Monday, July 2, 2012

What an amazing dinner at Hillstone Restaurant in Winter Park

Recently, I was invited, along with a few fellow bloggers, to an amazing sunset dinner on the dock at Hillstone in Winter Park. We were lucky enough to arrive on an evening when the temperature, the humidity and the insects were about as low as they get in Florida this time of year. There's just nothing like enjoying a wonderful meal with friends and a glass couple of glasses of wine. Throw in the warm, inviting hospitality of the Hillstone staff, and it was a dinner to remember.

We started with the Deviled Eggs ($5) and Wood Grilled Artichokes ($13). I can't remember eating deviled eggs this good since my grandmother passed away. I guess I'm used to the ones at the Publix deli, so I wasn't expecting much. But when deviled eggs are done right, they're dynamite.

The artichokes were also an amazing treat. I've never been a real fan of artichokes (except maybe in a dip here and there), but these were so tender, fresh and filled with wonderfully smoky flavor that I might have just need to expand my palate. I never thought I would say it, but I am ready to go back for more artichokes.

The scenery along Lake Killarny is beautiful, and the well-maintained grounds of Hillstone's backyard seem to transport diner's minds to an even more idyllic place. Well, maybe the wine helps a little. I've never seen people so relaxed and tranquil as those enjoying the view from the scenic benches and porch-side tables.

But on to more of the spread...

First up, we sampled the Famous French Dip Au Jus sandwich ($19) served with shoestring French Fries. I'm a big, big sandwich fan. I've eaten a lot of sandwiches in my day. This might just be in the top five best sandwiches I've tried. The thinly-sliced prime rib was just full of meaty flavor, the au jus was savory, thick and not too salty, and the toasted French roll was absolutely perfect. Baked fresh on the premises, the roll couldn't have been more evenly textured with a light crust that held up just right to my tendency to over dip. This sandwich is awesome.

So, yea, I love sandwiches. But I also love burgers. Veggie burgers, not so much. However, the House-Made Veggie Burger at Hillstone ($15) was pretty darn good. Starting off with the right tone, the huge, sesame seed bun really helped to change my mind. Kudos to the bakers at Hillstone. I always expect a flavorless, grainy taste when I bite into a veggie burger, but this veggie burger was right on with a crunchy, nutty, earthy taste that satisfied. No off flavors here but not a burger ripoff either. This burger stands alone with its own unique flavor. I'm now a fan. What is Hillstone doing to me?

Next up, the Caesar Salad with Crispy Rock Shrimp ($17). Now I'm a huge fan of rock shrimp, having discovered them, like just about every one else, at Dixie Crossroads in Titusville. There, the tasty little mini crustaceans are broiled, dipped in butter and pack an intense lobster-like flavor. At Hillstone, the rock shrimp were served fried in a light, crispy batter atop whole leaf romaine lettuce and  a Caesar dressing with Reggiano. And did I mention they were huge? Huge! The big brother's of their cousins over in Titusville.

That's a lot of food. But we were just warming up.

For our first entree, yes first entree, we tried the Hawaiian Rib-Eye ($32). The sweet marinated rib-eye was grilled over hardwood and it came out crispy, smoky, and, unfortunately, just a little overcooked. The crispy, fatty edges were great, but the center was beyond pink to a chewy grey. Great flavor but a misstep in an almost perfect evening.

The Double Cut Pork Chop ($26) seemed prepared over the same hardwood, but it was grilled perfectly. Juicy, thick and full of flavor, it was a tableside favorite of many in my group. When a pork chop comes to the table as thick as the latest Harry Potter novel, heads turn.

Unlike the pork chop, there was no consensus when it came dessert time. Hillstone spoiled us with an sample of each dessert on the menu. I'm tempted to say I liked the Key Lime Pie ($8) best, but I have to admit I ate more bites of the Warm Five-Nut Brownie ($8) than any of the others. Served with a fantastic side of locally-sourced vanilla ice cream and a champagne custard, it was a brownie like no other.

Hillstone, oh Hillstone, how I love thee. Thy delicious meal, thy beautiful sunset, thy gracious service... Wait, I think I'm falling into one of those trances again. It's easy to do when everything is this wonderful.

5 Serendipitous Scrumptiousness out of 5

Note: My fellow diners and I were treated to a complimentary meal thanks to Hillstone.

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