Editor’s note: A group of young investors, all of whom had a hand in day-to-day operations of the restaurant, purchased Hudson’s on the Bend last spring from Jeff Blank, who founded the restaurant in 1984.
Austin360 readers were going to read my review of the revamped restaurant this week. Then we got an email at 4 p.m. Wednesday, telling us the restaurant had closed, making the review irrelevant. The answers for the closure from the team that just opened the restaurant after a major rehab are few. “The restaurant faced challenges and they weren’t able to move forward,” a representative said for the restaurant. What’s next is not exactly clear, but the team eventually plans to bring its Mighty Cone food truck to the site. Here is the review about my recent visits to the now-shuttered restaurant:
Rehabilitating a faded legend requires courage, belief and vision. And a dash of youthful naïveté doesn’t hurt. Yes, when commandeering the reins of a restaurant with a 30-year history such as Hudson’s on the Bend, there are built-in benefits like name recognition and a roster of regulars, but the flip side to that coin is the weight of expectations and the battle against the gravitational pull of nostalgia. Roger Moore can’t make people just forget about Sean Connery, but he can get people to love Roger Moore. Can’t he?
How do you satisfy older customers longing for the familiar while getting them to buy into your vision of the future? And how do you get those with only a casual knowledge of your brand to get excited about a fine dining restaurant located 30 minutes from downtown?
Hudson’s on the Bend executive chef Billy Caruso, 31, beverage director Chris McFall, 32, and their ownership team, who all have positions at the legacy restaurant, apparently did the math and determined the upside outweighed the challenges.
The two managing partners are no strangers to the warm feelings and rich history tied to one of Austin’s longest-running fine dining restaurants. The Central Texas natives both celebrated special occasions like prom at the restaurant Jeff Blank opened near Lakeway in 1984. They understand its special place in the lives of Austin-area residents. Caruso even received a letter of recommendation to culinary school from former Hudson’s sous chef Ron Brannon.
The two also know how much of an anachronism Hudson’s had become. When Blank opened the restaurant, he was at the forefront of cooking that integrated Southwestern flavors with exotic game like elk and unthinkable proteins like rattlesnake. The old building near a bend of the Colorado River and its hodgepodge of dining rooms had Hill Country charm elevated by fine dining trappings — think slate granite plates and silver platters with Western iconography on pressed linens. But over the decades, the decor grew stale, the menu lost relevance and the fire waned.
The new owners purchased the restaurant from Blank last year and closed it for several months to conduct a substantial renovation. Modern updates include the removal of some wainscoting and the blood-red tablecloths. The open pass that once connected two dining rooms has been filled with a broad checkerboard of 30 square windows, giving the space a slight industrial feel, and a slatted wooden architectural detail plays the role of room divider once occupied by an ’80s-era wine rack.
Gone are the bright paintings of flora, fauna and still life, replaced by ink outlines of animals and a deconstructed panorama of Enchanted Rock. Restored wooden floors in one dining room emit a handsome glow. The space, from the expansive bar area up front with its scoop-backed leather stools to the wine room in the back, feels completely modern (excepting one wood-paneled hunting cabin nook) and breathes with a confident ease. The only trees strewn with twinkle lights are on the front of the property facing RM 620 (and that’s a good thing; otherwise, I might fly right by the driveway).
Entering the restaurant felt like returning to a rustic lodge you visited as a child and finding it reimagined in all of the right ways. But the musical soundtrack quickly dulled my enthusiasm. The Eagles’ “One of These Nights” was playing (loudly) and would soon be followed by Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” a song that came out three years before Hudson’s opened. It suddenly felt like stepping back into the ’80s.
While appetizers of a ruddy venison tartare piqued with fermented chilies and cooled with cucumber ($14) and a sweet and crunchy fried chicken thigh drizzled with honey butter ($12) updated the tone, my confusion returned and amplified with some of the other dishes.
A server dressed in the ’90s hospitality industry costume of black pants and white Oxford delivered a brown butter sweet potato bisque ($10) dotted with a fine chop of Braeburn apples and a crunchy candied strip of maple bacon. It was the kind of dish I would expect at the revamped Hudson’s — classic and contemporary touches blending together. But the bisque, despite a great depth of rich flavor, was goopy and served at room temperature.
The entrees provided similar bouts of unevenness. Braised rabbit ($45) could not have been more tender, or much more expensive, and I thought the accompanying Rattlesnake cheddar mashed potatoes, made with the slitheringly named piquant cheese from Deer Creek in Wisconsin, were a clever nod to Blank’s rattlesnake cakes. But the only thing I could taste in the thick sauce was pepper, and the glazed parsnips were almost raw.
While the rattlesnake cakes are gone, there is still a place for the restaurant’s famed game. A liberal dusting of espresso gave bright, bitter balance to the gaminess of perfectly cooked elk back strap ($47), but the curse of one-note flavor profiles returned. Even amid celery root puree and a splash of citrus vinaigrette, the overwhelming flavor was simply one of smoke.
They were the kind of mistakes one would expect from a tired restaurant, not one rounding into form. The vibe on a slow Sunday night complemented the feeling of a restaurant stuck in time. A matriarch in a fringed Western jacket who looked like she visited Hudson’s often during the Mark White era sat at a table topped by a glaring can of Diet Coke and complained about a hot and crunchy lobster ($30) appetizer that was whisked away with awkward apology.
A night that started with excited curiosity ended with a shake of the head and the increasingly ubiquitous homage to childhood flavors in a dessert of chocolate cake, popcorn ice cream and cherry gelees ($10). It wasn’t a bad dining experience but something of a reminder that you can’t always go home. And if you do, you might not recognize it. Or, worse, you might.
“Earth Angel,” a tune made famous in “Back to the Future,” and “Time in a Bottle” helped bring the night to an ironic close. We left thinking the owners hadn’t breathed new life into the place as much as they had propped it up, put some new clothes on it and hoped to pass it off as vital. It was less a well-imagined remake and something more like “Weekend at Bernie’s II.”
And, then, something wonderful happened. I returned a week later and had one of my most enjoyable dining experiences of the year. Gone was the bizarre soundtrack. Or maybe it was just muted by the buzz in the room and my brain.
Almost every table was occupied at some point in the night, and the time lapse of the evening likely captured everything the new owners hoped they’d see when they reopened Hudson’s. A 30-something couple commemorated a special occasion by having staff take their photo. An older couple looked with awe at a space they just barely recognized but certainly admired. A table full of wine lovers in the back, obvious Hudson’s veterans, took turns visiting the new wine room, and a large group of young professionals celebrated a friend’s birthday while sharing their opinions about new, celebrated downtown restaurants.
Caruso’s kitchen matched the energy of the evening with creativity and flair. The chef, who recently served as executive chef at III Forks in Chicago after stints at Botticelli’s and Paggi House, showed some steakhouse chops with a juicy but judicious amount of short rib stuffed inside the soft crumble of a tamale ($11). The earthy mole negro and electric salsa verde played the low and high notes on a dish that struck a nice harmony and nodded not to the Southwest but directly to Mexico.
Where smoke played an indulgent solo in the elk dish on the previous visit, this night it allowed the sweet tang of pickled golden raisins and sting and crack of spiced pepitas to pierce the shroud it lay over supple confit carrots ($13). One thing you’d never have expected of the old Hudson’s would be for it to remind you of a hip restaurant like Uchi, but that’s exactly what Caruso pulled off with a seared slab of foie gras glistening with wagyu caramel and topped with the crunch of puffed amaranth ($25). The foie, both primal and sensual, sat atop a perfect whole milk biscuit that ran soft through the middle like melting butter. It was the meaty answer to chef Tyson Cole’s fish caramel-glazed foie nigiri.
The attention to detail extended beyond the kitchen to the precise service. McFall, an advanced sommelier who also worked at III Forks in Chicago, moved like a man trained in the regimented manners of a steakhouse but also one freed of the orthodoxy of such thinking. He was quick to pair our two divergent entrees with the springtime barnyard funk of a Jura chardonnay from Stephane Tissot ($85). The bottle, which he turned to immediately without upsell prodding, brings a glimmer to the eye of McFall’s inner wine nerd but is probably not the type he got to celebrate much in a Chicago steakhouse.
The slightly acidic wine and its natural yeasts sang with the minerality of the brilliant egg yolk that sat atop a twirling pile of pappardelle awash in lemon. The tensile pasta made a soft bed for a shower of osetra caviar and two plump scallops, seared on the outside and slippery inside. The dish was pretty much perfect, and its $46 price tag seemed to know it. The slightly nutty characteristics of the wine were also a great match for the hot and crunchy trout ($36), a Hudson’s staple that has undergone little change.
The restaurant’s former sous chef, Courtney Swenson, created the breading years ago, and the mixture that launched its own food truck (the Mighty Cone) remains. The blend of almonds, sesame seeds, cornflakes, sugar, chili flakes and salt makes for a crackling shell with a touch of heat that encases steaming, meaty fish. An explosion of corn, jicama and queso fresco and ancho puree doing its best Hershey’s Kiss impression updated the habanero-mango aioli and ancho paint of the dish’s prior incarnation. Because sometimes the only thing separating old classics from new is a fresh set of eyes.
Hudson’s on the Bend
3509 RM 620 N. 512-266-1369, hudsonsonthebend.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$30. Entrees, $29-$59.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: New ownership has reinvigorated Hudson’s on the Bend with an updated look and a more modern culinary approach.
Notes: Happy hour is served Tuesday-Friday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., with half-price appetizers and cocktails.