Troubled Waters

In search of a civilized meal in Hudson.

Waters 5416 Darrow Road, Hudson 330-656-0777. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday until 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
For all of Waters' upside, the food still flows downhill. - Walter  Novak
For all of Waters' upside, the food still flows downhill.

At first glance, wealthy little Hudson looks like the town that has everything: a prosperous populace, a charming village green, and a two-block "downtown" stocked with cozy shoppes peddling everything from handmade Christmas collars for Miss Kitty to yoga mats for Mom and Sis. There's an above-average bakery, a recently remodeled Acme, and a well-respected cooking school, where devotees can indulge their most chi-chi culinary tendencies. For casual noshing, there are a couple of sub shops, a family restaurant or two, and of course, the venerable Saywell's soda fountain. But ask most Hudsonites what their town still needs, and here's what they'll probably tell you: more really good restaurants.

Sure, there's always the Inn at Turner's Mill and the Reserve Inn for steaks and chops, and for upscale Chinese, Noble House is nice. But Old Whedon Grille, which stirred up some excitement when it opened on Main Street a few years back, lost a heaping helping of goodwill when the owners, bested in a development battle with the city fathers, briefly changed the name to Hemingway's and posted a disingenuous "quote" from Papa H. on the menu (right beneath "Hudson, Ohio") that read, "The land of broad lawns and narrow minds." Furthermore, the controversial downtown development that sparked the feud -- and promises an eventual bounty of new restaurants and retail stores -- is still a work in progress.

So it has been with high hopes that the locals have watched the emergence of Waters, the newest in a long line of more-or-less successful restaurants to come and go from a rambling one-story edifice on Darrow Road, on the southern edge of town.

According to reports, restaurateur Harry Hatzis was only planning to buy furniture for his other properties (Harry's Steakhouse in Independence and Dimitri's in Parma) when he stopped by the building, most recently home to the relatively short-lived Hudson Crossings, for a look-see. What he saw -- a 30,000-square-foot space on almost nine acres of land, complete with brewery, paved parking lot, and a miniature grist mill -- was enticing; available at auction for a mere $1.35 million, it was a bargain to boot. (Ill-fated accountant James Capwill had invested a whopping $3.4 million of swindled monies to buy the property only four years earlier.) So Hatzis took the plunge, acquiring the facility in late 2001, remodeling it through the winter and spring, and reopening it as an upscale restaurant, banquet hall, and conference center in August.

While not sweeping, the renovations have added style and elegance to the restaurant's interior. The newly designed foyer is lined with mirrors and separated from a sunken dining room by a wall of glass panels filled with hypnotically bubbling water; the former brewery has been reconfigured into two charming private rooms; and the already richly paneled and appointed rear dining area has been treated to a lavishly painted ceiling treatment. Throughout, tables are draped in white cloths and topped with aqua napkins, fresh flowers, and petite oil lamps. Lighting is subdued and romantic, and piano music wafts through the air.

Even more important, Hatzis staffed his place with experienced and well-respected talent, bringing on former Classics chef Marion Smith as executive chef and former Lockkeepers GM Bob Conforto as managing partner and director of operations. Smith's dinner menu of "American regional cuisine with Mediterranean influence" is a mouthwatering read, bristling with such happy phrases as "wild mushroom piroshki," "lobster mashed potatoes," and "veal Oscar." Favorites like rack of lamb Persille and sautéed crab cakes, with wilted greens and basil and red-curry aïolis, will strike a familiar chord with fans of long-gone Classics. And at lunch, salads, sandwiches, soups, and pizzas join entrées such as grilled salmon and chicken potpie for a comforting midday respite. (There is also a Sunday brunch buffet.)

Portion sizes are ample, prices are not unreasonable -- considering the venue -- and service, if not exactly polished, seems conscientious and well-intentioned. A vast, international wine menu is crammed with interesting, fairly priced selections from well-respected wineries like Merryvale, Yalumba, and Château Latour, and includes both by-the-glass and half-bottle alternatives. (It's just too bad the list was never proffered, but instead had to be specially requested each time we visited.) Meals begin with baskets of warm, dense focaccia and dipping oil, and most entrées include a crisp house salad, piqued with chopped walnuts and a perky citrus vinaigrette. And even when the restaurant was packed, as it was on a Thursday evening just prior to the holidays, the kitchen's pacing was brisk and efficient.

Yet for all the handsome amenities, the talented kitchen team, and the enticing menu, the sad fact is that much of the food is mediocre. A $30 veal chop, for instance, was plump and juicy, but for that price, we expected something beside it on the plate more interesting than gluey mashed potatoes and a plebeian toss of mushy mixed vegetables. "Jumbo" grilled sea scallops were actually on the smallish side, and although they had a rich, smoky flavor, they were overdone and chewy. Seafood jambalaya lacked the traditionally spicy Cajun kick, and its big clams were tough and gritty. And while a special of lobster-and-saffron ravioli "tossed with langostinos, prosciutto ham, and julienned onions in a rich tomato-herb cream, finished with vodka and cayenne pepper" sounded fabulous, the actual dish was shockingly uninteresting, with an underseasoned sauce and fishy, flabby pasta pockets.

The lack of main-course sizzle was a downer, especially after the kitchen had flashed some sass with apps and à la carte salads. The most tantalizing starter was a time-tested composition of fragrant Stilton cheese enveloped in a frangible cloak of phyllo and paired with warm, cinnamon-spiced apples. Moist sautéed crab cakes with crisp golden crusts were also full of naturally sweet flavor, although it must be noted that the accompanying drizzle of basil aïoli was almost tasteless, and the undressed greens were more fatigued than wilted. Among the salads, a sturdy wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with creamy peppercorn dressing, strips of sharp, melted Reggiano cheese, and bits of crumbled bacon, offered robust flavor and a toothsome crunch. And a bowl of buttery Boston lettuce, topped with mandarin orange segments, sugared pecans, a fan of fresh pear, and an understated blue-cheese dressing, was delectably fruity and light.

Sweet endings are provided by pastry chef Helen Hutt, whose dessert menu leans toward chocolate and more chocolate -- in terrines, mousses, brûlées, ganaches, and cakes. Non-chocoholics must content themselves with mango cheesecake, a mousse-like tiramisu served in a martini glass, and the seldom-seen baked Alaska. The Alaska's lightly broiled half-dome of snowy meringue towered high off the plate, and an excited companion and I began to mine it with gusto, hoping to quickly reach the promised mother lode of Grand Marnier-soaked pound cake and butter-pecan ice cream inside. Unfortunately, all that our tunneling ultimately turned up was a spoonful of ice cream and a tiny rectangle of dryish cake, making the Baked Alaska just one more pretty disappointment in a meal filled with dishes that were less than they ought to have been.

So that's the bad news. As for you hungry Hudsonites, you may as well throw on your coats and gas up the Lexus. If you're looking for an exciting new dining destination, the road there still leads out of town.

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