Note: This restaurant has an updated review.
It isn’t hard to believe that the Alfond Inn has a relationship with Rollins College because its restaurant, Hamilton’s Kitchen, has all the charm of a dormitory dining hall.
The Alfond has been one of the most highly anticipated construction projects for several years, ever since the Langford Hotel was demolished. And local food fans have anxiously waited to see what it would add to the area’s dining scene.
The answer, I’m afraid, is not much.
My guest and I stopped in recently, lured in by the restaurant’s participation in Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month promotion. MagDinMo is perfect for new restaurants because its a way to entice patrons to give your place a try, to showcase your talents, and make them want to come back. Nothing about the experience has me looking forward to a return any time soon.
I applaud chef J. Christopher Windus’s dedication to local sourcing and even championing the names of the farms on the menu. And as the former executive chef of Todd English’s bluezoo, Windus undoubtedly has the expertise to make this a destination dining venue for more than just the hotel’s guests. Unfortunately nothing I experienced convinced me.
We started with the shrimp and grits, which was easily the best dish we sampled. The Pine Island shrimp were compact and firm, served on Bradley’s North Florida grits with a rather mild datil pepper vinaigrette. A sprinkling of fresh arugula on top added a needed bit of spiciness to the dish.
My friend’s braised Berkshire pork belly had a texture more like a pork chop than the butteriness you expect from the fatty belly. It was served with unfortunately hard and chewy steamed Cedar Creek clams. It also had roasted potatoes and bitter greens.
My Cast Iron cobia was somewhat better. The crust of the fish had a very nice golden char, but the Anson Mills polenta was a bit too salty. The roasted vegetables were good, especially the beets.
The two desserts offered on the special menu, warm house pecan pie and bourbon caramel sundae, were both unacceptable. The sundae was some sort of dry cake under a torrent of whipped cream, and the pie “filling” had a gritty consistency not unlike cookie dough.
Our designated server was detached and inattentive. This I attributed to Magical Dining Month syndrome. Request the MagDinMo menu — which is not offered without asking — and you can almost see some waiters’ eyes glaze over (never mind that we had just ordered wines worth about as much as one of the three-course dinners). Ours returned with just one of the special menus, telling us he could either read it to us loudly or we could share. We chose the latter. During the course of our meal we had another waiter step in to assist, perhaps after a recognition that a restaurant critic was present. There were one of two people at the host stand that I might have been able to identify as management, but I never saw them in the dining room during the meal.
Hamilton’s Kitchen, by the way, is named for Dr. Hamilton Holt, the eighth president of Rollins College (1925-1949). Why it’s named after him I cannot say. It would have been a lot more fun to name it after the first president. Wouldn’t you be more intrigued by Hooker’s Kitchen?
As the hotel’s sole dining space, Hamilton’s is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The decor is much more suited to the earlier meals. Meant to recall “the days of informal dining by the kitchen hearth,” as described on the website, the interior has none of the warmth you would associate with that aura. An open window into the kitchen is surrounded by red brick, the only hearthlike element in the design.
Wood floors, bare wood tabletops, wood chairs with unmatched straight backs, and wood beams along the ceiling all bear witness to the remarkable sound-bouncing properties of wood. Tables are in three straight rows with outer seating at banquettes, which are upholstered but unable to absorb the din on their own.
Winter Park has been enjoying a restaurant renaissance lately, especially along Park Avenue where such places as Luma, Prato, Bosphorous, Orchid, Cafe de France, Paris Bistro, Bistro on Park, Cocina 214, and blu on the avenue among others offer surer bets for a fine meal. If you want to entice me to wander two or three blocks off the Avenue for dinner, you’ll have to offer something at least as good as they do.
Hamilton’s Kitchen is inside the Alfond Inn at 300 E. New England Ave., Winter Park. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. The website’s menu has only a smattering of possible choices and no prices. Expect entrees to be $20 to $39. The phone number is 407-998-8090.