High-end, mid-tier, or greasy spoon, every restaurant has its headaches. Still, running a mid-priced neighborhood eatery in the heart of a small town comes with its own peculiar challenges — particularly if you're a young, ambitious, classically trained chef, strapped down to a menu of burgers, spaghetti, and canned corned-beef hash.
In a nutshell, the question becomes this: How do you manage to keep prices low, appeal to even the most conservative palate, but still put that training to good use?
It's tricky business, and to understand the compromises, look no further than John, Kevin, and J.J. Altomare, who share the kitchen at Hudson's Restaurant on the Green. Sons Kevin and J.J. are both grads of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. And Papa John has spent decades in corporate restaurant development all over the country. Yet here they are, in the former Mary & Ted's space on Hudson's old-fashioned Main Street, dishing up not beef cheeks and sweetbreads, but omelets, pancakes, soups, salads, and ample, inexpensive entrées.
Like its homey predecessor, which the Altomares took over in October 2006, Hudson's is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, reaching a clientele that ranges from families and retirees to downtown shoppers. Comfy if somewhat dated, the dining room features high-backed booths; a full-service bar, with cocktails, beer, and a "grocery store" wine list; and efficient, informal service.
At breakfast and lunch, table appointments include oilcloths and paper napkins; at dinner, paper toppers are added, and napkins transform into snowy white cloth. Flatware is surprisingly hefty, plates are sturdy white china, and smooth, thick milkshakes — real showstoppers, made from premium vanilla-bean ice cream blended in an old-style spindle mixer — arrive at the table in Big Gulp-size glasses.
For creativity and attention to detail, dinner is the best bet. We start off with classic gin martinis ($7) and an order of House Chips — an embarrassingly ginormous pileup of crisply fried spuds, diced tomato and scallion, gorgonzola crumbles, and bits of bacon, garnished with mahogany ribbons of sweet-and-zesty balsamic reduction. "We'll never eat all those," a companion gasps. Yet 10 minutes later, they've entered the annals of tabletop history.
Culinary cred to the side, the kitchen isn't above taking the occasional shortcut to control costs. For instance, soup stocks are not made in-house. Maybe that's why this evening's picks — well-balanced French onion, with plenty of melty cheese, and a mild but hearty Wisconsin cheddar — lack a certain depth of flavor and intensity.
A more interesting option is Hudson's chopped salad, an ample toss of romaine and iceberg lettuces, finely diced veggies, crumbled gorgonzola, and a housemade "orange mimosa" dressing — a perky, citrus-infused riff on the usual poppyseed sweet-and-sour.
Among entrées, choices trend slightly more upscale, including Caribbean spiced pork loin in banana curry sauce, and grilled salmon, topped with a bourbon-and-maple glaze. No complaints about the grilled meatloaf either: two thick slabs of well-seasoned ground beef, bound with just a hint of bread crumbs and slathered with a tangy homemade barbecue sauce — although the accompanying mashed redskins seem overworked and pasty.
Also well executed is a toss of penne and fresh spinach, tickled with a sleek tomato-vodka cream. For an extra three bucks, we add the optional grilled chicken strips. But they're dry and bland, contributing more to the tab than to our pleasure.
Happily, that same chicken proves moist and tender during lunch, when it stars in the popular French chicken sandwich. Slathered with homemade mayo (lemon juice, egg yolks, and oil) and draped in Swiss, it's a richly flavored nosh. On the side, fries are limp but ungreasy, and coleslaw is pleasantly crisp and creamy.
Breakfast seems less engaging, beginning with the orange juice. Nothing wrong at all with the bottled vitamin-C juice. Our complaint is with the menu, which identifies the juice as "freshly squeezed." Well, sure — sometime. Just not that morning, at the restaurant.
Then there's the fresh-from-the-can corned-beef hash, fried into a slim patty. At least it's hot and crisp. We can't say the same for the side of cool, pale "home fries," which seem more like last night's boiled potatoes. A trio of bouncy buttermilk pancakes is pretty average stuff, but our dryish vegetable omelet seems overcooked and underseasoned.
We suspect customers will keep coming, gobbling up the approachable eats, the modest prices, and the unpretentious setting. That may not make the Altomares renowned chefs. But it does make them savvy restaurateurs.