The Hilton Patio sits at the foot of turbulent Restaurant Row, a safe island of food, drink, air, light and jazz away from the drunken college kids jump-starting their evening.
Inside the white picket fence a few steps from the Second Street traffic, a casual table of 12 is starting into artful plates of appetizers. Across the way, a guy in a suit and two well-dressed women share drinks and a pair of couches. Reuel Ryman is on the piano, sitting in for Steve Rudolph, and a woman nearby is reading the Wall Street Journal.
Two hours later, more couples have been seated, but not much else has changed. No one is turning tables; no manager is pushing servers to push customers to eat, pay and leave. Running a restaurant in downtown Harrisburg as if it were a café in Provence – letting people sit and enjoy the summer evening – is unique to the Hilton in the city’s designated dining district.
That casual table with the big eaters, that was us, and the appetizers we tucked into around 7 p.m. were bountiful: Shrimp platter with both aioli and cocktail sauces, garlic hummus with grilled flatbread wedges, fresh berries, fig/almond bread and buttery crostini with aged Provolone, Gorgonzola Dolce, Asiago and a scrumptious soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese with a layer of ash from Cypress Grove Chevre.
Faye liked the Gorgonzola with the fig/almond bread, saying “it was a very nice combo.” Biker Beth liked the Ash Brie on the crostini, and she and Dee loved the hummus.
The crostini had the taste and texture of freshly baked bread, something rare in a twice-baked element that gets little care or attention in most kitchens. I dipped it in the hummus, which cut the garlicky aspect and gave more depth of flavor.
“I’d have to say my favorite was the fresh fruit,” Anne said. “It was just such a nice counterpoint to the sharpness of the cheese.”
One appetizer we didn’t get with the sampler was our raw bit for the evening: Ahi Tuna Tartare, which Gloria ordered with the entrees. It came on honeydew-cucumber gelée, drizzled with lemon mosto (an olive oil flavoring). “My tuna was awesome,” she said. “That would be my favorite appetizer.”
Probably that sounds like a lot of appetizers, but we had a lot of people. And we had a plan: tasting everything we could. So when Mode Man called for the reservation, he asked if we could get a sampler of the best appetizers. We few, we happy few, we band of eaters, we wanna try everything a restaurant is proud of.
For now, it’s apps. Later, we’ll push for tasting menus of main dishes. We’re asking you to help. To ask. The more restaurant reservations come in with a request for samplers, the better response we’ll get. It’s just that simple. And it’s more fun.
Now, on to the entrées. And the winner is: Duck.
Oh yeah: roasted Pennsylvania duck breast with a tandoori spice mix and a sauce of fig bacon jam. From one end of the table to the other, the duck dish won hearts and changed minds. It was that good.
Changed minds? Yes. Those of us who eat meat do not usually face up to how it got on the plate. We speak differently of mainstream meats and the animals that are killed and cooked. We like contented cows. We eat beef. We think pot-bellied pigs are cute. We eat pork. We have childish affection for Bambi. We eat venison. As if it’s not an animal, it’s a plastic-wrapped package in the grocery.
When you order duck or rabbit for dinner, that changes. And if you’re going to make people face up to their choices in a good restaurant, the duck better be damn tasty.
Oh my, it was. From one end of the table to the other, everyone who had a bite had a compliment for the chef.
“The duck was awesome,” Dee said. “It had nice texture and wonderful flavor –
really excellent.” Anne agreed: “The absolute best was the duck, hands down, absolute perfection.”
“I’m torn between the duck and the pork,” said Gloria, “They were both really good. The duck was amazing.”
The pork flatiron had its fans, and its naysayers.
Original Beth called it “one of the best meals I’ve had out in a while. I loved the pork, it. was spectacular. I’ve never had a pork flatiron before.”
At the other end of the table, Faye was unhappy with her piece. Weighing her words, she said “it might be a little too done.” Anne chimed in with “the pork is way overcooked and dry,” and Faye said “Thank you.”
(Like anything else, when you order pork, tell the server how you want it cooked.)
Biker Beth was beaming over the ribs. “They are delicious. They are suck-em-off-the-bone tender. The sauce is a bit heavy, a little sweet, but I kinda like heavy and sweet sauce, so that’s okay by me.”
The sauce was a bourbon barbecue glaze, much like Jack Daniels Original #7.
Doug, our guest vegetarian, was satisfied with the Portabella burger. “I liked the combination of the Swiss cheese with the mushroom,” he said.
Scot, our resident meatarian, thought the 8-ounce Angus burger was fabulous.
“I like that it’s not over-seasoned, that it tastes like a burger, you can taste the grilling. Sometimes I feel like they really overdo burgers, especially in a fancy restaurant. Any kid would eat this burger.”
Or any two kids
“Actually, it is huge.”
It’s fair to say that in its way, The Patio at the Hilton is itself a huge contribution to downtown dining at dusk: a sophisticated treat for anyone seeking refuge from the bars.