A gastronomic exploration

Pick a favorite American comfort food, add a bit of culinary pizzazz and serve it against a chic, almost nightclub-like backdrop, and that’s the dining experience at the West End’s Hudson Restaurant and Lounge.

Named for Henry Hudson, the explorer credited with discovering New York, the restaurant has a new executive chef, Demetrio Zavala, who seems to want diners to discover novel ways to eat familiar favorites.

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The restaurant’s tag line, “cosmopolitan comfort cuisine,” is a fitting description for an establishment that redefines macaroni and cheese and nachos and sends guest home with a snack bag of raspberry-pink-colored — and -flavored — popcorn.

Hudson opened in 2007 as the latest offering from Alan Popovsky, who has also owned food-and-drink establishments in Adams Morgan. The restaurant provides a glimpse into Lincoln — Popovsky’s buzzed-about restaurant named after the nation’s 16th president — slated to open later this month. Zavala, a former James Beard Award nominee who arrived at Hudson in November, will also oversee Lincoln’s menu.

Zavala’s cuisine can satisfy a wide range of dining needs, from a quick drink and snacks to shared bites among friends and a longer multi-course meal of small plates to linger over.

The self-described “retro-chic” space has a simple design that uses glass and light to its advantage. The pink and gray-white palette envelops guests as soon as they enter, with the floor-to-ceiling windows making the city’s streetscape almost part of the décor. Delicate chandeliers line one end of the space while giant versions of ordinary light bulbs hang over the other. The clear wine and water glasses on the tables pick up the light, giving a barely noticeable twinkle to the room.

Those empty glasses do not remain that way for long.

The cocktail menu is the first glimpse of the new-twist-on-old-favorites theme that permeates the whole dining experience. A “Singapore Side Car” has Courvoisier Cognac, Cointreau, Canton Liqueur, fresh lemon, ginger simple syrup and homemade sours, while a Cucumber Collins has Hendrick’s gin, muddled cucumber, a house-made sour mix, soda and “cucumber air.” The cocktails come strong, and the homemade touches give the drinks a distinct taste that assures consumers nothing about the combination is mass-produced.

As for food, Zavala’s extensive menu makes for difficult dining decisions. The result is that the simplest dishes end up standing out — the matzo ball soup, for instance. 

The soup bowl contains the lightest yet most delicious chicken broth, infused with dill and flecked with the traditional carrots, celery and slices of chicken. But there, floating in the middle, is the star of the show: the large matzo ball. This is no dense blob of mush, fortunately. Instead, it’s an airy, puffy, marshmallow-like matzo ball. Zavala achieves his goal here: This bowl would rival many grandmothers’ out there.

Meanwhile, the classic French Onion soup is a great excuse to eat melted gruyere cheese and a giant crouton, a duo that, in this reviewer’s mind, was always meant to be. The rich onion flavor is not overpowering; it’s more like a nice note in the steaming hot crock of smooth vegetable broth.

Heartier starters, or “tasters,” as the menu calls them, include the Truffle Mac ’n Cheese, combining gruyere, fontina and parmesan cheeses and shaved black truffle. Anyone who thinks macaroni and cheese comes only in traffic-cone orange can be schooled with this dish. The creamy-white, gooey pile of noodles is heavy but heavenly, and the small cast-iron dish should be shared, although any diner with a healthy appetite wouldn’t have trouble killing it on his or her own.

One of the more bizarre combinations on the menu comes in the salmon nachos. The dish takes five perfectly triangular tortilla chips and tops them with finely diced red onions, cucumber and cold salmon, the whole mix served over a bed of caper-dotted greens. Not surprisingly, this is a salty plate, but the cool, creamy dill sauce nicely holds everything on top of the chip. The kitchen successfully pulls off what is otherwise a double-take-inducing menu item.

Of the “tasters” (i.e., starters) tasted, the braised short rib tacos were the favorite of the table. An extremely tender scoop of rib meat fills a fried taco shell. The meat is soaked in the right amount of a barbecue-like sauce, neither drowning the meat nor leaving it overly sticky. Smoked gouda cheese gives each bite even more flavor.

“I could eat many of these,” one diner said at first bite.

Main dishes still followed the comfort-food idea but were not as tasty as the small plates. The salmon, steak and even the fried chicken lacked seasoning — oftentimes just salt — and did not have the extra creative element the other dishes shared. The salmon came with undercooked Swiss chard and slices of apple that added little to the entree. For the steak, the menu described bleu cheese mashed potatoes as an accompaniment, but the potatoes that came out tasted identical to the no-bleu cheese whipped potatoes alongside the fried chicken. The steak came cooked to order — medium — but the large portion of meat did not make up for the uninspiring sides.

It would be easier –and tastier—to just make a meal out of the starters.

As for dessert, nothing better follows a bowl of macaroni and cheese than a plate-sized, warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie. It has almost a cake-like consistency and comes complete with a bottle of ice-cold milk.

That’s the ultimate comfort food.