Chef Matt Mathlage found himself in familiar territory when he secured the keys to 200 North Main Street in beautiful downtown Hudson. Almost 20 years prior, Mathlage helped open the Old Whedon Grille, a popular restaurant that existed in that very spot until it closed last year. Mathlage, of course, moved on from the Whedon Grille years ago to work at Leopard in Aurora before opening Light Bistro in Ohio City with partner Eric Dietrich.
Today, 200 North Main Street is an appealing bistro called Peachtree Southern Kitchen, where Mathlage and his team turn out updated Southern food. The restaurant — a lively bar/dining room arrangement — nicely captures the spirit of a modern spot in Charleston, say, where expectations are exceeded thanks to agreeable fare that's familiar but never common.
"I think we've got a great fit here," Mathlage says of his new-old digs. "I didn't want this to be fine dining. We're aiming to be that in-between kind of place that's still nice enough for special occasions but not white tablecloth."
Like any self-respecting Southern eatery, Peachtree dishes up large portions of soul-satisfying comfort foods. But here, they're given the care, feeding and attention that only a highly skilled chef can provide. Think less Paula Deen and more Low Country meets Light Bistro. What's more, Peachtree encourages social dining thanks to a dozen shareable items ranging from $5 to $15, each offering more than enough for a table of four to share. Some are free, like the warm-from-the-oven corn muffins that are delivered to the table with soft butter.
There might be no better bar snack in the region than Peachtree's spicy chicken cracklings ($5). Chicken skin is cleaned, deep fried in lard, seasoned, drizzled with honey and served with Sriracha dipping sauce. These crunchy, salty, chickeny treats should be sold by the bucketful.
While the cracklings were a revelation, other starters simply were far better than we expected. Catfish "tots" ($7) managed to elevate the bottom-dwelling fish to new heights thanks to solid engineering. As the name implies, the fish nuggets are small, exceptionally crisp and mild in flavor, and the perky remoulade added just the right kick.
Creamy centers and slivers of crisp country ham provide nice textural contrast to a platter of tasty deviled eggs ($6). Served in small Mason jars, the flavorful pimento cheese ($9) – here white rather than the customary yellow-orange — and smooth chicken liver mousse ($9) are slathered with abandon atop thin rounds of garlic bread and crostini. The only dud in the bunch was the fried green tomatoes ($10), which included a few slices that were too thick and, thus, too crunchy.
For out-of-season seafood, the soft shell crab Po' Boy ($16) was surprisingly fresh-tasting. A quick dip in buttermilk and seasoning left the crustacean crisp, juicy and delicious. It's jammed into a buttery toasted baguette with grilled onions and greens. Other sammies feature pulled pork and pickles ($12) and shrimp and egg salad ($14).
Chef de cuisine Sean Dull takes all the work out of enjoying flavorful braised oxtails ($26), with the tails little more than tender boneless meat by the time the diner sees it. Like an artful pot roast, the shredded meat is arranged with the braised veggies on soft polenta. Peachtree's version of chicken-fried steak ($23) comes in the form of a meaty sirloin that's cooked to order as opposed to a thin, overcooked beef patty. The steak is breaded, pan fried in lard and served with mashed potatoes and thick white gravy.
The sleeper hit of the entrée menu just might be the baked grits ($19), a thick wedge of surprisingly airy grits infused with buttermilk, baked and topped with perfectly seasoned kale and mushrooms. It's a vegetarian meal that doesn't feel like self-punishment. For something a bit meatier, there's bacon-wrapped chicken with chestnut gravy ($21) or a Southern-style cassoulet made with duck confit, tasso ham and ham hocks ($25).
Hudsonites, notes Mathlage, are filling up the dining room most nights, a fact I observed on a recent Friday night. That's not all that hard to do considering that the main floor seats only about 40 guests, with room for more on a second level. That will change come late summer, when an expansion into an adjacent patio space will nearly double the restaurant's capacity. Seats aren't the only thing Mathlage is adding to the mix. Week by week, says the chef, new dishes and cocktails are coming online.
Starting small and focused allowed the team to work smart, make a strong first impression and build up momentum. Judging from our experiences, it's a system worth copying.