I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed with The Hill this time around, after having had a great meal there a couple years ago. Other publications have raved about this upscale destination in the past; the Free Press named it “Restaurant of the Year” in 2001, but I found too many of the dishes I sampled this March to be either sloppily done or ill-conceived to begin with.
Some of the “signature dishes” cater to a Reagan-era notion of good eating (surf and turf, lots of blue cheese and bacon in the house salad). Such food can be tasty, of course, if boring. I wondered if The Hill was coasting on its reputation.
The ambience is “Grosse Pointe and proud.” Even the name is a Grosse Pointe in-reference: That barely elevated shopping section of Kercheval is called “The Hill” by the natives. The walls are green, and covered with scenes of sailing (that most preppie pastime) and hunting (fox, not deer). Older gentlemen in suits are always among the clientele. They may not want more imagination in the kitchen, but at the prices they’re paying, they should demand more attention to detail.
The Hill specializes in seafood from Foley Fish in Boston. I asked my server about the “Foley’s Fish Difference,” as the menu instructed me to do, but she didn’t know. My partner and I had a tall, terrific piece of grilled swordfish and a calamari appetizer that was out of the ordinary. Thick strips are breaded but left soft, neither crisp nor rubbery, though their comfort-food richness is offset by supremely sour fried banana peppers.
But other disappointing seafood dishes originated in Grosse Pointe Farms, not in Boston.
One of my mediocre $10 crab cakes was charred on the bottom. I ordered seared five-spice tuna (cumin, coriander, ginger, salt and pepper) partly for the fun of seeing it flamed tableside. But that operation, carried out dramatically with 151-proof rum, left the tuna overly dry on the outside and raw on the inside, with no trace remaining of any of the spices except pepper. The Manhattan clam chowder was OK but unexciting, pretty much a vegetable soup with some clam flavoring.
The Hill also serves plenty of steaks and chops, a few under $20 but most $28 and above. My partner was happy with his veal chop, though I couldn’t detect the promised garlic marinade. Lamb chops, filet mignon, porterhouse, New York strip and the lowly rib-eye steak are also available.
A further disappointment was partly my fault, for ordering pasta — orzo, no less — in a seafood and chophouse restaurant. It was a “feature” (what other restaurants call a “special”), and I was seduced by the promise of pine nuts, feta, lamb, asparagus and a pesto of red pepper. I should have known that was way too long an ingredients list.
What I got was a gray-brown, glutinous mass with a strip of yellow pepper stuck into the top, bravely waving. I imagined the chef back in the kitchen cursing himself for dreaming up this dish, but unwilling to send the waitress out to suggest we start over. Half the lamb chunks had the taste and silky consistency of liver, and the pine nuts did their perky best in a lost cause.
The Hill highlights a number of signature side dishes. A tart, great Northern white bean salad is the first thing that greets you when you sit down. It’s not bad — sort of a three-bean salad with just one bean — but not something to waste a cubic centimeter of your eating capacity on. Our waitress sang the praises of the house sweet-sour “white Catalina” salad dressing; when I admitted that I didn’t like it, she said I was the first person ever to have that opinion. (A dark-brown balsamic vinaigrette, however, was more than satisfactory.)
A five-onion potato flan is served with many of the steaks and chops, and it’s a stick-to-Dad’s-ribs kind of dish. I preferred the Burgundy mushrooms, dark, rich and winy. However, it’s not clear why the fact that this dish and several others are served in a cast-iron skillet should be trumpeted.
Most desserts at The Hill are quintessentially American. The molten lava cake has a liquid chocolate center and is simply one of the best treats I’ve ever eaten. The mocha hazelnut torte gilds the lily, combining a bottom layer that tastes like pecan pie with chocolate layers, mocha butter-cream filling and amaretto on top.
If you read between the lines, you’ll see that it’s entirely possible you’ll get a good or even a wonderful meal at The Hill. I prefer better odds, but good luck.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.