaurants stood out as a leader in the restaurant world for ages. In 1999, my restaurant management professor and dean of Florida International University’s School of Hospitality Management, Dr. Joseph West, in his welcome speech for new students strongly recommended a visit to Houston Restaurant as the industry’s gold standard. Back then not so long ago, there was the meat and potatoes entree as the standard corporate restaurant menu. The wine list and cocktails reflected the times. Service was impeccable. Every aspect of the restaurant was clean, polished, with the click of a heel and the pasted on fake smile of a New York door man. Not so much anymore.
Welcome to the age of modesty, where restaurant patrons are more interested in uniqueness and relaxed sophistication. Hillstone, is transitioning to meet the discerning palates and relaxed needs of today’s diner. From the minute a patron pulls in the parking lot, the hospitality flows. On a slight drizzling night, even though we chose to not valet park, the valet attendant offered an umbrella to the door. The grand welcoming entrance is ideal for smoozing with an open and inviting bar. Even though the banquettes are semi private there is still a sense of openness. The completely open kitchen offers diners a look at the calm competence of professional chefs doing what they do best. These guys make it look effortless to produce extremely high quality food.
Walk out the back door onto a covered patio, there are quaint tables and chairs, and lawn chairs with a boat dock. There is also a fresh herb garden. Yes, lawn chairs, as in a garden setting. One can easily enjoy a cocktail, bottle of wine, or after dinner drink gazing into the calm waters and breathtaking view….or your sweetie’s eyes. A dining area on the boat dock, no diving. This area is rented out for special events and groups. When not reserved I am sure no one will stop you from having a drink out there. Did you already figure out there was a lake, what else, Orlando is land locked. The setting is simply put picturesque. Whether it is sunset or slight drizzle, the atmosphere is tranquil and peaceful.
On this occasion there was a large invited group of us, which offered the opportunity to try various items. CHICAGO STYLE SPINACH DIP was creamy and vibrant of fresh spinach flavors. WOOD GRILLED ARTICHOKES were a little brittle at the ends but the centers was like butter. (tip from our ever gracious server) and the dip was to drink, no, do not attempt….unless in private. HOME SMOKED SALMON was evenly and gently smoked not to overpower but enhance the fresh salmon flavor and texture. HOUSE-MADE VEGGIE BURGER With sweet soy, Jack cheese, mayonnaise and mustard on a toasted egg bun. This is veggie burger? No way, what meat is that? Way! It is a veggie burger, the New York Times lauded a cult following of The Park Avenue Hillstone’s burger as selling 400 to 500 a week. Guess what, that recipe is right here in Orlando. It is downright great, My, my the veggie burger is all grown up. TORTILLA SOUP was a bursting of flavor, excellent consistency and viscosity. TRADITIONAL SALAD Crisp romaine tomatoes, rustic croutons, chopped egg, bacon, Buttermilk Garlic dressing was fresh and crisp, with the right amount of dressing so as not to create a puddle sitting at the bottom of the plate. TODAY’S FRESH FISH (Snapper) Filleted in house daily, simply grilled over hardwood, with seasonal vegetable (asparagus) The fillet of snapper was perfectly grilled with slight charring and juicy tender inside; lightly dusted with Cajun seasonings. A little too lightly dusted for my taste. I hear Cajun, I expect extra generous swamp dust. It came with the freshest of mango salsa and steamed asparagus. Amazingly, balanced and well cooked, a different name and this dish would top the charts. Cowboy 14 oz. Ribeye with corn on the cob was juicy, tender, succulent, an amazing hunk of meat cooked to perfect medium. Corn was amazingly tender and flavorful. HAWAIIAN RIB-EYE Marinated then grilled over hardwood, served with a baked potato was perfectly cooked with subtle tropical flavors. ROASTED PRIME RIB Aged prime rib roasted on the bone, served with shoestring French fries was fork carving goodness. WARM FIVE-NUT BROWNIE Served à la mode w/ champagne custard. APPLE WALNUT COBBLER Caramel topping w/ vanilla ice cream. KEY LIME PIE With house made graham cracker crust. HOT FUDGE SUNDAE With roasted sugar pecans. Need I explain the decadence of sugary good ness here. All of these desserts were sinful indulgence on a level reserved for truly talented chefs. Amazing.
Most volume chain based restaurants align themselves with the major wine producers and distributors. Hillstone has struck a balance to showcase mainstream and boutique wines. Within most varietal segments there is a reasonably priced quality glass to indulge. However, the major indulgence is in the bottle. With about 100 bottles to choose from who will want to bring their own bottle? You want to? Get this, no corkage fee as long as you are dining in the restaurant. If you want to bring your own bottle and enjoy the sunset on the lawn there is a nominal corkage fee. From the huge selection, we were privy to taste a few. Sparkling, Iron Horse Russian Cuvée, Green Valley A nice palate opener with the rain mist coming off the lake blending with caramel and tropical citrus mouth feel. Riesling, Schloss Vollrads Rheingau, Germany Sweetness of mangos and tropical fruits paired well with the Cajun snapper. Chardonnay, Groth, Napa Valley Creamy and rich with mild lasting aftertaste. Blend, Clayhouse Adobe, Paso Robles Adobe Red is a fun and tasty flavor fusion of six different grape varieties: 32% Zinfandel, 25% Petite Sirah, 13% Malbec, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 9% Petit Verdot; spicy, cheery and berry flavors with a nice long memorable finish. A nice port was added to crown off a fabulous meal. I must add that there seems to be a modern updated contemporary bar menu of cocktails available. Pineapple mojito anyone?
Dining at Hillstone evokes the ease and sophistication of a polished restaurant with a laid back attitude. Make no mistake, they have big smiles and are cordial, but every detail is in place. It certainly does not reminisce of the old stiffer Houston Restaurant, but embraces a more modern inclusive attention to details, fresh local ingredients, and friendly but precise service. This is certainly not the old establishment but a more progressive forward approach to hospitality and food.