Restaurant Review: Hudson 29

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Hudson 29 is Cameron Mitchell's latest, an upscale eatery in his own backyard. Though the name pays homage to the restaurateur's personal influences, the result has a corporate vibe.

"I believe that is Swiss chard," our server said hesitantly of the small wedge of cheese on our Wine Country Board ($15). We couldn't identify the parmesan look-alike sharing space with smoky Spanish chorizo, salmon spread, mango jalapeno chutney, creamy blue Cambozola and other bites. But we were pretty sure it wasn't a leafy green (it was dry jack cheese).

This gaffe alone? No big deal, especially for a restaurant that opened less than six months ago. But over several visits to Hudson 29 Kitchen + Drink, Cameron Mitchell's pricey new restaurant in the ground floor of a luxury apartment building on Lane Avenue in Upper Arlington, the experience ranged from glitch-y to offputtingly rehearsed.

Some examples: We were perusing the drink menu while scoping out seats at the bar when the third eager manager in a suit asked if we'd been helped. We wondered if we were blocking a fire exit. During another visit, our server said "my pleasure" so slavishly, I wondered if it was written on her palm.

Sometimes service was just awkward. One evening on Hudson 29's weather-proof patio (heat lamps built into the ceiling, pull-down sunshades), my friend's El Presidente ($10) was whisked away seconds after being delivered. "It's wrong," our server said cryptically over his shoulder. The silky, cola-colored cocktail of rum and Grand Marnier was returned moments later with its rightful garnish: an orange peel.

Yet another night, we ordered espresso and were instead given the check.

Hudson 29 is the first Cameron Mitchell Restaurant to open in Upper Arlington, the blueblood suburb where Mitchell grew up and still calls home. The name pays homage to two food meccas that influenced the restaurateur: Hudson Valley, home of the Culinary Institute of America, Mitchell's alma mater, and Route 29, the road that winds through Napa Valley.

Despite those personal ties, Hudson 29 is as generic and replicable as a model home-albeit a pretty one. Never are you more aware that the man has become a brand than while dining here.

The vibe is upscale but casual. Staffers wear suits and servers are in chef's whites but many guests are rocking shorts. White candles flicker throughout the dark interior, but its dining rooms and U-shaped bar roar with easy conversation. You can get a cheeseburger, but it will run you $15.

The wine list, of mostly California vineyards, makes for good reading, with more than 100 bottles and a couple dozen by the glass. I was more intrigued by Hudson 29's house-made bottled cocktails ($10), which are mixed, carbonated and bottled on site. They're served in little curvy bottles with a side of ice, and you get the satisfying task of pouring. With all the alcoholic wallop of a wine cooler, my favorite was the Bourbon Cola, a berry-hued concoction made with bourbon, port, pureed raspberry and spiced brown sugar. My beer-loving friend stayed with draughts, especially a hazy, golden 21st Amendment IPA ($6.50). So much for Napa Valley.

The menu, led by chef Jonathan Basch, reads like a culinary greatest hits of the last two decades: Tex-Mex, flatbreads, roasted half-chicken, sea bass, steak and overstuffed sushi rolls. It's not as fun as The Pearl or as fancy as M. Instead, I'm thinking of another F word: familiar.

While not particularly reminiscent of Napa or Hudson Valley, a town famous for its foie gras and terrines, the menu does take you zigzagging across America. Like any cross-country road trip, we experienced highs and lows. A detour toward the border for Shrimp Taquitos ($11) paid off with pink shrimp swaddled in lightly fried tortillas that crumble like a fortune cookie when you take a bite. Chopped tomato adds freshness and a sweet chartreuse tomatillo sauce brightened with lime juice adds zing. But the Texas-style hanger steak and enchilada ($27) entree fell flat. Thick slices of steak were chewy, and a deflated sleeve of cheeses coated in mole sauce left me cold.

We veered toward the coast for fresh sea scallops ($29) that were flash-seared in a screaming hot skillet, then spritzed with lemon juice and a swirl of butter. They were plated simply with salad greens dressed in a white balsamic vinaigrette, roasted golden beets and chunks of ripe avocado as big as the mild mollusks. But the good vibrations ended with a blackened tuna salad ($24). This was, to be fair, a take-out order. But a quick peek in the carton just after leaving revealed a sad little mound of spring greens, radish and al dente beans huddled in one corner and tepid, beige medallions of tuna devoid of pink. Also missing were the olives and golden beets the menu advertises.

Sandwiches are a sweet spot. We really liked the Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken ($14) with havarti cheese. Served on a tall, puffy, house-made bun, it's cut in thirds to reveal juicy white chicken and a layer of crunchy green goodness that includes chopped kale, serrano pepper and house-made pickle relish. This flavor-packed condiment makes the sandwich.

Thick shards of tender, slow-cooked corned beef are piled on marble rye in the Reuben ($17). It was satisfying, but we wanted more of the mild, vinegar-braised cabbage and orange sauce that define the East Coast classic.

Sandwiches come with sides that go beyond the usual fries and slaw, including a marinated salad of Campari tomatoes with blocks of salty feta and colcannon, a classic Irish dish of mashed potatoes with lots of cream and green onion.

There was no printed dessert menu during my visits, and I hope that means they're still tinkering with it. A warm berry cobbler ($8) tasted like pizza thanks to thyme in the pastry. An order of pineapple upside down doughnuts ($8) brought a pyramid of small, fried dough balls plugged with a tiny bit of caramelized pineapple, served with a creamy brown caramel sauce. They weren't worth the splurge.

Reliable, high-quality dishes and great service are hallmarks of the Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group. But the hit factory has some kinks to work out with its latest release- and hopefully before the next Hudson 29 opens in New Albany in 2015.

I'm not an anti-Cam critic; I've had many good experiences at other CMR spots over the years. On a recent visit to Marcella's, the host charmed a shy smile out of my preschooler en route to our table by complimenting him on his bug-themed slicker. His welcome was completely genuine. It's that kind of heartfelt hospitality I missed at Hudson 29.