Fifty-three fifty-six College Avenue has been a lively and reliable place to enjoy a meal since John Hurley opened a branch office of his popular Presidio Heights Mediterranean hangout, Garibaldi's, on the premises back in 1997. In mid-2009, Hurley split the space (a high-ceilinged, sponged-pastel sort of place) in two, wall and all, and installed a road-show version of another Hurley hotspot, Glenview's Marzano, alongside. This pressed-tin/exposed-brick temple to Neapolitan comfort food complemented its neighbor well enough, but the stress of operating two restaurants in one place convinced Hurley to close the joint operation in late December and reopen a couple of weeks later with a unified new concept, a casually classy Italian-accented New American restaurant named Hudson. The wall is gone, as are the exposed brick and sponged pastels (the current look is starkly modern cream-on-beige with plank tables, hardwood floors, and big, bleak black-and-white photographs), but chef Robert Holt is back, cooking up the parsnip purée, housemade tasso, and fried sage, with often delectable results.
An attractive new lounge area is dominated by a long, busy bar where mixologists stir up the sort of elaborate house cocktails that are beginning to enter the realm of parody: dill syrup, tobacco tincture, and flamed orange are among the ingredients employed in drinks already redolent of yellow chartreuse, velvet falernum, egg white, green tea, maple syrup, and sea salt. The cocktails' rococo-literary monikers are a hoot, though (Lilies and Scythes, The Walrus and the Carpenter, My Dear Watson et al). The Prufrock Dilemma was a pleasantly brisk, palate-cleansing shakeup of gin, peach purée, a splash of port, and a dollop of bracing housemade tonic water. The Fitzgerald's Hemmingway — tequila, gin, maraschino, lime, grapefruit — was also worth ordering: strong, sweet, and citrusy.
Hudson divides its main menu into six easy-to-manage categories, and we sampled a representative dish or two from each. Our appetizer, steelhead tartare, featured tiny filets of delicious raw trout from Washington's Quinault River, attractively served in spears of crunchy endive, but the accompanying minced scallion, mandarin orange, and sliced watermelon radish almost overwhelmed the fish's delicate flavor and reflected the kitchen's occasional proclivity for fussiness and over-complexity. Our salad also featured several upscale ingredients — shaved fennel, creamy avocado, blood orange segments, plump, sweet bay shrimp from Maine — but the overall concept was unfocused and the dish failed to really come together. Our pasta dish, wild nettle ravioli, was simpler and more successful. Despite its name, the pasta was just this side of bland, but its Meyer lemon-based sauce was rich and puckery, and a sprinkle of pine nuts added a pleasant crunch.
The East Bay has gone pizza-happy over the past year or so, with cutting-edge pizzerias popping up in Berkeley and Oakland on a fairly regular basis, but Hudson's mussel-calamari pie may be our favorite. The toppings were impeccably fresh, the crust crisp as a cracker, and the combination of flavors — sweet Prince Edward Island mussels; tender, briny squid; snarky arugula; a hint of citrus; the occasional jolt of chili pepper — was mood-alteringly good. Among the entrées, the bluenose bass was a winner: a perfectly moist, delicate filet brushed with brown butter and served on a bed of lemony gazpacho with subtle accents of red grape and Swiss chard. The rich, tender pan-roasted duck breast was even better, with its supporting cast of buttery pumpkin spaetzle; bright, pungent savoy cabbage; and slices of grilled sweet Fuji apple. We also tried a side dish of farrotto, risotto made with farro instead of rice. There's a reason risotto is made with rice (it cooks down into creamy tender lusciousness more easily than does wheat grain), but despite its chewiness, the farrotto had a satisfying heft and a rich flavor thanks to the crème fraîche, smoked hazelnuts, and grana padano cheese that shared the bowl.
The 75-bottle wine list focuses primarily on local Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Sauvignon Blancs, with several German, Australian, and Mediterranean Merlots, Pinot Grigios, Sangioveses, and Tempranillos thrown in for balance and texture. (The Schild Riesling is especially copacetic with the duck, cabbage and spaetzle.) Two dozen of the wines cost less than $40 per bottle; most of the rest are under $60. Fifteen are available by the glass. A half-dozen beers are available as well, including Drakes Brewing's pale ale and IPA from San Leandro and Oakland's own Linden Street lager.
Although Hudson doesn't offer any meat-free items on its entrée menu, the restaurant still has plenty of options to keep its vegetarian customers satisfied. Start with onion soup with fried sage and crème fraîche, fried artichokes with orange gremolata and Meyer lemon aioli, or a chicory salad with pears, persimmons, and walnuts. Among the secondi are the wild nettle ravioli and a pizza topped with broccoli, tomato, olives, and ricotta. Sides include radicchio with pine nuts and golden raisins, curried cauliflower with capers, and the farrotto with hazelnuts; plus there are five cheeses to choose from, all served with truffled walnuts, amarena cherries, and caramelized onion jam.
For dessert try the terrific root beer float, served parfait-style in a tall glass with layers of vanilla ice cream and an icy granita made from Abita root beer. A pitcher of (unfrozen) Abita is provided for customized pouring, and the combination of creamy, crunchy, sweet, and rootsy was delectable. Warm-from-the-oven chocolate-chip cookies gilded the lily. Another combo platter, Fritto Dolce, wasn't as memorable: A so-so cream-filled doughnut hole (latte dolce to you), a standard cinnamon zeppole, and a deep-fried sub-Graceland peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich added up to lots of heavy, unremarkable sweet fried starch. But the milk-chocolate tart was even better than the float — a rich, earthy ganache accented with sea salt and served in a buttery chocolate cookie crust with sweet, bright cara cara orange segments for vitamins and a scoop of vanilla ice cream lightly scented with olive oil. With food like this, Hudson has real promise — once the new concept gets used to the old surroundings.