A new chef at Hamilton’s Kitchen has kept what locals loved about the Alfond’s eatery and added some new dishes and fresh approaches. The result? Delicious fare in a posh but comfy setting.
Marc Kusche became a cyber-sleuth before he decided to take the helm at Hamilton’s Kitchen. From his California home, the chef perused dining-oriented websites looking for reviews of the restaurant, which is located at the award-winning Alfond Inn, a boutique hotel owned by Rollins College.
Self-appointed online critics, he discovered, generally rated the food highly. Some, however, expressed concerns about variety and portion size. Maybe that was one reason the restaurant appeared to be underperforming, especially considering its primo Winter Park location and quality “Modern Southern” cuisine.
Within six weeks of taking over the respected yet underpopulated eatery, Kusche began a culinary renovation process. He was careful to maintain the menu’s general theme and didn’t tinker with the comfortably posh décor. Still, he added new selections, cut prices and, where appropriate, curtailed the generous use of butter and bacon.
His primary goal: to make Hamilton’s Kitchen a regular stop for locals. “I don’t want this to be a fine-dining restaurant,” he says matter-of-factly. “I want Winter Park residents and hotel guests alike to be comfortable coming in even for a flatbread and a glass of wine. If they don’t feel right doing that in the dining room, they can have a seat in the lounge or on our outdoor patio, maybe near the fire pit.”
Kusche was eager to get neighbors back in to experience the changes, so he introduced two ways to dine for less.
First, he instituted a four-course tasting menu featuring several items from the regular dinner menu, albeit in petite portions. It’s only $45, which is quite a bargain since entrées run $22 to $38 a la carte. Second, he used an online coupon site to entice value-seekers with a $59 dinner-for-two deal.
Still, bargains and promotions aside, Hamilton’s Kitchen is an upscale place with the sort of refinement you’d expect in an art-filled, college-affiliated hotel that boasts a AAA Four Diamond rating.
The space has rustic-chic ambience, with plenty of woods, warm hues and farmhouse chandeliers. It also features an expansive patio — really an alfresco dining room — where the tables are topped with white linens.
The skillfully prepared fare is made mostly from wholesome, locally sourced ingredients. Hamilton’s Kitchen may, in fact, become a popular hub for discerning locals seeking high-end comfort food.
Kusche joined Hamilton’s Kitchen from Four Seasons, most recently its property in Carlsbad, Calif. The corporate savvy he picked up during his stint with the highly regarded international hotel management company influenced decisions he made here, at a small independent operation owned by an upper-tier liberal-arts college.
“We offer what the people want,” he says. “People like Cobb salad. I don’t, but people like it, so we have it — and it’s a great one. We added flatbread because people like flatbread. Every second or third table orders it.”
Kusche also broadened the restaurant’s fish offerings, noting a personal affinity for seafood that he traces back to his childhood near the water in northern Germany. But he kept die-hard customer favorites such as shrimp and grits and butterscotch pudding.
Meals at Hamilton’s Kitchen begin with cheddar-jalapeño biscuits. The tender nibbles are flaky and flavorful and, by the time this article appears, they’ll be served with a crock of housemade honey butter. Locals often discreetly ask to box up a couple of extras to take home.
The flatbread is exceptionally good, for flatbread. Kusche is working on bringing in a pizza oven, which will allow him to bake foundations that complement the toppings even better.
Still, ours was loaded with disks of ripe tomato, vibrant mozzarella and beautifully bitter baby arugula as well as shaved strips of Parmesan. It sat atop a pesto-like sauce. By the time you visit, however, the flatbread will have been changed to a variety with yet-more-tender burrata mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula.
Then there’s the incredible shrimp and grits, which has created a buzz since the restaurant first opened in August of 2013. The shrimp are cooked with savory sofrito made with simmered-down tomatoes, paprika, onion and garlic. The sofrito imparts a deep flavor to the shrimp, which are placed atop grits from a Florida grower and finished with a vinaigrette made with datil peppers, which are unique to St. Augustine.
Other tempting starters include “salt-roasted beets” with ricotta cheese and pumpkin seeds, Waterkist Farm tomato soup and a house-smoked sturgeon mousse with Old Bay vinaigrette.
Choosing only two entrées to try — one fish, the other meat — was an arduous challenge. I yearned for the olive oil-poached snapper, the truffle mushroom risotto, the fish stew, the braised short rib with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Oh, the list goes on.
We opted for spiced ahi tuna with eggplant caponata and steak frites. The tuna is a modern-day take on a classic sweet-and-sour dish. A glistening mass of tuna — raw inside, seared outside — is coated in a rub of ground fennel, coriander and mustard seeds, then seared and sliced into half-inch rectangular wedges.
The caponata, tangy yet sweet, is comprised of deep-fried eggplant cubes sautéed with onions, tomatoes, capers, red wine vinegar, salt and pine nuts. The caponata has olives, which wasn’t mentioned on the menu. That was disappointing for my dining companion, who dislikes olives as much as I adore them.
Steak frites is a simple steak-and-fries duo when served in standard French brasseries. Kusch, however, has elevated this staple. Most significantly, he did away with the typical thin steak, using instead a generous chunk of coulotte, which he describes as “a particularly flavorful cut of meat.”
He marinates the beef in herbed oil, rosemary, garlic, thyme and parsley to impart extra flavor, then grills it to caramelize the exterior and roasts it to completion. It’s accompanied by fries tossed with truffle oil, salt and whatever fresh minced herbs are on hand. Charred broccolini with slivers of caramelized onions completes the presentation.
The dessert menu is small and less expensive than it used to be, with prices ranging from $7 to $10. The butterscotch pudding, like the shrimp and grits, was a Hamilton’s Kitchen classic from the get-go. It’s made with 12-year-old Macallan scotch, topped with Chantilly cream and served with a bar of sea-salt chocolate toffee, a crunchy candy that alone is worth the price of the dish. Let me be blunt: You must order this dessert.
The “killer” chocolate cake is a nice sweet with ganache and hot fudge caramel pudding. I suspect the brioche bread pudding with Kentucky bourbon vanilla sauce would offer more of a thrill.
Insiders know to reserve the chef’s table, which is a hefty slab of wood facing the open kitchen. Up to 10 people may enjoy a five-course, wine-pairing dinner for $125 each. The menu is at the whim of the chefs.
“We go to the farmers market, pick up produce and create five courses that are completely different than what’s on the regular menu,” Kusche says. The chefs serve each dish themselves and talk about its components. “People really go for this,” he adds.
Well of course they do. Like the restaurant’s expanded, lower-priced menu, the chef’s table is one of Winter Park’s best-kept secrets. But not for long, I’ll bet.
300 E. New England Ave., Winter Park