Dining Out

by Cathy Swiney

Seeking the unexpected by navigating off well-worn main roads in the area can be rewarding for appetites.

Especially when one runs across a hidden gem like Alton’s Kitchen & Cocktails in Cornelius.

The restaurant boasts a wide range of regional American cuisine from its cozy corner of Jetton Village. The menu defines itself by stretching culinary limits just enough to still appeal to every palate.

“We are trying to break out of the mold of what everybody else does,” owner and chef Al Updike said. “We want to be that place for guests that this is the place for (fill in the blank). In their mind that’s what we are to them.”

It could be the place for shrimp simmered in a homemade Creole barbecue sauce, filet mignon prepared in a cast-iron skillet, bone-in pork chop served with an orange-apricot glaze or a cheeseburger on a brioche bun.

Updike isn’t afraid to break out of the mold by trying new things in the kitchen. Before opening Alton’s Kitchen two years ago, the business major who began working in restaurants when he was 15 gained an appreciation for food science from years of trying new restaurants while traveling for work with Houston’s restaurant.

“I think that’s what cooking is – using what you have in front of you,” he said. “I try to find the best possible ingredients and enhance the flavor of them. When you put the elements together, it makes a great dish.”

Despite a seemingly sophisticated atmosphere with the chandeliers, mahogany wood and white cloth-draped tables, Alton’s is more of a flip-flop-friendly, casual neighborhood restaurant. Its large bar area with a fireplace welcomes those waiting for a table or those just dropping in for a drink and appetizer. A spacious patio provides a shady option for an evening meal outside and is great for dog lovers.

“At the end of the day, we are a mom-and-pop business,” Updike said. His wife, Heather Clark, coordinates private events at Alton’s Kitchen and through Alton’s For Hire, where they do the cooking at your house. His mother, Kathy, can often be found at the hostess stand, while his father, Nathan, buses tables.

“It’s not Club Alton’s. We want to be a restaurant people come to, whether it’s a nice occasion or a place to take the kids, and that’s what we are becoming to a lot of people.”

Start the meal with tuna poke, which tops the list for a reason. The layered stack of marinated Ahi tuna, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, sriracha and ginger-lime vinaigrette is served with tortilla chips. Also noteworthy are the prime rib stuffed mushrooms made with three-cheese and horseradish stuffing. For a twist on nachos, try the Peninsula Nachos, made with kettle chips, Gorgonzola cream sauce and beef tenderloin tips.

Flatbreads, which were recently added to the menu, have become popular as an appetizer to share or as a light meal. A plate-sized square of cracker-thin baked bread is topped with barbecue chicken, shrimp and andouille, or beef tenderloin and other palate-pleasing toppings that complement the flavor of the meats.

Those who love seafood find the Shrimp New Orleans entrée outstanding. A half-pound of sautéed shrimp is simmered in a Creole barbecue sauce and served with popcorn rice.

“People get addicted to that dish,” Updike said.

Two other seafood favorites are Seattle Salmon, which is marinated for six hours in tamari soy sauce, raw sugar, garlic and Dijon mustard, and New England Lobster Roll, served on a butter fan roll.

“People say it’s right on, and better, they like the price,” Updike said of the lobster roll.

On the turf side, try the cast iron filet mignon or the braised Colorado lamb shank with a cabernet jus.

The vegetable platter makes for a nice meatless meal. The plate of fresh vegetables includes oven-roasted beets with an orange glaze topped with goat cheese and pecans; sautéed spinach; mix of asparagus, squash, zucchini and red onion; and tomatoes from a nearby farmer’s stand with a balsamic glaze.

Indulge after the meal with Oreo cookie ice cream sandwich served with a Belgian chocolate sauce or apple walnut cobbler – “It’s like Christmas in your mouth,” Updike said.

Next time you wander off the beaten path, consider navigating your way to Alton’s Kitchen & Cocktails. Odds are good you won’t forget it once you find it.