Whether he's in the house or not, Chris Hodgson is never truly absent from his new namesake eatery. Meals begin with an amuse bouche of bacon-laced tater tots — a whimsical allusion to the food-truck fare that landed him on the Great Food Truck Race. In an attempt to sell us dessert, our affable server regaled the table with how the chef came up with his fried apple pie after a long night of drinking. And at meal's end, staffers present the bill in an envelope that reads "The Damage" — a classic hit of Hodge humor.
When it comes to brand-name chefs, few in Cleveland are bigger than Hodgson — a formally trained pro who first put his mark on Cleveland with his food trucks Dim and Den Sum and Hodgepodge. His effusive personality, youthful exuberance, and playful but accessible food have cultivated the kind of fan base that any operator would love to leverage. Which brings us to Hodge's partner, restaurateur Scott Kuhn. As owner of Washington Place Bistro, among others, Kuhn balances Hodgson's merrymaking with solid management experience.
Yet in the process, it seems that too much of Hodgson's personality has been stripped away. While almost all of the food is pleasurable, not much of it is exceptionally fun. The ambiance, too, tends to feels more grown up than irreverent. Granted, this isn't a food truck; but there still needs to be more of a connection between the chef we love and the chef we get.
"I'm not proud of it," Hodgson says of the menu with remarkable candor. "When you read it, it looks approachable but boring. I want to be proud of it. We want to reach the normal customers, but also provide a good time for people who classify themselves as foodies."
There are many outta-the-park plates at Hodge's. The Big Dipper — a trio of perfectly breaded and fried lobster corndogs — could fuel an entire food-truck craze on its own. And while mussels may be routine on most menus, the ones served here are not. Spicy, studded with Korean sausage, and tempered with sweet coconut milk, the dish shines above the competition.
Hodge's gnudi could become an addiction. The flourless dumplings — a mainstay at New York's Spotted Pig, where Hodgson worked — are at once lush and light, an oxymoron that only makes sense when you pop one (or five) in your mouth. Made from whipped ricotta and parmesan cheese, the little orbs of love are served in a brown butter sauce.
Of the entreés, the French onion ravioli is the most playful. Heartfelt in origin and mouthwatering in execution, the dish is a pasta version of a soup favored by Hodge's girlfriend Jacquelyn Romanin. The ravioli are stuffed with ricotta and Gruyere, served in a beef-soup reduction, and topped with a Gruyere crouton.
While entrées like grilled duck breast with barley "risotto," hanger steak gilded with perky salsa verde, and seared scallops perched atop mounds of smashed peas are all pitch-perfect, none seem uniquely particular to Hodgson. That may be fine for the "normal customers," but perhaps not for "foodies."
And not every dish is a winner. The chicken liver toasts suffer from too much moisture, becoming a tad soupy. I applaud the chutzpa of selling whipped lard on toast, but the result tastes like a bacon fat-glazed donut thanks to the addition of honey. Hodge's thick-cut house-smoked bacon is a treat, but the bedding of pine-nut "baked beans" is cloying in its richness.
Hodge's has had its share of opening jitters. Turnover in all corners of the line-up — from the kitchen to the dining room to the bar — have resulted in some service snafus. When explaining the makeup of the four-cheese mac and cheese, our server lost count after three — and two of those were wrong!
To his credit, Hodgson is determined to get things right. "We can't just be known for great food," he says. "There is no reason why we can't have phenomenal service too."
Ongoing server training, the hiring of bar pro Mike Gulley, the debut of a fresh new menu, and a gorgeous patio, usually filled to the brim with al fresco fans: All should keep this stationary rig moving in the right direction.