Cafe Reviews

Hillstone Keeps the Spirit of Houston's Alive

The new year often inspires reinvention, even in the restaurant world.

Among a slew of recent openings and closings was the December shuttering of Houston's, a longtime staple at the Esplanade at Camelback and 24th Street. It was a routine lunch spot for countless office workers in the area and a beloved dinner destination for the broader CenPho population. You always knew what you were getting if you dined at Houston's — a well-prepared prime rib or burger, a craveable salad or bowl of soup.

And yet, despite all the memories left behind there, the news of its closing didn't elicit tears; one day after the lights went out in its old digs, it was open for business in a newly constructed, freestanding building just a few blocks east, with a new name to boot: Hillstone.

Driving past this place at twilight, when abundant windows and soft interior lighting reveal the silhouettes of people in a bustling bar and dining room, you'll see an instant success story, a vision that surely sparks envy among beleaguered local restaurateurs who're still dreaming of the good ol' days before the bubble burst. It's been busy here from the get-go.

Indeed, Hillstone embodies energy and optimism, and is packed to the gills with well-heeled customers at the end of the workday — even though there is no happy hour here. (Heck, it's obviously not necessary.) The restaurant doesn't take reservations, and the wait for a table is anywhere from half a cocktail to (gulp!) a few. Not surprisingly, many folks pounce on an opportunity to just eat at the bar.

But if you do have to wait, it's fascinating to observe the busy, open kitchen near the entrance. Not only can you see right down the line, starting with the grill station, but just outside, a window wall in the back gives you a peek into behind-the-scenes prep.

The Phoenix restaurant is one of a dozen nationwide locations to be rebranded as Hillstone by its parent company, Los Angeles-based Hillstone Restaurant Group, which also owns Bandera and other concepts; 19 Houston's remain, including the Scottsdale location. The timing coincides with new federal legislation that requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to include calorie and nutritional content on menus, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will regulate beginning in March. However, representatives for Hillstone say avoiding compliance with the new law was not the motivation behind the rebranding.

In any case, to those who know the previous joint, Hillstone is basically Houston's 2.0 — a familiar menu and even some familiar employees, now in a stunning new space that feels like a modern tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright. Filled with warm wood, contemporary art, dark red booths, and the dull roar of a hundred conversations over soft jazz and the clattering of dishes, the dining room gives way to an elbow-to-elbow packed bar, which spills onto a gorgeous patio with trees and a fireplace. Unlike Houston's, Hillstone serves sushi, but everything else, from the prime rib to the tortilla soup, is known territory. (However, the service still needs fine-tuning. Are they understaffed? My waiters' heads seemed to be spinning.)

The sushi here won't win any awards — the rice was too sweet and not quite tender enough, and somebody had a heavy hand with the wasabi. Although the salmon, white fish, and tuna in the nigiri combo were fresh, the final creations were mediocre at best. I still don't get why it's on the menu at all.

Better to stick with the tried and true, in my opinion. Lucky me, it was tortilla soup night on the "soup calendar," and after one bite, it made sense that this dish appears twice in any given week. (Really, they should have it every day.) The smooth, spicy tomato broth was scattered with thin, crispy tortilla strips and a few soft chunks of avocado, while succulent bits of white chicken meat were hidden beneath the surface. Satisfying stuff.

Cheesy, Chicago-style spinach dip, served warm, had immediate appeal, although some baguette would've been a better accompaniment than tortilla chips. Or, how about some of the crispy toasts that came with the homemade smoked salmon? (By the way, that fish was divine — smoky yet mellow, with moist, fork-tender flesh.)

Salads were undoubtedly meant to be entrées, heaped high on their plates and looking almost too pretty to topple. The first mountain to crumble was a deliciously garlicky chicken Caesar, mercifully prepared without any nouveau twists. It was simply torn Romaine, tender slices of meat, big croutons soaked with dressing, anchovies (by request), and shards of salty Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Meanwhile, the Thai steak and noodle salad combined juicy beef and toothsome noodles with avocado, ripe mango, tomato, and cilantro in a perky, chile-tinged dressing that made me crave it more with every bite. Hot meat contrasted with cool vegetables, while sweet fruit soothed the effects of the spice. Bravo!

One night's market fish special, a fillet of sea bass, was impressive in its simplicity: moist, seared with smoky grill marks, and scattered with fresh herbs and some Marcona almonds. I picked it clean.

If you're a carnivore, you'll have a field day at Hillstone, even if you just stick with a simple French dip sandwich. This one was pretty much perfect: a crisp, soft, French roll stuffed with juicy, thinly sliced prime rib and a slick of mayo, served with a warm cup of beefy jus.

On the extreme end of the meat-lust spectrum, the Hawaiian rib eye was a generous portion of beef with a flavorful char on the outside and juices dripping as I sliced it. A baked potato, laden with bacon, cheese, and scallions, was a wonderful starchy partner for it. Likewise, a rack of first-rate barbecued pork ribs, as big as the plate and deliciously exhausting, was so tender I could just pull the bones clean out — no gnawing necessary.

Given the hefty portions of such hearty food, the thought of dessert at Hillstone feels like the grueling end of a marathon, not a sprint. Share one, I say — a dense, rich five-nut brownie with vanilla ice cream, or a warm, sticky plate of apple cobbler is best enjoyed with a friend, or three.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig

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