I sincerely hope each of you has experienced the kind of evening I’m about to write about. It’s an evening when you knew you were looking forward to dinner – often in a favorite restaurant – only to have the stars align in a series of wonderful coincidences that turn the evening from pleasant to an unexpected time of magical memories.
That is exactly what happened when I re-reviewed Hamilton’s Kitchen inside the beautiful Alfond Inn. A year and a half ago, I was honored to be the first food writer to review Hamilton’s Kitchen when the hotel opened in August 2013.
I wrote, “A bit of Central Florida’s famous magic has created our newest fine dining restaurant in Winter Park. It’s called Hamilton’s Kitchen.” The restaurant opened under Chef Chris Windus, former executive chef of Todd English’s bluezoo at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Hotel. I never hid that I was among Chef Chris’ biggest fans – and I was thrilled to have Chris ensconced in Winter Park. But Chris was not ensconced for long. After handling the daunting task of opening a major hotel restaurant, Chris moved on with – what he called – “an offer he could not refuse.”
Regular readers know of my rock-solid belief that any restaurant is the reflection of its chef, and in May 2014, The Alfond welcomed Marc Kusche as its new executive chef. Chef Marc had enjoyed a long tenure as executive chef at several Four Seasons hotels and resorts. Having begun his hands-on restaurant career as a child, Chef Marc spent his first working decade experiencing different kitchens, cultures and cuisines, and the changes he brought to Hamilton’s Kitchen were the reason I arrived at the Alfond Inn for a re-review.
The magical evening began as soon as I walked through the front door to be greeted by legendary concierge Patricia Clifton. Young people learn from this lady, and – true to form – Patricia had seen my name on the reservation list for the restaurant, quickly deduced the reason for my “working” dinner, and had put together a packet for me, which included information about the hotel, menus, and a bio of Chef Marc. This is all worth mentioning, because it had not been requested. It is what an exemplary concierge does. And it enhanced my evening before I even got to the restaurant.
Seeing me running late for my reservation, Patricia walked me to the restaurant where the second surprise was waiting in the person of Jose Rafael, the wait-person who had taken such good care of me when I did the first review, and who would take such good care of my dining partner and I through the rest of the evening. Jose walked me to my table and returned moments later with two glasses of champagne, which he explained was to celebrate my recent birthday! Having waited on me before, when Jose saw my name on the reservation list, not only did he remember that I had done the first review, but he Googled me to see what was going on in my life, found a very recent birthday, and got the OK from the restaurant to offer the champagne. Imagine my feeling of wonder and happiness … and I had yet to have my first bite of dinner.
One treasures such moments – first from Patricia and then from Jose – because not only are they rare, but they can be used as shining examples of what can be done to make one’s work and one’s life … better.
By now you are asking, “but what about the food?” Fear not, the magic kicked into high gear with the first plate’s arrival. It was particularly pleasing to see that Chef Marc has doubled the number of menu choices since my last visit, and the prices are generally lower than when the hotel first opened.
We went right for the big guns and ordered the Pork Belly, which was honey-glazed and served with balsamic marinated figs. The figs were perfection – bouncing fusion taste and consistency off of the pork belly. We calmed down some with the Winter Park Farmers Market Roasted Beets served with pickled carrots and a very special ricotta cheese that I called “ricotta-plus.” (Where does one even find ricotta that good?) You can be happy to know that our imported-from-Germany-chef is a true devotee of the “Field to Feast” movement.
But the surprise, and winning appetizer, is the meatballs. Yes, the meatballs, which are a mix of pork and beef – seasoned with secret spices – and served over a magnificent mashed potato puree. I couldn’t guess what made the potato so remarkably delicious, so I asked. Magical evening part III was that, having asked about that secret ingredient, I was soon having a wide-ranging discussion about food with Chef Marc himself. It turns out that when he’s caught up in the kitchen, the executive chef likes to mingle – and talking about food just gets him going. It was great – and funny too. My dining partner said, “It’s like he’s an old friend” … and that’s exactly how it felt.
Moving on to the entrees is the biggest news. We tried three entrees, and each was so interesting, flavorful, and delicious, each one became my favorite – until I tasted the next one!
The Braised Short Ribs – served over that mysterious mashed potato – is the favorite of our server Jose, and we always try the server’s fave. Served with a very civilized “no bones,” it falls apart with your fork, and has flavors bursting in your mouth from every wonderful bite.
I actually used the word “clever” to describe the Oxtail & Cod Surf & Turf. It’s a slow braised ox-tail (which I love) served with glazed bites of rutabaga, which have been infused with the taste of the Cod! Clever – right? The natural earthy taste of the root vegetable lends itself to absorbing the cod flavor, and it all works together beautifully.
Finally, we tried the Poached Snapper, a fish that has always appealed to me, because Snapper has real taste that is not too little and not too much. It’s just right. Now imagine that served over caramelized cauliflower, (the creation of which is an art-form), in a fish broth seasoned to perfection with capers, chives and (shaved) fennel.
C’mon – I know your mouth is watering right now. Mine is, and I just ate. All this wonderfulness is around the corner in Winter Park at the Alfond Inn. The point of a re-review is that if you went before and have not been back – it’s now time to go back to visit a restaurant run by the friendliest crew you can imagine. And when you go, think of a question related to your food – you may well find yourself getting the answer from Chef Marc. I truly loved the restaurant when I first visited. Now they’ve had time to settle in, and dining at Hamilton’s Kitchen is everything and more than you could hope for.
And if you see Patricia when you first arrive – or if your server happens to be the most attentive server you’ve ever experienced (his name is definitely Jose) – and if a smiling gentleman with a pronounced German accent begins talking to you about the food – please tell them “Josh says ‘thank you’ for giving him a magical dining experience.”