hillstone in phoenix
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Hillstone in Phoenix
Gwen Ashley Walters
April, 2011, Page 353
Photos by Richard Maack
Rainbow roll, Thai tuna roll, Osaka-style pressed sushi
Its location and name may have changed, but the old Houston’s still delivers, with consistently great food and a warm, vibrant setting.
It was a pain to park at the Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback Road to stop in at Houston’s for a quick bite. Yet, for 21 years, that’s what we did because Houston’s was dependable – we knew we’d get good food and great service.
Maybe the parking situation wasn’t what drove the California-based Hillstone Restaurant Group’s decision to close Houston’s and relocate across and down the street. Maybe it was an opportunity to breathe new life into an old brand by moving into a custom, built-from-the-ground-up restaurant with a new name: Hillstone.
The group still operates the Houston’s in Scottsdale and in several other states, as well as a host of other brands, such as Scottsdale’s Bandera. It also has converted several other Houston’s around the country to the new Hillstone name, a tribute to the founder of the company, who owns a vineyard in Napa Valley with the same name.
Parking at the new and improved Hillstone is far better but can be frustrating at peak times. Since opening in December, the classy place has been packed with suits, shoppers and everyone who likes good food, great service and being in the thick of things at the current “it” spot. Expect waits at noon and prime dinner hours – Hillstone doesn’t take reservations.
While you’re waiting, soak in the multimillion-dollar design, starting with the acutely angled patio framed by a limestone pony wall with a rustic, gravel floor. Patrons kick back in low-slung, boxy, wood-slatted chairs with puffy brown cushions. On chilly nights, warmth comes from a handful of heaters and a dramatic limestone open fireplace, punctuated with a cow’s skull.
Floor-to-ceiling glass panels push back to open the entire span of the bar to the patio, creating a fluid transition. Bartenders work underneath cool, helicopter-blade-shaped light fixtures, serving trendy cocktails, wine (such as the namesake Lewis Cellars Hillstone Cabernet, $95) and draft beer to lively guests on both sides of the bar.
The front entry, a carved brass door by a koi pond, faces the interior parking lot, away from busy Camelback. To the right is a bustling open kitchen. A sushi station sits near the hostess stand, displaying rows of glistening tuna, salmon, mango and asparagus. Sushi? Yes, that’s the one addition to the otherwise solid Houston’s menu, and while sushi aficionados will never confuse Hillstone’s rolls with traditional Japanese-style sushi, the offerings are creative, fun and surprisingly tasty.
Settle in at an oversized, curved, red-leather booth with a thick slab of a wooden table. You’re in superb hands with well-trained, tag-team-style service. In fact, it is the energetic, easy-to-please wait staff that makes dining at Hillstone such a joy. Well-executed, if predictable, American-style dishes help too, and Hillstone, like Houston’s, consistently delivers the goods.
Rotisserie chicken with couscous
Order one or two of the 12 sushi options ($10 to $18), such as the crunchy shrimp roll ($12), packed with toasted macadamia nuts, poached shrimp and cucumber; or the beautiful Osaka-style pressed sushi ($12), four rectangle layers of rice, salmon, avocado and bright pink tuna. All come with fresh wasabi, far superior to the biting paste found in most sushi restaurants.
For something heavier, start with Chicago-style spinach and artichoke dip ($12), accompanied by tortilla chip planks, sour cream and salsa. Old-school? Yes, but it’s the best I’ve ever tasted, chock full of spinach and finely chopped artichoke hearts suspended in a dreamy, creamy cheese sauce.
The most popular entrée salad is the grilled chicken salad ($15) garnished with tortilla strips and drizzled in a sweet peanut sauce, but the Thai steak and noodle salad ($16) is far more playful and flavorful. Slices of medium-cooked filet are tossed with greens, lo mein noodles, avocado, mango, basil and cilantro with a lime dressing. My only complaint is the kitchen’s heavy hand with the dressing.
For years, Houston’s was the place for a respectable burger, and Hillstone is no different, whether you order the cheeseburger or, my favorite, the hickory burger ($14). A fat sesame seed bun holds a charred, seasoned patty topped with thin slices of grilled Canadian bacon, shredded cheddar cheese and chopped white onion. The smoky barbecue is served on the side, along with a pile of shoestring fries that cool way too fast.
Favorite entrées haven’t changed either, from the pineapple and soy-glazed Hawaiian rib eye ($28) to the fall-off-the-bone barbecue pork ribs ($27). There are better ribs in the Valley, but if you like tender ribs you can eat with a fork, these are just fine.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Barbecue pork ribs • five-nut brownie • Inside Hillstone • Thai steak salad
The accompanying coleslaw ($4) is really the star: light, fluffy, minced green cabbage studded with scallions and parsley. The “Ding’s dressing” – made exclusively for Hillstone by the Ding company – sings with a hint of horseradish. It’s fresh, crunchy and delicious, and it can be ordered as a side to any dish.
One of the best deals is the roasted prime rib ($28), a monstrous slab of juicy, bone-in beef, big enough for two, or two meals if you take leftovers home. Lightly seasoned, cooked precisely to order, the almost 2-inch-thick hunk of meat is pure perfection, served simply with a seasonal vegetable, such as steamed broccoli.
The thyme-seasoned wood-roasted chicken ($18) has a nice, slightly smoked flavor even if the chicken breast is usually dry, but the thigh and leg are as juicy as can be. The accompanying lemony couscous with almonds, radish quarters and plump golden raisins is moist and vibrant.
The kitchen shows deft skill with the market-priced daily fish specials, whether it’s a Loup de Mer sea bass paired with creamy black-eyed peas, or grilled arctic char ($22) paired with sweet, braised red cabbage with apple slivers and goat cheese. Servers are happy to switch the sides around for you on any entrée.
Portions are generous, and at these prices they should be. But if you have room for dessert, both the warm, five-nut brownie slab and the warm apple cobber (both $8 and topped with caramel-drizzled vanilla ice cream) will satisfy any sweet tooth.
Although the menu at Hillstone is the old Houston’s menu, dining here feels fresh and new yet familiar and comforting. Superb service, perfectly executed dishes and a gorgeous setting – what else could you ask for? A little more creativity on the plate? Forget it. Hillstone is continuing the Houston’s mantra of sticking with what works.
: 2650 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
: Osaka-style pressed sushi ($12), Chicago-style spinach dip ($12), Thai steak and noodle salad ($16), hickory burger ($14), prime rib ($28), barbecue pork ribs ($27), warm five-nut brownie ($8)
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