The Austin Chronicle

The Rules of the Game

How Hudson's on the Bend captures the spirit of cooking fearlessly

By MM Pack, August 20, 2004, Food

Hudson's on the Bend

3509 RR 620 N., 266-1369
Tuesday-Thursday, 6-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10pm; Sunday-Monday, 6-9pm

The venerable Hudson's on the Bend is the granddaddy of Austin's Southwestern-style fine dining and, after almost two decades, continues to set the standard for imaginative and beautifully presented regional food in elegantly casual surroundings. The rustic stone ranchhouse, graced by paintings, white tablecloths, and candlelight, perfectly captures the spirit of its literal and figurative position at the cusp of urban Austin and the Texas Hill Country.

After turning in from the harrowing 620 traffic, you park behind the old house and enter a different world than that of the encroaching McBurbs. Via the narrow, densely planted herb and flower garden (even the toolshed's flat roof sprouts a lush, aromatic carpet), you approach the covered stone patio edged by adobe fireplaces and smokers, and continue into the porch reception area. Beyond is a maze of small, romantically lit dining rooms that encourage intimacy and minimize conversational din. Co-owner Shanny Lott's large and vibrant figurative paintings decorate each room.

Hudson's solid reputation is built on the preparation of game, and rightly so. A few years back, chef-owner Jeff Blank titled his book Cooking Fearlessly; it aptly describes the concept, although I'd say that Executive Chef Robert Rhodes and Executive Sous Chef Kelly Casey cook not only fearlessly, but with intelligence and style, informed by piquant but nicely subtle Southwestern flavorings. The menu is a paean to imaginative ways to prepare, combine, and sauce proteins that you might never have tried and didn't exactly know you wanted, but that you might very well learn you love.

Take the Rattlesnake Cake appetizer, for instance. This menu mainstay ($10.50) is a tasty crisp croquette of shredded snake meat (tasting nothing like chicken, by the way) in pistachio crust with creamy chipotle dressing. And then there's the bountiful Swamp Platter for two ($24) – a compendium of tender fried frogs' legs, alligator tail, and crawfish cakes – all crisp and chewy, all rather salty, and each dressed in a different tart and spicy sauce.

My favorite appetizer happens to be vegetarian – a heavenly, nonbreaded chile relleno filled with succulent potato-and-cotija cheese purée, topped with smoky tomato salsa, and accompanied by black bean and corn salad ($12.50). I easily could have made a meal of the spinach salad with sweet/hot bacon vinaigrette surrounding a couple of tenderly smoked quail ($11). Sautéed escargot ($11.95) was the least exciting starter, scattered about on a plate of asparagus and hearts of palm, with a whimsical puff-pastry snail shell garnish. The snails were chewy, and the collective flavors and textures simply did not mesh.

The entrée section of the menu abounds with interesting offerings from the forest, the pasture, the farm, and the sea. I am blown away by the amazingly tender and flavorful backstrap (loin) of elk ($32) rubbed with cascabel chile and espresso and dressed in citrus chipotle sauce. The accompanying shredded crab seemed a superfluous fillip, but the overall dish was simply awesome. I also am impressed by the crispy-fried ruby trout with mango/habanero aioli ($29), and the rack of venison in Hudson's signature guava and sour cherry sauce ($34). The beef dishes I tried – smoked prime Angus rib eye and Texas longhorn tenderloin (yes, really) – were very well prepared and sure to please boeuf-o-philes, but, in my opinion, they don't hold a candle to the game dishes.

Throughout dinner, details count for much. Meals begin with a basket of fresh, warm bread with yummy salsa butter, herb butter, and a whole head of roasted garlic. Table water is served in elegant and tall frosted glasses floating icy sliced lemons. The rich corn pudding that accompanies most entrées is addictive, and the seasonal side vegetables are perfectly sautéed. Plate presentations are generally gorgeous without being architectural; most dishes are somewhat giddily garnished with the garden's flowers, and I'm not talking subtle sprinkles: Daylilies and passionflowers spring forth from the food with reckless abandon for an appetizing, if quirky, effect.

The wine list is provocative and mostly pricey, but the tasty Coppola California Claret ($29) paired beautifully with a variety of entrées. As always, I wanted to see some Texas wines offered, and if you wish for only a glass of wine, you must ask your server for the six or so choices.

Desserts are large and rich, but a bit pedestrian after the spectacular game dishes. Peach and raspberry cobbler with buttermilk ice cream is enough for two and then some, but it was heavy and just did not sing. Silky Raspberry Chocolate Intemperance lives up to its name and will satisfy the most ardent chocolate fiend. The most pleasing sweet, however, was a trio of miniature crème brûlées – chocolate, vanilla, and coffee – that was the perfect not-too-sweet, light punctuation to end a substantial meal of complex, spicy flavors.

The service at Hudson's is courteous, informed, and, blessedly, not overly familiar. On both my visits, the waitstaff and their supporting cast were well versed in the menu, ingredients, and preparations. They answered questions, made apt recommendations, and provided just the right level of unobtrusive attention. My only quibble was when a zealous busser kept whisking away people's plates before others at the table were finished.

All in all, Hudson's is quintessentially Texas-style fine dining with a Hill Country spin. It's difficult to imagine a restaurant quite like this anywhere else in the country. Make no mistake, it is expensive, but if you judge a restaurant by how well it does what it's trying to do, this one hits the ball out of the park. end story

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