Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hudson Restaurant in Oakland

Former Garibaldi’s Follows the Casual Elegant Trend
5356 College Ave. (near Hudson), Oakland
Rockridge neighborhood
PH: 510.595.4000
Open daily from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Garibaldi’s has anchored the east end of the Rockridge neighborhood for years, and in recent years it’s been going through some transformation. First it was a renovation to brighten up the spot, and then it was an unusual dual concept spot splitting the restaurant into Garibaldi’s on one side and then a Marzano pizza spot on the other.

I actually liked the idea of having a choice between two different types of eating experiences in one place. When I craved pizza, I would turn right for Marzano. If I wanted something fancier (or if the wait at Marzano was too long), I’d turn left for Garibaldi’s.

But late last year, the owners realized that (duh) it’s difficult managing two restaurants with two menus in one kitchen. So they scrapped the two-for-one restaurant and reopened last month as just one, simply called Hudson. (People on the blogosphere joked that if they’re combining the two restaurants, it really should be called Garzano.)

Hudson is the nearest cross street to the restaurant, and it also happens to be the street that I used to live on. And while others complain that the name will get confused with the corner Hudson Bay Café, I like the nostalgic and all-American feel.

Since the restaurant is near where I lived, I dropped in a couple of times since it reopened (and while I was doing my kitchen renovation). The entire space have structural remnants of the previous concept — the huge bar to the right and the wood-burning pizza oven in the center — but it’s also got a lot more dining space in the formal area, including a private room in the back for special parties.

The vibe definitely leans more toward the Garibaldi-elegant feel than the casual Marzano, but some bits of whimsy notes that this is one of those trying to following the trend of fancy meals in a casual setting. The light bulbs dangling from multi-colored cords, wait staff in jeans, and kitchen towels for napkins all say casual fine dining.

Hudson promotes itself now as an American bistro, which I feel is an attempt to steal some of the popularity of Wood Tavern on the other end of College Avenue. It offers an array of menu items, including pizza, salads, pastas and fully-developed entrees.

On my first visit, I started with a glass of 2006 Berryessa Gap Petite Syrah from Yolo County ($11), which turned out to be a nice medium-bodied wine that served me well throughout my dinner. As starters, I ordered the pan-roasted veal sweetbreads with cauliflower puree ($14). The sweetbreads looked quite plump, but it lacked the slightly crispy edge that I expected from the pan-roasting. There was also a curry or Indian spice influence that I felt was a bit too much. The cauliflower puree was topped with more actual cauliflower and spinach. The brown sauce was nice and rich, helping to add flavor to everything.

I also wanted to get some greens so I ordered the heirloom chicory salad with K&J Orchards’ shinko pears ($9). The salad was beautiful with the red-and-white marbled chicory (looked like primarily radicchio), and the pears were a nice seasonal touch. I also liked the bits of walnuts that were restrained (you know how sometimes salads get doused with nuts), and the vinaigrette was decent although maybe a tad overdressed.

Hudson has duck on the menu, and you know my rule on duck. So I ordered the pan-roasted duck breast with savoy cabbage and pumpkin spaetzle ($27). The plate arrived with a lot of duck breast slices. It was a lot to eat, but I did feel the appearance of the plate seemed mostly reddish brown on the duck side and orange-yellow on the spaetzle-cabbage side. It really needed a splash of green, I felt.

The duck slices ranged in doneness as well, with the slices on the edge a nice medium well and the center slices purplish-pink in their rareness. Some people might be put off by the pink, but I didn’t mind it and I liked getting a mix of slices of doneness. This may be an issue of consistency in the kitchen, though, in the future.

I’m not an expert on spaetzle, so I’m not sure how the texture should really be like. But I felt the pumpkin spaetzle on the plate was too soggy for my taste, and I didn’t really enjoy them. The grilled Fuji apples did offer a nice firm texture to contrast with the tender duck breast.

On the dessert menu, I saw Hudson had retained the chocolate buddino from Garibaldi’s, which I have enjoyed before. But I wanted to try something new and the only really different and interesting item — to me — was the fritto dolce ($9), which is a tray of fried desserts.

And really, folks, I ate this for you. I’m not a fan of anything deep-fried, but because this sounded so unusual, I knew you would want to hear about it. The tray comes with three distinct items, and I have to say this dessert is really meant for two or more people instead of the Single Guy because I could barely finish it.

The first item is a deep-fried custard, which had a creamy filling that wasn’t too sweet. It was enjoyable except for the fact that there was way too much sugar coating.

In the center of the tray was a peanut butter sandwich, also deep-fried, served with caramel sauce. This was my least favorite of the trio because the peanut butter, when cooked, gets even more thick and almost chalky. The breading of the sandwich was still soft, so it was almost like a doughnut.

The final part of the dessert were two cinnamon zepole, which were nicely fried because they were airy and light. But I didn’t get much of a cinnamon taste and again it was overly coated with the sugar exterior. I felt that for all the desserts, if they were more restrained with the sugar coating then they would be more balanced and successful.

Still, it was an enjoyable meal and the service is also attentive and friendly. I watched as the bar became packed, and this was only a week after the restaurant re-opened. It was like people were waiting for months for Hudson to appear.

I returned another night to eat at the bar, and it was just as crowded. (There are small tables along the side near the bar that creates a nice, intimate spot for a real casual dinner.) I got the last stool at the bar, squeezed in between the other diners.

The bar’s cocktail program has progressed to a long list of specialty drinks with an operatic theme ranging from mild to strong drinks or soprano to tenor to bass. I ordered a drink from the tenor section called Lillies and Scythes because it included pisco. (All of the specialty cocktails cost $11 each.)

The drink can be made with rye whiskey or calvados, and I went with the whiskey. Also mixed in are absinthe, orange bitters and an olive. The drink looked beautiful, especially against the light of the candle, but it was primarily the strong flavor of the whiskey that I tasted. I didn’t really get the other ingredients, although I believe the pisco, absinthe and orange bitters may have helped to smoothen out the whiskey and gave the overall drink a balanced taste.

I ordered a pizza to see if they make it the same way Marzano’s did. I tried the PEI mussels and calamari pizza ($17) because I remembered how much I enjoyed Marzano’s squid pizza.

The pizza arrived looking a bit flat around the edges, with not as many of the puffy slightly burnt edges that I recall. But it was still perfectly thin like before. I wonder if maybe the pizza sat for awhile because the ingredients all seemed to have gelled together.

The mussels on top were plump, giving the pizza a lot of substance, but I don’t think I bit into one calamari. (Maybe they were out that night? Still, I should have been advised.) The pizza was also topped with shaved fennel, celery and arugula, and while I liked the fennel and arugula (both complemented the seafood), I felt the celery overpowered the flavors. And while I like celery, I don’t think I like it on pizza and this particular pizza could probably do without it as an added ingredient.

The pizza, with a tomato base, also had the tang of chili, which if you like spicy food then you may find this interesting. Right now, I am a fan of spicy food, so the heat from the chili was a nice added dimension.

The owners definitely have an eye on the current dining climate, and they’re professionals in running a restaurant. And while the new space has a different look, it still has that familiar feel of Garibaldi’s. The menu is ambitious and some things are solid, but a few other items may need more finesse in balancing the flavors and techniques.

Judging by the crowds, it looks like the new Hudson is a successful transformation. Loyal fans and area diners seem to seek out what the owners dish out in this space, no matter what the name.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (California Americana)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Hudson on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Carolyn Jung said...

Seafood pizza and a trio of fried desserts? Oh my! Definitely my kind of place. ;)