The Social Media Dinner
I joined a group of Central Florida food bloggers last night for a social media dinner at Hillstone in Winter Park. Hillstone provided a variety of its dishes and drinks for the table to give us a sample of their offerings.
That's a fine thing in itself , but the truth is that I'm already a fan of Hillstone. It's one of my top restaurants in the country. Many of the staff know me on site. When my family celebrates birthdays, we go to Hillstone's.
In other words, I knew what to expect from the food and service and I can vouch that both are outstanding. So why go to a social media dinner?
Mostly because I wanted to learn a bit more about some changes at my favorite restaurant, but I also wanted to see how the food blogging set goes about its business.
I came away from the dinner completely stuffed into a food-induced stupor, met some incredibly nice people who were also there for the dinner, and learned a bit more about how Hillstone goes about its business.
Dinner at Hillstone
As I mentioned when I first reviewed the restaurant as Houston's, I'm a creature of habit. The restaurant has everything I like – comfortable environment, friendly service, and excellent food on a consistent menu. It was a perfect fit for my conservative personality.
If you wanted to find me for lunch on a Saturday, I'd be at Houston's having my grilled chicken sandwich with a side of black beans & brown rice. I loved this meal so much that I declared it would be my request for a last meal.
When I started to notice the gradual changes from Houston's to Hillstone, I inquired and learned that part of the idea behind the change was to allow the restaurant to modify its menu.
Times Change. Menus Change.
That sent me into panic. Change? Why would they change? They have everything I want right now. A grouper sandwich as a regular featured item, the best grilled chicken sandwich I've ever eaten, my favorite side of black beans & rice. Now they're all gone.
As things move off the menu, something else replaces it. The reasons make sense. Slow selling items get pulled off the menu for something that may sell better. As I learned last Saturday, my beloved grilled chicken sandwich was the latest casualty of this war – replaced by a crispy chicken sandwich.
Instead of serving grouper as a frequent grilled fish sandwich (with a wonderful cajun seasoning), it's now on the regular menu as the Gulf Coast Fish Sandwich – also crispy. I've had this sandwich and, like everything coming out of Hillstone's kitchen, it's delicious. Part of me laments the passing of some healthier cooking options among their sandwich selections for fried items, though.
Fresh and Healthy Options
That's not to say you can't find healthy items on the menu. The Hand Filleted Salmon is one of my favorite seafood dishes anywhere, particularly when asparagus is in season. Hillstone always has fresh fish available, depending upon the market. Vegetarians have a number of choices among the salads, not to mention a House Made Veggie Burger that had our table raving last night.
I've always thought that Hillstone had one of the best kitchens in town. Everything I've had over the years seemed cooked to perfection.
What I didn't think about was how much of that happens before you place your order. Hillstone has its own garden to grow fresh herbs. They bake their own bread in-house. Even the ice cream that tops my brownie is locally produced by a vendor in Kissimmee that makes it just for Hillstone. Essentially, they've gone to great lengths to find the best ingredients to use for meals.
You would expect that from a nice restaurant. However, if they can't find what they want from a reliable vendor, then they make it themselves. You won't find the bread on those sandwiches anywhere else. How many restaurants do you know that keep their own herb garden? I'm impressed by the lengths they go to in order to get the best quality ingredients for a meal.
The Central Florida Food Bloggers
I follow a few local food bloggers on Twitter, but I learned last night just how much effort goes into making those articles. Food blogging is a tough job! I'm not cut-out for it.
Maybe it's because I approach everything from a photographic perspective. Like everyone else, I brought a camera with me to take some shots. Food photography is difficult under the best circumstances, but try doing it at sunset with harsh light, multiple shadows, and a table full of folks who also need to get their shot.
Meanwhile, we're all looking at this delicious food thinking “Get in my belly!” There's a lot of pressure to get a good shot that represents the food before people armed with forks and knives mistake your fingers for an appetizer.
On top of that, most of the bloggers were armed with a smart phone so they could share the experience with their followers – moment by moment.
You're juggling quite a bit here. Take the pictures with a camera and a phone, communicate with your audience, have a nice dinner conversation with the group while also discussing the menu items with Hillstone's staff, make sure you get a bite of that thing before it's gone to the other end of the table, and watch out for the occasional bird that's eyeing the stuff on your table outside on the dock. These guys are definitely on top of their multi-tasking game.
Food Bloggers Are Tougher Than They Look
While all of this is going on, I'm also learning that some of them are planning their next 5K or longer race. They're talking about juggling time commitments with family, work and exercise. Meanwhile, I'm thinking the only time I run is if someone meaner than I am is able to scare me. What I remember about running is that it made breathing difficult. The very idea of running while having a wonderful meal just didn't sink into my head, so more power to those folks who can do it all.
You want my advice? Never piss off a food blogger. Chances are that she's tougher than you are.
Overall, I had a magnificent evening. We had great hosts, food, service and company for dinner. Maybe there's something to this food blogging business. If only I weren't such a finicky eater.
Even if you aren't running your own food blog, you should come visit one of my favorite restaurants. I think it's one of the best places I've ever dined, and it's right here in the area every day.Hillstone 215 South Orlando Avenue Winter Park, FL 32789 407.740.4005 @hillstonewp