Hudson Kitchen has the sort of backstory that most restaurateurs would kill for. The Dundas West hotspot’s 31-year-old chef, Robbie Hojilla, trained under Marc Thuet and spent time cooking around northern Italy before becoming second-in-command at Woodlot and Ursa, two of the more successful Toronto restaurant launches in recent memory.
More significantly, Mr. Hojilla (pronounced: Oheeya) is respected among top city chefs for his unique – and if recent restaurant trends are any indication, highly marketable – culinary perspective. Born in Quezon City, near Manilla, he lived in the Philippines until age seven when his family moved to Scarborough. He loves to meld the tastes of his childhood with classic French and Italian techniques.
When the blog Fat Girl Food Squad (“Spreading the good, thick word”) interviewed him last May, Mr. Hojilla enthused about his new recipe for beef cheek adobo, the glories of fish sauce, and Filipino fried chicken spring rolls. In the fall of 2012, he served fresh chitarra pasta at a pop-up dinner, but not with just any old sauce. Mr. Hojilla tossed the noodles in a ragu he’d simmered down from caramelized tomatoes, homemade banana ketchup and Nathan’s Famous-brand wieners – just the sort of pop Asian-American mash-up cooking that’s become catnip to next-gen food geeks lately.
“Filipino cuisine is still underexposed in this city and I’m trying to do my part in getting it exposed to the public,” he told the blog. Yes, please.
The restaurant has one other somewhat enormous thing going for it: specifically the former tabloid power couple named “Brad and Jen,” who ate at Hudson Kitchen, albeit separately, during this summer’s Toronto International Film Festival. Thanks to luck, good timing and a well-connected investor, the restaurant played host to post-premiere parties for not just Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, but also Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Garner and Benedict Cumberbatch – all before it ever opened to the public.
Even now, four months later, if you can get through an entire dinner there without hearing some variation on the phrase, “I wonder what Brad and Jen ate,” you are either a) extremely fortunate or b) profoundly deaf.
The restaurant is owned by Vince Antonacci, who is a managing partner at Brassaii, the King Street West party spot, and a handful of other partners, including Jordan Fogle of Toronto’s The Mint Agency, a “premium full-service marketing, events, branding and PR” concern. (Mr. Fogle was the restaurant’s film fest hookup.)
On the evenings I ate there recently – the first in early November, the latest earlier this month – I couldn’t help but wonder how much control they’d asserted over Mr. Hojilla’s food.
There are glimmers of greatness on Hudson Kitchen’s “contemporary American” menu, as the restaurant’s website calls it. Mr. Hojilla’s version of pot au feu, that workhorse cold-weather bistro standard of boiled mixed meats and broth, showed the sort of finesse and judgment it takes to bring new life to an often stodgy classic. There were satisfying hunks of buttery-soft veal brisket in it, which he had cured Jewish deli-style, and a daub of palate-clearing salsa verde made from carrot tops.
The broth, meantime, had the stick-to-your-lips richness and complexity of a proper boiled meat broth, but with something else too – an assertive citrus and licorice musk from star anise, which had been recast here from bit player into a key supporting role.
Mr. Hojilla was just as assured with his simple green salad, which he tossed with candied walnut brittle, whipped blue cheese, pomegranate seeds and Champagne vinaigrette; every bite brought a rush of taste and textures, balanced perfectly, and the subtle sweets aisle crackle of those candied nuts.
His plating is gorgeous in many instances; this is a chef with keen visual sense and roots in fine dining. The mushroom salad, dressed with miso, orange zest and marmite, appeared on an oak log as if from a Victorian naturalist’s field guide (or, perhaps, from a Danish food magazine). The stellar albacore tuna crudo dish came on a stark black plate: hunks of translucent flesh tossed with hazelnut crumble, rounds of magenta-centred valentine radish, a scattering of leaves, a smear of the Piedmontese anchovy mayonnaise called bagna fredda, a nap of fermented radish vinaigrette. And yet every few dishes clanged with technical flaws and misjudgments. One of the “artisanal” dips on Hudson Kitchen’s $4 bread plate, a puree of charred eggplant, was all char, no eggplant, acrid-tasting and unpleasant – the sort of mistake that should be easy to catch before service. The gnocchi were beautifully made, but then left to fend for themselves alongside chunks of squash and chestnut pieces, with little acidity or texture to give them life.
Mr. Hojilla’s hangar steak is one of the prettiest meat dishes in the city right now: the pinkish meat set alongside vibrant chimichurri and a wodge of fennel that’s been seared, so that it’s sweet and smartly darkened along its edges. The steak, though, is cooked in a plastic bag in a bath of lukewarm water – cooked sous vide to use the kitchen term – so that while it comes out evenly medium rare, when I tried it that meat also bore the spongey texture of a shower loofah. That humble slice of fennel was exponentially more delicious than the beef.
And the service, which is friendly, smart and polished to a level you don’t typically expect on Dundas Street West, can’t always compete with the management’s apparent desire to wring the maximum possible amount of cash from all that pre-opening publicity – to overfill its otherwise elegant space.
The first time I ate there, a good three months into the restaurant’s life, there wasn’t more than 14 inches between the tables; our good-natured waiter had to repeatedly step away from our table to let others pass. It felt like a mosh pit, and not a place where you’d happily part with $100 per person. (It was far less crammed when I ate there this month.)
Yet my greatest disappointment is that Mr. Hojilla doesn’t bring more Robbie Hojilla to work each day. That chitarra with the banana ketchup ragu, and the beef cheek adobo and the lumpia-style spring rolls that Mr. Hojilla has waxed about so enthusiastically, that could make Hudson Kitchen a far more interesting restaurant? Those are so far missing from the dinner menu. (He has offered the pasta as a special, he said. It didn’t sell.)
Instead, the predominant cooking style here is what I call haute generic. It’s great in spots, but not that different from what you’d find in an upscale business hotel.
Which is a shame when you consider that the very best thing on Hudson Kitchen’s dinner menu is the “seared pork terrine” – a WASP-friendly term, I presume, for sisig, a terrifically tasty Filippino staple made from assorted bits of pig face. The soft, braised pork had been hand-chopped and formed loosely into squares, and then grilled over Japanese binchotan charcoal, so that it was bathed in aerosolized fat and smoke. The terrine had been seasoned with garlic, rice vinegar, ginger and calamansi lime juice; Mr. Hojilla scattered the terrine’s top with long, thin, refreshing celery shavings.
I’ve never had a dish quite like it in a downtown restaurant.
If he can cook more like this – and I suspect that he will in time; this is his first head chef’s gig – Mr. Hojilla has a very bright future ahead.