Fed Man 55: Hudson's on the Bend (47)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 47: Hudson’s on the Bend
3509 RM 620 N. 512-266-1369, www.hudsonsonthebend.com.
Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Monday. 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.02.12
If I had been writing this list 11 years ago, Hudson’s would have been near the top. There wasn’t as much competition for a Big Anniversary Dinner at the time. I thought about the Driskill, Jeffrey’s, Aquarelle, Emilia’s, Zoot. But Hudson’s had the reputation for wild game, for refined ranch-house cooking, for a sense of escape to the hilly outskirts of town. The food was good, in particular a buffalo steak and a rattlesnake cake, and it was so pretty we took a few pictures at a time when nobody bothered wasting film at the table. And the atmosphere was all twinkling lights and bold paintings and walls of wine in a warren of rooms that guaranteed a level of intimacy no matter where you sat. Waiters swirled around in a ballet of service like an old movie. It was the most expensive dinner for two I’d ever had up to that point. And it was worth it, a milestone anniversary with a restaurant memory to back it up.
That’s all rendered in gauzy past-tense as if Hudson’s were gone. But it’s still there, and much of that description holds true. The paintings of impossibly red picnic tables and unnaturally green cactus. The waiter who knows not only how but when to sweep the crumbs from under your elbows. The bead-board half-walls and tree branches and pinpoint string-lights and white tablecloths on patio four-tops that make every space uniquely yours. Still true.
What’s changed is the market around Hudson’s. Where Aquarelle, Emilia’s and Zoot have gone away, two dozen more have sprung up to take their places. And they’re more agile than Hudson’s, where a main course averages $35 and appetizers average $15, where experimentation and variety aren’t options the way they are at places where you can try three dishes and a fourth to share for the $50 you’d drop on a wedge salad and quail stuffed with shrimp at Hudson’s.
Taken to the extreme, the mixed grill plate at Hudson’s is $49 by itself, for a collection so meager and haphazardly presented that it was marginally worth memory-card space, much less film. One sausage, three modest slices each of axis venison and buffalo, a neatly trimmed split quail and a trio of rabbit slices so small they beggared the beast’s inclusion on the plate in the first place. I wondered if the $29 half-order might come with a DNA kit. Its homely immaterialism notwithstanding, the dish rippled with skill. The venison and buffalo came rosy mid-rare with the robust sear of a wood-fired grill, and the honey-ginger-glazed quail was partially and skillfully deboned to be eaten with the fingers. But the sausage was dry and ordinary, and a trio of sauces fought for attention on the other meats, unable to stay in their own polite subdivisions on a plate so artlessly composed. It’s the symbolic gallows pole for Hudson’s dramatic drop in stature.
Which is not to say Hudson’s can’t make food as exciting as its contemporaries. Even during a slammed Restaurant Week visit a few years ago, an appetizer called Duck Diablos ($13) brought jicama, fig, jalapeño and duck wrapped in crisp bacon that tasted exactly like the sweet, smoky aroma that defines Hudson's. Another defining dish — a rattlesnake cake ($8.50) — is an essential order if just to demystify its main component, to discover that when it’s crusted with pistachio over chipotle cream, rattlesnake is a more rangy, almost sour, alternative to crab. And the kitchen dispatches seafood as if that were its primary mission, from tender snapper in an armor of crushed pecans over beurre blanc infused with chile de arbol ($19.95) to its signature hot-and-crunchy shrimp as the third partner in a pas de trois salad ($15) of sweet jicama and carrot tossed with citrus-ginger vinaigrette and the sweet-hot dance of jalapeño-mango aioli.
The most emblematic of Hudson’s triumphs on my visit in July was horseradish-crusted salmon with dill gnocchi and corn ($37). Instead of just sprinkling the fish with dill, Hudson’s gave the herb its own substantial carrier, letting the firm dough of the gnocchi fortify the fish so the horseradish could lend its primal heat to the bite without taking control. We soaked the bowl dry with skillet bread, appreciating the lightly salted sweetness of the corn in this perfectly balanced dish.
Hudson’s doesn’t get a free pass into the Top 25 like it would have a decade ago, but it belongs in any accounting of Austin’s Top 55 Restaurants. Only now, it’s the one with something to prove.
(TOP PHOTO: Tag-team service at Hudson's. FIRST INSET: Pistachio-crusted rattlesnake cake on chipotle cream; mixed-grill platter; herb garden. SECOND INSET: Salad with hot-and-crunchy shrimp; patio dining; horseradish-crusted salmon with dill gnocchi. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants