Maybe my favorite thing about Dave’s “On and Off the Beaten Path” is when he writes about a place that can’t be described in exotic terms, no culinary magic outside a well executed plate, no off the beaten path craft brews or bourbons to write about… but was warm, welcoming, and by the end of the evening, he felt he could tell his reader, with a good level of certainty, that if he or she walks through the door, they will very likely have a great time as well. In doing so, he often presents alternatives to off-exit interstate fast food/chain fare by telling us of establishments offering something different, in style and/or quality, for your time and money.
Well we found one in our backyard disguised as one of THEM. Hudson’s, in what is technically Fairlawn Ohio (the greater Akron area) is less than a mile east of the I-77 Fairlawn Exit, this just over 600 mile highway part of the corridor between Cleveland and Columbus, stretching all the way down to Columbia S. Carolina. You’ll always find variations on the list at such exits: Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel, Applebee’s, TGIF, Denny’s, and regional equivalents everywhere.
Hudson’s occupies a space in an ‘L’ shaped shopping strip that previously served as a middle class mass appeal family steakhouse, evoking a conventional comfy off the road, after work haven. Our daughter and her husband had been to Hudson’s a few times and, without our conversation about it yielding any details, had said they liked it. We were out doing some shopping; nothing had been planned, so we stopped in for a quick bite.
Friendly folks met and seated us. The menu appeared to be very much a standard fare good place for after work happy hour drinking and munching. This night they had $4 Martinis. The appetizer menu was well stocked with good sounding flatbread dip/spread offerings, along with wings, a grilled meatloaf slider, and … I’ll get to it. Some of the entrees were pretty interesting looking (ex. Lemon Chicken Artichoke Pasta), but for the most part, the menu displayed much of what one would expect from a clearly American style restaurant… OK, I noticed some interesting looking Spring specials, including a bacon wrapped pork loin. Big, meaty, fatty Midwestern, to be sure, but still enough of a veer off the path to get a little eyebrow arch.
Our waiter was swell, the beer offering not terrible, but nothing to go nuts over. Maybe 7 on tap, with a couple regionals. I’m not a big springy light wheat/lager type of drinker, so I ordered a bottle of Goose Island IPA, a truly excellent drinking beer. Our waiter had explained that this is family owned and was not, technically, a chain, that there was another Hudson’s… in Hudson, Ohio, and the two sons running the kitchens… aha… had graduated the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Having lived in that area for a number of years, on a few occasions I’d had dinner at the CIA, students running the four restaurants as part of their curriculum.
The waiter mentioned this to his boss, Chef Kevin Altomare who came out to chat. A very nice fellow, we talked about the CIA a bit then he took off as our food started to arrive. What we learned was that while the menu offered a lot of standard fare, the quality of it was notably above average. I started off with an Italian Wedding Soup that made me chuckle, as it was definitely a Midwestern version in that it was “stuffed.” The traditional mini meatballs, acini de pepe and escarole as expected, but a ton of the pasta and a lot of tasty shredded chicken. The really good news was that the broth itself wasn’t heavy and greasy in the least. Not an easy feat, apparently, as I seldom get any that isn’t.
As I was eating the soup and Dolli was munching a standard issue Caesar salad, Kevin returned with a soup cup filled with a taste of one of his signature appetizers, his Loaded House Chips: “Spiral Cut chips topped with bacon, tomatoes, Gorgonzola cheese and scallions. Drizzled with balsamic glaze.” Very tasty and a nice alternative to nachos in that it was very light, probably based on the absence of gobs of melted cheese, the homemade potato chips much lighter than tortilla chips.
Dolli had, as a main course, fresh salmon grilled and topped with a Maple Maker’s Mark bourbon glaze, served with homemade smashed. Now this is a good example of ‘standard fare,’ yet Dolli found this to be perfectly grilled, moist, yet done, very low on the “fishy” scale, and she loved the glaze. For my part, our waiter had told me their French Chicken Sandwich was the best he’d ever had, so I went for it. He wasn’t wrong. On a warm soft, fresh baguette, reminding me of the little baker ovens you’d see used for exactly that purpose at little sandwich shops on the beach in the south of France, was a nicely grilled, moist, tasty breast, with melted Swiss and French mayonnaise. No bacon, lettuce, tomato… simple flavor and texture combinations. Another of my favorites in France was dipping frites and anything else I could find in the garlic mayo that’s such a common condiment over there. Very creamy and delicious.
About halfway through my sandwich, Kevin came back to chat, at which time I gave him a card and we started talking beer and wine. This led to him sprouting a smile and heading off to the bar to draw me a sampler of the limited run “Dominique,” from Goose Island. Called an American Wild Ale, the brewer tells us it’s a Belgian style sour ale aged in bourbon barrels.
“Dominique” was already poured and settled, so I can’t speak to the head or lacing as the sample was in a glass that held 3-4 times the pour I had. The nose to me was at once sweet, bready, and now that I know more about the brew, evident of the claimed “sour.” The carbonation was like that of a big-bubbled champagne as was the golden color. While flavor combinations were, indeed, delightfully wild, the sours I’ve had leading up to this were far more sour and imposing, so the dryness of this brew notwithstanding, I’m not even judging this, technically, as a sour. I tasted spice, fruit, and what I can only describe as a ‘blonde” vanilla oakiness evident as a frontline flavor note throughout.
At least in the amount I had, I find myself as I write this, wanting to go back and have some more of this disarming “Dominique” it’s complexity worthy of more than a sampler.
As we talked I asked Kevin to remind me what kind of cheese he used in the sandwich, as it had a creaminess like a good gruyere. He, almost dismissingly said “swiss” explaining what I was experiencing (without my mentioning anything to him) was the ultra creamy French mayo. A great touch.
So looking at the menu, either the Altomare family is smartly doing a “courses for horses” plan, serving up the kind of fare most people will go for around this part of the country, while providing a perfect menu for people on the road stopping for a bite… and/or has aspirations to become a bigger chain. Either way, I’d far prefer what I had tonight, both in the food and the commitment to being restaurateurs (Kevin, Dolli and I talked about real foodies, wine lovers, beer people, and the evangelical aspects of such passion), to any of those I mentioned above, and this place, after one visit, has become a local haunt for us.
Oh… and if Hudson’s will keep getting that occasional “scoop” as they did with the Goose Island offering of “Dominique,” perhaps from some fine local brewers such as Thirsty Dog and Hoppin’ Frog, they’ll be damned near perfect!