Backdrop: The Sweet Ms. Cori Pope invited me to a social media dinner party hosted by Hillstone Restaurant’s Executive Team Sherry and Todd Martin. Now I have dined on many occasions at Hillstone/Houston’s. Having not quite getting around to penning my thoughts down on paper, I eagerly accepted this kind invitation as the perfect opportunity to savor the food and indulge in the elegant ambiance of Hillstone.
Little did I know at that time what a lavish dining experience I was in for. Eager to get photo shots with the sun still ablaze, I arrived a tad shy of our dinner engagement. On arrival I was escorted to Hillstone’s private dock exclusively booked for special events and groups. Oh my! it was certainly going to be a fine evening. I adore Hillstone’s outdoor patio, ideally perched right on the beautiful and expansive Lake Killarney. With the glorious backdrop of the glowing sun as my playground, what’s there not to love?
While waiting for the dinner party to arrive, I ordered myself a cocktail. I enjoy throwing out a challenge once in a while, it keeps people on their toes and produces their finest work if allowed a creative free hand. I requested a cocktail with only one criteria – don’t make it sweet. Lo and behold – the re-invented new signature cocktail of Hillstone: Esther Collins, smooth, refreshing, and not sweet. Precisely what I had in mind. Was the bartender a mind reader?
Guest of Honor – Food: Ms. Sherry’s game plan was to tantalize our senses with each dish listed on the menu. I am assuming she was aiming for an expansive dining experience. For starters we shared Wood Grilled Artichokes, House Smoked Salmon, and Deviled Eggs. The Deviled Eggs were creamy and crunchy. I was offered ‘hot sauce’, hell no! with such medley of clean flavors I didn’t feel the need to maculate the dish.
To be honest, artichokes are a hit or miss in most restaurants so, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this dish. Little did I know how wrong I was. OMG!! a little taste of one leaf was all it took to transport me into foodie heaven. They were totally orgasmic!! Slightly charred, generously drizzled with olive oil, I didn’t feel the need to eat dinner. All I could think of was, how soon I could get my family to taste this succulent dish. The in-house smoked salmon was delicate and easy on the palate. Though, I did question serving plain white bread with it? Perhaps something with more character, possibly a bread with crusty texture?
Our next course was salads: Grilled Chicken Salad and Cesar Salad with Crispy Rock Shrimp. Hmm, what’s up with these simple titles? It doesn’t do any justice to the party in your mouth flavors. Perfectly grilled chicken adorned with house made honey-lime vinaigrette with peanut sauce was ultra flavorful and light. I enjoyed the textural interplay with addition of tortilla strips. I gladly accepted seconds!! Since I am allergic to shell-fish, Ms. Sherry generously personally brought me the Cesar dressing to taste. I was seeing a recurring pattern here…house made dressing. I could taste all the various components that call for the classic Cesar dressing; anchovies, cheese, eggs, and pepper.
I was already impressed with the starters and salad course. With my belly and foodie satiated I could have called it a night. But Ms. Sherry had other plans for us. For our main course we were served – House Made Veggie Burger, French Dip Au Jus, Mushroom Meatloaf, Hand Fillet Salmon, Jumbo Fried Shrimp, Hawaiian Rib-Eye, and Double Cut Pork Chop. In case you are wondering, YES!!! we could feed an army with this food. That said, Ms. Sherry and Todd aim to please!!
One could easily recognize the distinctive house made flavors of the Veggie Burger; it was unlike any you might have tasted in establishments. My humble suggestion would be to add some crunch to it perhaps a coating of panko? The French Dip Sandwich was hands down my favorite. Perfectly cooked beef encased in a buttery roll, served with Au Jus, crunchy and thin fries, life couldn’t get better than this…My apologies I am no poet but this sandwich had me singing!! I had to pass on the seafood dishes. The Rib-eye with its Hawaiian marinade allowed the beef to shine yet imparting a delicate flavor to the entire dish. The Double Cut Pork Chops were ginormous and surprisingly tender. There had to be some brining action happening here? Ooh, I forgot to mention the Mushroom Meatloaf. Now, I adore mushrooms but for some reason if you haven’t wandered into the woody world, I would highly recommend your initiation into the earthy flavors with Hillstone’s meatloaf. Honestly, if you weren’t told before hand that you were eating mushroom, you won’t miss meat at all. It was that good.
A special mention credited to the sides of our entrees: Barley Salad, French Fries, Baked Potato, Carrots, Spinach, and Brussel Sprouts. Each one of them was light on the palate, cooked perfectly crisp, and delicately flavored. For once one didn’t miss the addition of extra butter which most eateries rely on to impart character to their sides.
By now all of us were in a food induced stupor and willing to take a nap on the quaint lawn chairs provided in the background. However, we still had to taste the desserts. And some say, there is always room for sweets. I swiftly ordered myself a jug of coffee to douse before the sweet offerings arrived – Warm Five Nut Brownie, Key Lime Pie, and Banana Pie. Ms. Sherry with great pride shared with us that all the desserts were made in house with the exception of the vanilla ice-cream which was locally sourced. It was the ideal ending to our gorgeous evening with light and sublime flavors brimming through all the desserts.
Bottom Line: The recent face lift of Hillstone’s landscaped lawn adds the extra touch of privacy and intimacy for diners. It also works as a great spot for children to hang out and check out the ducks while the parents lazily sip on a hand crafted cocktail on a Sunday afternoon. And if you don’t find yourself in a food induced stupor, I would highly recommend walking over to their luscious and fragrant herbal garden.
Executive Manager Todd Martin’s limited menu is a conscious effort to maintain the integrity of their dishes and to offer the finest taste possible to their patrons. Now I cook, and I have no shame in admitting that there are dishes I create which are worthy of the title ‘food porn’, although there are some which don’t quite make the mark. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to have options, however personally I would take a great tasting dish over a mediocre item any day.
It is a rarity to meet the kind of people who can infuse the most extreme care into a transformation that undoubtedly embodies the entire spirit of a restaurant. Executive Todd Martin and the beautiful Ms. Sherry has embraced Hillstone with open hearts and have managed to re-invent Hillstone into a sophisticated restaurant with emphasis to family-friendliness, fresh & local ingredients, and professional yet gracious service.
One could speculate whether Hillstone experiences less pedestrian traffic not being on the popular streets of Park Avenue. I for one won’t trade the stunning scene of Lake Killarney in it’s entire glory. Please don’t take my word for it. Between the gorgeous site, elegant ambiance, classical cuisine with a delectable twist, and impeccable service, Hillstone will definitely win you over as loyal patron.
If like me your first preference is to sit on the patio, I would highly recommend planning on arriving early since it is first come first seating. Of course dinner reservations are always accepted for the inside dining room.
Traveler Foodie and William Beam diligently wrote about their fabulous experience much before me. Do check out their thoughts too.Traveler Foodie: Spring Time at Hillstone Winter Park William Beam: Social Media Dinner at Hillstone