A menu overhaul shows things are looking up at Hubbard Grille

When restaurants open in distinctive spaces, it can be difficult to separate the new concept from what came before.

Look at the ill-fated McCasky's Grille, which opened in the former space of one of the city's most renowned restaurants, Handke's Cuisine. McCasky's was an innocuous neighborhood sports bar consistently linked with its predecessor in early write-ups. It's impossible to live up to that kind of hype, and McCasky's closed just a few months after opening.


Hubbard Grille has faced similar obstacles in its first couple years. It's located in the spacious, window-filled High Street spot that once bore the name Rosendales, a paragon of modern dining that earned regional and national accolades before chef and owner Richard Rosendale abruptly left town to take a chef position at the Greenbrier in West Virginia.

The Hubbard space is still plenty photogenic (starting with that instantly iconic neon sign outside), and a large bar area with High Street views has helped attract a healthy see-and-be-seen date crowd. But from the beginning, the food has been largely unremarkable. No, Hubbard has never claimed to be the next Rosendales-but for fans of that groundbreaking restaurant, it's hard not to mentally compare the two. Hubbard's pot-roast-style short ribs and shrimp small plate, for instance, is good in a comfort-food kind of way but never held a candle to Rosendales' 48-hour sous-vide short ribs. At Hubbard, Southern-style fried chicken marked down to $10 once a week had been the only thing generating buzz for quite some time.

So it was reassuring to hear a few months back that the menu was getting a shot of adrenaline with oversight from chef Connor O'Neill, who has taken on a consulting role for Hubbard owners Taste Hospitality, and follow-through from Josh Cook, the restaurant's executive chef.

The original menu lineup was heavily Southern-influenced, while the new list reflects the diverse tastes of the Hubbard kitchen crew. You'll see lots of Latin, Tex-Mex and Asian flavors alongside a few Deep South holdovers. And while the menu updates are hit-or-miss-with a few big hits-it's encouraging that the owners are investing in bringing the food up to par with the enviable space.

Here's what stayed: that Ohio-sourced fried chicken ($19) served with white cheddar grits and crispy Brussels sprouts, those Short Ribs & Shrimp ($13) and a popular Cajun-spiced snapper ($26) entree. Other than that, much has changed at Hubbard, with plenty of other changes to come under Cook, who plans to continue evolving the menu.

Diners who ordered the signature house cornbread starter used to get shallow baking dishes of dried-out, lavender-flecked bread. Now it's deep crocks of honey-jalapeno spoon bread, topped with pats of chili-infused butter. The revamped Honey Jalapeno Corn Bread ($6) is a must-order with any meal.

On the small-plates list, the Tuna Napoleon ($13) is a standout. The carefully layered dish is reminiscent of a deconstructed lasagna, with wonton chips standing in for the pasta. Two levels of thick, crunchy chips are topped with fresh guacamole and glistening, sesame-soy-soaked ahi tuna. From the lineup of sandwiches, I loved the unexpected flavors and preparation of the Short Rib ($14). Even without cheese, it had the compressed feeling of a great melt sandwich, with griddled brioche toast around shredded beef, a chimichurri slaw and garlicky mayo. Pair it with Sweet Potato Fries ($4).

Best of the new entrees is a glazed Sweet & Sour Salmon ($23) that's notable for its fall-apart, luxurious fattiness and crackly seared skin. It's served atop a neat little hockey puck-shaped fried rice cake made with fragrant jasmine rice and topped with a chunky fruit salsa. The Chipotle Rubbed Pork Chop ($23) is a hearty, fall-flavored favorite. The pan-seared chop is thick and remarkably juicy for what often is a dried-out cut of meat. It's nestled on a Southwestern hash of sweet potatoes, black beans, roasted bell peppers and corn, with a green salad on the side.

What may prove to be Hubbard's undoing, though, despite the infusion of fresh new flavors, is some inconsistency from the kitchen. While my salmon was cooked perfectly, that Cajun snapper filet had a chewy, overcooked consistency (luckily, it was served on a pool of rich lobster butter that makes anything taste pretty darn good).

A cornmeal-dusted calamari appetizer ($12) was so rubbery it became tiresome to eat, and the updated house burger-now called Hub Burger ($13)-had protein problems, too. The angus beef patty was cooked until it was tough and flavorless, and the kitchen overcompensated by hiding it under a mountain of intense toppings: punchy blue cheese dressing, caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes.

Regardless of the missteps, it's thrilling to see a reinvigorated kitchen team at what is one of the city's most visible restaurants. Hopefully the owners recognize the rewards of investing in good food and continue stepping up the game at Hubbard Grille.

RESTAURANT REVIEW Hubbard Grille
792 N. High St., Short North
614-291-5000
hubbardgrille.com

Hours:4-10 p.m. Mon-Thu, 4-11 p.m. Fri, noon-11 p.m. Sat, 4-9 p.m. Sun

Price range: $30 to $50 per person. Entrees range from $12 sandwiches to a $39 steak.

Reservations:Accepted

In short: Hubbard's food shows signs of improvement; we hope the upward trajectory continues.

Rating: ? ?? 1/2

RATING SYSTEM

? ? ? ? ?: outstanding
? ? ? ?: very good
? ? ?: good
? ?: satisfactory
?: mediocre
no stars: poor