Published on August 8th, 2013 | by Jason Sipe0
Exciting first impressions at Hilltop Kitchen
At long last, the much-hyped Hilltop Kitchen is finally open for business. Brainchild of former 1022 South maestro Chris Keil and restaurateur Matthew Schweitzer, Hilltop Kitchen seamlessly blends Keil’s penchant for obsessively handmade cocktails and high-brow snacks with Latin flavor profiles.
The breakup between Keil and 1022 South was abrupt and shocking but if there is a silver lining, it’s that the HK team had a fresh slate to introduce their cocktail mastery to a suddenly thirstier city.
I believe that 1022 South was one of the finest drinking establishments in the region. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit since Keil’s departure, but when I say that many of my favorite elements of the former 1022 South are alive and well in the new Hilltop Kitchen, I mean it as the highest form of praise.
Don’t be fooled into thinking Keil has simply recreated the space or regurgitated a menu; far from it. HK is still in its infancy, but it has a voice and personality all its own.
There is an understated elegance to Hilltop Kitchen that evokes senses of both modern progression and restraint. Dark wooden tables (made of hundred-year-old fir, no less) are punctuated by small mason jar candles wrapped in handmade twine cozies. Exposed ceiling beams warm the space by reflecting the glow of the sprawling back bar.
Keil himself wrote in his “Goodbye to 1022 South” that he strived to create an environment “that I would feel comfortable coming into after a day working in the yard or taking a date out on a Friday night.” That description could, and certainly does, apply just as well to the wonderful new layout in Hilltop Kitchen.
The menus, printed on loose papers and shared among tables, are already wrinkled and water stained even on the third night of business. Cocktails are divided into categories of ‘Goes Down Easy” and “Boozy & Odd.” Nods to literary classics, like the Duncan Idaho cocktail (pictured) are still present, as are the lengthy ingredient lists that may warrant quick under-the-table Google references.
You must have snacks, of course. We were informed that the kitchen had already sold out of several items, but we were quite pleased with the menu’s concept. Easy bar snacks like popcorn and guacamole are there, but grilled peaches? Salted watermelon salads? The kitchen, apparently, is not resigned to playing second fiddle to the cocktails. And we are all the luckier for it.
‘Upgraded Corn,’ a spin on Elote (a traditional Mexican street food,) was one dish I was very excited for. The portion seemed a little small (one ear cut into two pieces for five dollars) but the flavors were there in force. Our ear could have seen some more, or any, time on the grill, but the fattiness of the crema and the cheese were beautifully cut by the lime juice and wisps of scallion.
We also enjoyed an incredible salsa, sweet and spicy that hit all the right notes. The tortilla chips (Juanita’s, unless I miss my guess) could stand an upgrade, but the salsa is good enough to eat with a spoon.
I opened my first visit to HK with a Duncan Idaho, which features rum, drambuie, mole bitters, lime oil, and more rum. A fantastic video from “Better Cocktails at Home” explaining the drink can be found here. My next two rounds were both Bartender’s Choice, and my preferences for Old Fashioneds and Negronis were both heard and delivered upon.
Naturally, I stole (traded?) sips from my companion’s glasses. Both the ‘Kittens!’ and ‘Blue Drink’ cocktails were creative and fun talking points. The ‘R/M’ is not exaggerating when it boasts to be served ‘super tall,’ and I thought the metal straw (also in the Blue Drink) was a fantastic touch. The Orange Catholic was a bit strong for one at my table, but I thought it was a wonderful concoction; slightly bitter, slightly sweet, complex, but somehow smooth all at once. The deep cherry flavor of the Barolo Chinato was the perfect note on which to end the evening.
Hilltop Kitchen is not even a week old as I reflect on my first trip there. I’m sure I will be back many times. Being as new as it is, perhaps I, as a critic, should withhold judgment for a little while. Give the crew there some time to work out the inevitable opening kinks and gain their sea legs. I’d be willing to do so, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The space is beautiful. Every member of the staff was welcoming, fun, and knowledgeable.
The food is delicious, and the cocktails are nothing short of liquid magic. Who needs to wait to proclaim the obvious?
Hilltop Kitchen is the real deal.
Jason Sipe writes about local food and restaurants on his examiner.com site; follow him for regular updates, reviews, and recommendations.