Upcale and unique dining at New London's King Hill Kitchen
A little bit country, a little bit rice and roll
A lifetime of well-played opportunities led to the birth of King Hill Kitchen in New London last year. This is no ordinary dining destination and owner Paul Licari is, by far, no ordinary chef. Perfection is not just a goal, it's a demand. Licari says, “I just wouldn’t feel right if a diner had a bad experience.”
The perfect dining experience starts with the perfect venue. Licari has strong roots in the area. About 10 years ago he was teamed with Boston chef Lydia Shire and was also consulting at the Lebanon restaurant, Grenache, until it closed abruptly a few years later. He also worked as chef at the famed Locke-Ober restaurant up to the time it closed in 2012. That closure, in such a venerated Old World establishment, was a sign of the times. Fine dining was dead and Licari looked closer to his Grantham home for the next project. Discovering the old Colonial Inn on Rte. 11 was for sale, he set course in a new direction.
Licari and his wife Yvonne love restoration projects and this New England countryside property was a romantic notion for the couple who met in California in the ’70s. The intimate dining space, a small kitchen, seasonal screened porch and brick patio with views of the fields beyond happily define the limits and culture of service. It was just the right size for a family-run operation.
Licari admits that all the heavy lifting had been done by the former owner. “This place had the structural integrity of a 25-year-old home. We just had to do the cosmetic stuff,” he adds. Paul and Yvonne, with a keen eye for clean design, spent almost a year stripping floral wallpaper, sanding floors and adding windows where a view was better than a wall. The space is now a pleasant, calm and tastefully bright environment free from white tablecloths that spell to some potential diners … too fine dining.
“This setting gets in your bones,“ admits Licari. “We love coming here to work.” Yvonne and their daughter, Natalia, work as servers and also help in the kitchen. With the restaurant only open from May to October and, at that, only Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays, Licari is the first to admit he is breaking all the rules. As a restaurant consultant he would advise owners to maximize hours of operation. But profit is not all that is in play for Licari. It’s more about goodwill, good feelings and good times. “The people of New London are wonderful,” he says. "They understand why we close for the winter and don’t make a scene if we are out of a dish or reservations.”
It’s not hard for the dining room to fill up on a Saturday night. With seating for only 17 to 25, the restaurant gets booked early. There is a reason Licari limits seating and hours: “I do everything myself. It's one way I can ensure that all the food is prepared to my satisfaction. I’m brutal, I want the food to be perfect. I don’t want to push our numbers."
As a consultant to others who wish to open a restaurant, Licari’s first question would be, “What need are you going to satisfy?” In his case, his answer is simple, “I want to make some people happy. I must admit, I never put pencil to paper to run the numbers.” Personally, he also finds great joy in completing the demanding tasks of running a restaurant. One of his favorite errands is the trip to Muster Field Farm in North Sutton for produce. He revels in the beauty of the place, often taking photos, and sharing stories with the caretakers. This working farm/historical site is just one of the places Licari travels to stock his kitchen. Additionally, he makes twice-weekly trips to Boston for fresh fish and meats. “No delivery trucks come here,” he boasts.
Licari’s menu, understandably, has a touch of Italian influence — after all, his earliest food experiences were at a family restaurant in New Haven, Conn., and he attended cooking school in Italy. The surprise element is the Asian influence. Yvonne has a Chinese heritage and, Licari says, her Asian cooking is “the real deal.” A King Hill Kitchen customer favorite is her homemade pot stickers, one of the few items that is always on the menu. Other small plates reveal the Eastern influence, including ahi tuna ceviche with wasabi, Ají and chilled soba noodles. The main courses show more Italian influence as with the seared sea scallops with risotto and local striped bass with an eggplant caponata. The real showstopper is a marriage of minds — a charcoaled duck breast previously marinated and served with white miso sauce, a smooth Japanese sweet potato purée and a show of local baby carrots and swiss chard.
In the end, Licari’s method is simple. Get the best ingredients and don’t do too much to them. That doesn’t mean it is an easy preparation. The duck is marinated in ginger, soy and sesame oil, then slowly rendered in a sauté pan to reduce the fat under the skin. Finally, a quick sear on a charcoal grill before being finished in the oven. Frankly, it's the best duck dish I’ve had recently.
It took time to zero in on the menu, on what people in New London were willing to order, says Licari. In the end, King Hill Kitchen is just a rebirth of the Colonial Inn. People are still expecting classic New England menu items. “We tried gumbo and Korean BBQ, but we didn’t get one order after a few weeks. This place is what it is,” adds Licari. Still, with his work ethic and culinary background, it’s the best possible iteration of the theme.
The wine list is short, but interesting. Licari wants diners to enjoy wines that are designed to go with food and are lower in alcohol. Those are not necessarily the most expensive. “Offer them good wine and good food and they’ll come back,” he says. Much of his time at Locke-Ober was spent perfecting the wine list.
The restaurant will be open until October 25, Chef Licari’s birthday. “There will be time to regenerate our batteries until we open again in May. We cook, we work. It’s what we do,“ he adds. Is there anything else you want to do, I ask? Yes. He takes a moment to reply. “I would like to open a really good sandwich shop. You know, it’s hard to find a really good sandwich.” Yvonne just sighs. You just know she has added much more to this dining experience than her Asian recipes.
King Hill Kitchen is located at 499 Andover Rd., New London. Call (603) 877-0063 for reservations.