When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he hadn’t come across Hudson. After a long run as a primary destination on the east end of College Avenue in Rockridge, Garibaldi’s reincarnated itself as Hudson in mid-January, taking its new name from the nearby cross street. The rechristening came with a makeover — in some ways dramatic, in others subtle — of the physical space, the Italian-influenced contemporary American menu and the dining vibe. First and second impressions, gleaned from two visits a month or so after the reopening, confirmed that this latest iteration seems destined for a long and satisfying run.
Maybe it would be more accurate to call Hudson the third act in the East Bay life of Garibaldi’s. For a year and a half, until the close of 2010, owners John Hurley and Justin Hafen had experimented with a two-in-one arrangement. They had transformed the bar/lounge of the original Garibaldi’s into a second edition of Marzano, their successful Italian bar/bistro on Park Boulevard, and scaled back the Garibaldi’s dining room. When the split operation proved to be twice the work with less than double the payoff, the team tore down the wall and revamped the dining area and adjoining bar with a spare and more elegant design. A muted color scheme (all creams and beiges) is complemented by the dark woods of the floor (partially carpeted), shelving and stressed tabletops, and accented by oversized flower arrangements, bare droplights and a prominent chandelier crafted from tobacco-drying sticks, electrical cord and more naked bulbs. Much of the wood was reclaimed from a Southern tobacco farm and a Napa Valley barn, its incorporation overseen by Jeff Jones, whose enormous, stark photographs of the East Bay hills adorn the dining room’s north wall.
If the intention was to create a more spacious and sedate dining experience than Garibaldi’s afforded in its 13-year existence, it worked splendidly — unless you opt for a casual meal at the bar or in the lounge, which generate an interminable din, or, like us at our first dinner, your table abuts the source of the clamor. (For our second visit, I requested seating at the banquette against the far wall, and we enjoyed a far more tranquil atmosphere: Robin and I could speak to each other, and converse with our server, at normal voice levels.)
I suspect the ambient noise contributed to the comedic pandemonium that didn’t quite subvert our inaugural Hudson meal. Custom cocktails (all $11) from the Tippitular Fixings menu, which is divided into Soprano, Tenor and Bass offerings, got us off to a great start. Robin so enjoyed her Obituario (silver tequila, green chartreuse, elderflower and lemon) that she ordered it again two weeks later. My Lillies and Scythes (made with calvados or rye whiskey, my choice, plus pisco, chartreuse, absinthe and orange bitters and an olive) was like an overwrought Sazerac. But as flamboyant as they are in their ingredients and their names (The Prufrock Dilemma, Lunatics in the Garden, The Saddest Verse, Fitzgerald’s Hemingway, etc.), barkeeper Alex Conde’s concoctions play out with surprising finesse.
The bread plate (upon request) was another plus, coming with Marzano’s trademark thin, salty and slightly spicy bread sticks, sliced baguette or focaccia and olive tapenade. After our starters — fried artichokes citrus-sparked with crisp lemon pieces, orange gremolata and Meyer lemon aioli ($11), and a less memorable Caesar salad ($8) — our main course farce commenced. Robin had ordered faro handkerchief pasta with braised oxtails, toasted hazelnuts and sofritto ($16), but she was brought wild nettle ravioli. After I asked that my entrée, braised beef cheeks (with butter beans, balsamic radicchio and salsa verde, $22), be served when Robin’s pasta was ready, I watched my order go back into the wood oven and our side of rapini (with preserved lemon, garlic and chili, $7) sit forlorn on the counter.
Ten or 15 minutes later, Robin’s pasta arrived, but my beef was nowhere to be seen. But the Hudson staff picked up its game. The cheerful, unflappable house manager, Susanna, topped off our glasses of wine — ’07 Lang Zinfandel ($10) and Delas ’08 Cote du Rhone ($8). (The wine list includes nearly 20 choices by the glass, more than two-dozen bottles under $40 and lots of intriguing other selections.) And after our meal, she comped us two desserts: a silken dulce de leche pot de crème ($9) contrasted by scorched red grapefruit slices, and a frosty root beer float ($9) served with warm chocolate chip cookies.
That attention, plus the perfect textures and flavors of the pasta dish, more than made up for the tardy arrival and borderline sogginess
of the otherwise scrumptious ginormous wedge of beef cheek. We left upbeat and returned with an optimism that was vindicated by a much quieter and almost flawlessly executed meal. Our server suggested I try the Rum and Scotch cocktail (with Benedictine, sweet vermouth and bitters). It rocked, as did the butter lettuce salad with Maine sweet shrimp, toasted almonds, red cara cara orange, and buttermilk ranch dressing ($9). Tuna tartar ($12) provided another fine example of melded elements — luscious raw chunks nestled into three bitter endive leaves, crisscrossed with watermelon radish slices and given more tang by small sections of Satsuma mandarin.
If the thin, charred crust of our pizza was limp in the middle, the puffy edge was wonderfully crunchy, and the piquant topping — broccoli romanesco, tomato, olive, ricotta and Calabrian chili ($15) — boded well for other choices such as duck confit, spicy pork sausage with braised kale, and P.E.I. mussels. And the beautifully browned Alaskan true cod ($24), plated on a smear of white gazpacho with chard, red grapes and three manila clams, could not have been better.
I don’t know if the Hudson folks reimagined their “New-American brasserie” with an eye on Wood Tavern up the street. But with chef Rob Holt and pastry chef Alicia Montalvo overseeing a kitchen that turns out hearty fare like a 24-ounce porcini-crusted rib eye steak ($54), a stuffed grilled pork chop served with a tower of tempura-battered onion rings ($25), a half-pound burger with steak fries ($14) and a whole apple pie for two with vanilla bean ice cream ($12), they’ve created a similarly appealing, stylish but informal neighborhood hotspot (with an early happy hour and a late-closing lounge), making the most of their second (or third) chance.