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Nothing has changed at Hillstone in 15 years other than the name (it used to be Houston’s, but rumor has it that they changed it to avoid being labeled a “chain” by New York City and then having to list calories, as part of the Bloomberg administration). Only the bar area has been slightly enlarged, but the steel horse sculpture and open kitchen remain.
Situated in South Park Avenue, Hillstone has a timeless style of classic “New-York-business-dinner”. They serve great American food that is a bit of a Texas-Napa fusion. The meats from the grill could be found in a nice Dallas steakhouse, while the salads and sushi hint of Northern California.
At Hillstone, the chefs are too busy cooking as fast as they can to serve the packed dining room to worry about pleasing other chefs with pretentious entrée gimmicks. They have been serving loaded baked potatoes for as long as anyone can remember, regardless of whether it was en vogue or not.
I tried the prime rib. It was better than I imagined. I was worried that I might regret my order, because I usually get the hamburger (which is the best in the city, according to my tastes. The perfect buns are the key).
For dessert, the hot fudge sundae was clever and satisfying. The separate metal pouring container kept the hot fudge from melting the ice cream. The vanilla ice cream was very good, sourced from a local ice cream shop (fine restaurants these days try to make their own ice cream and usually fail. Just outsource it, folks).
The freshness and quality of the ingredients at Hillstone is second to none. They do not have to boast about the local farm from where they sourced the ingredients. It’s obvious that they used the best sources when one sees the fish, salads, and steaks. They can’t hide bad quality because the entire kitchen is out in the open.
The best part of Hillstone is that they fill the menu with popular items that rarely surprise and disappoint in a bad way. However, they quite often visually surprise new diners in a good way.
The pricing of Hillstone is just right. Plenty of full meals can be found for $20, with the rest under $40. The problem with most Downtown restaurants is that the few fit to visit are all trying to be the next Bouley and charge way too much, making them impractical for the average night out.
Brookfield Place did approach the restaurant group that owns Hillstone, but it did not materialize (yet). Meanwhile, perhaps the existing restaurants downtown can take notice and start to copy Hillstone. The new menu of Blue Smoke might become more like Hillstone, we are told. Cross your fingers.
If I had to choose my last meal, and had the choices of Eleven Madison, Gramercy Tavern, Brushstroke, or Hillstone, I would choose Hillstone. Laugh all you want.