Among the culinary pearls that ornament antiques-laden Warren Street in downtown Hudson, two-year-old Vico Restaurant & Bar shines on several counts. It is a sincere and genial spot, always eager to please, and with a chef who turns out honest, regional Italian fare employing the best of the Valley’s provender.
The restaurant occupies an 1880s Victorian building that has housed many lodgers over the years, the most nostalgic among them an old-fashioned soda and ice cream parlor. If you sit at Vico’s long steel-topped bar you’ll see the original chrome soda pulls. Alas, the pulls pull no more. In their place are two beers on tap. I sampled something called Blue Moon Belgian White Wheat Ale. It was cloudy in the glass, foamy, and with a light orange hue — an attribute that inspired our bartender to garnish the glass with a slice of orange. Hey, why not?
“Dominique,” I nudged my friend and dining recruit for the evening. “Taste this stuff. Belgian. Pretty cool.”
Being a professional wine taster, Dominique possesses a palate that is not easily amused. I couldn’t wait for his assessment. “Interesting,” he mumbled, in deference to his friend who was paying the check. (The following day I researched this exotic libation, only to learn that it is owned by the Coors Brewing Company, and is made in Memphis.)
The modern bar is done in a sponged — or “ragged,” as it is sometimes called — warm brick tone. “Burgundy tone,” Dominique volunteered. All of the rooms are enlivened with bold, brightly colored abstract art from area painters. The restaurant’s sole nod to Victoriana is two clusters of chandelier crystals dangling above the bar. A front room, seating 25, received the rag treatment as well, in this case pale orange; the comfortable and larger back room is yellow and white. On clement evenings you can dine outside on a 25-foot-long wooden deck. The menu is sizeable — nine main courses supplemented by daily specials — and leans toward northern Italian fare. This is not surprising, as Mark Ganem, the owner and chef, with his partner, Adam Klersfeld, spent five years chowing down there while working as a fashion journalist. Following that stint he took up professional cooking.
For appetizers we started with exceptional deep-fried calamari that had been dusted with Japanese panko, which is sort of like bread crumbs only lighter and better for deep frying. It came with a snappy tomato sauce. Torta diverdura, a vegetable and custard tart, could have used a kick of seasonings, if only salt; on the lighter side there is a first-rate caponata (a sweet blend of eggplant and tomato), and colorful crostini, garlic toast topped with a changing assortment of fresh vegetables. I am not a big fan of fruit in salads — in this case poached pears — so I opted for the pleasant mix of local greens in balsamic vinaigrette and shaved pecorino.
Photograph by Michael Nelson
Having finished my citric suds it was time to delve into the wine list. Vico has a short (27 bottles) selection, which is a relief from all those show-off cellars that carry more names than a small city’s telephone book. Commendably, the lineup is well suited to the food, and fairly priced. Among whites, you can’t go wrong with the fresh and tangy 2006 Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG “Le Rote” from a winery that once had a reputation for spewing out mediocre table wine but has improved markedly. If you want something with a bit more body, two can be recommended: the charming 2005 Tocai Friulano Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC Bastianich and the 2006 Reserve Chardonnay Montgras (Chile), which exudes pear and apple essences. For reds, I can recommend the 2005 CMS Hedges, a simple, fruity, and well-balanced wine that is the second label from the highly regarded Hedges Cellars Washington State winery; and the vanilla-tinged 2002 Montepulciano Zaccagnini. Many wines are available by the glass.
On any evening there are half a dozen or more pastas, and most are straightforward and satisfying, like the pappardelli in an gutsy ragù of eggplant (the chef clearly likes eggplant), tomatoes, and sweet Italian sausage. It’s hardly summery, but don’t tell that to an adjacent table where two diners were going at it. Homemade fettuccine comes with chunks of sautéed salmon and vegetables in a light cream sauce — well executed, but it fell short of the goal line for lack of seasonings, particularly salt. Better was the linguine swathed in a piquant puttanesca sauce with slices of yellowfin tuna.
Again, a paucity of salt muted an otherwise fine filet of Scottish salmon set over a nice combination of white beans, sage, and Swiss chard. A final seafood dish, grilled yellowfin tuna, was oddly tough and tasteless, somewhat redeemed by a sprightly sauce of tomatoes, olives, and capers. If you could have one dish here it might be the outstanding Black Angus steak from Grazin’ Angus Acres in nearby Ghent. It had just enough fat to give it a succulent texture, as well as an intensity of beefy flavor rarely found in today’s mass-produced, Cryovac-aged specimens.
I should note that the two women servers in my dining room couldn’t have been more gracious, even as we peppered them with a hundred questions about the place (a sure giveaway that a restaurant critic is in the house).
For dessert there is a respectable rendition of the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake with whipped cream. It was a split decision when it came to the millefeuille, which, in its classic version, is a construction of parchment-like sheets layered with pastry cream. This one, given thumbs up by Dominique, was essentially puff pastry atop pastry cream. Perhaps my less enthusiastic assessment was influenced by my childhood memories from the Bronx, where Napoleons were exceptionally flaky, quite dry in fact, topped with a layer of sugary icing, and as thick as a Russian novel.
Again, if you only have the time — or are medically restricted — to sample just one dessert, go for the textbook-perfect orange crème brûlée. The consistency was ideal: neither flaccid nor too firm, with a thin brittle crust, and it was served at the proper temperature (slightly cool). As a bonus, it was baptized with Grand Marnier. Why am I craving a slice of orange?
136 Waren St., Hudson. 518-828-6529 or www.vicorestaurant.com