Our review of Downtown 140 in Hudson is, in a couple of ways, long overdue. First, Kurt Nygaard and chef-owner Shawn Monday have opened a fabulous, cozy eatery that stands easily on par with the area's best restaurants. One visit made us realize that we should have dropped by much sooner.
Secondly, as I write these words, I am nervously aware that my deadline on this article was more than a week ago. Ultimately, though, it's Shawn Monday's fault. You see, Monday is a busy man. First, he was in Chicago for a couple of days gathering ideas at some of the Windy City's hottest spots.
After that, our schedules (I work in my kitchen during the day, he presides over his at night) simply never did coincide. While this didn't do much to help my already haphazard and criminally lazy writing regimen, it did raise Monday in my culinary esteem. He is a chef who actually works in his kitchen, on the line, every night that Downtown 140 is open.
In addition to overseeing each excellent dish as it leaves for the cozy dining room, Monday also keeps up a steady banter with the lucky guests who have reserved the four seats at the chef's table — actually a chef's bar that looks into the kitchen — directly in front of him.
Housed in a pre-Civil War cellar beneath The Cookery on Hudson's historic Main Street, Downtown 140 features one of the most comfortably appointed rooms we've seen in a while. An exposed stone wall, loads of dark paneling, velvety upholstery, nice, classic art selections and relaxed lighting give the place a swanky, retro, dinner-club feel without the nuisance of cigar smoke and crotchety old captains of industry. In fact, the restaurant is entirely nonsmoking, so leave your Lucky Strikes at home and focus on the expansive, replete wine list.
Monday's partner, local businessman Kurt Nygaard, has compiled a truly impressive catalogue with more than 360 bottles, including 60 glass pours, and the option to try many wines by the two ounce "taste." (In a rare low note, on one occasion, our server seemed a little lighter in wine and food knowledge than we would have expected with such a formidable collection of wares to purvey.)
From Monday's tapas-style "smallest" and "small" plates to the entrÃ©e-size "not-so-small plates" (get it?), darn near everything we sampled was well conceived, well executed, and, well, really good. Before I begin heaping on the food itself, though, I should enthusiastically mention that nothing on the menu costs more than $20. Better prices will pack seats fast enough to pave the way to a successful venture. Well done. So, back to the food and things food related.
The smallest plate items are generally priced per piece and range from a simple asparagus tempura ($6 per pint) with three dipping sauces (we found the peanut sauce a little underwhelming, but the soy and roasted pepper selections better) to roasted clams with chorizo, arugula and manchego cheese ($6 per five pieces) that were tasty, perfectly prepared little morsels. Oysters on the half shell ($2.50 per piece) are fresh, change regularly and are accompanied by a very complementary yuzu mignotte and julienne cucumber "noodles." Another Asian-influenced item, the curry chicken and cashew spring roll ($4 per piece), is a crispy treat with the curry and nut flavors pairing perfectly and a sprout slaw and hot-and-sour sauce rounding out the dish well.
My personal favorite among the smallest plates, however, is the selection of artisan American cheeses ($3 per piece). If your perception of American cheese begins and ends with the rubbery, individually wrapped, unnaturally orange "cheese product" slices next to your box of Blue Bonnet margarine, you've got a lot to learn about the current state of cheese making in the U.S.A. Try the Humboldt Fog goat cheese and the Colorado Muenster. Heck, try every cheese they offer. You'll be glad that you did. (Or maybe not. But you'll never know until you try. Now go to your room.)
Unfortunately, we sampled fewer of the small plates, though what we did have was generally good. The peekytoe crab salad with fried green tomatoes, roasted pepper, avocado and cilantro ($13) is a fresh, flavorful and well-balanced dish. Our salad of young lettuces, strawberries, bread stick and peppercorn-verjus dressing ($5) missed the mark a bit, though, if only in that the verjus (the acidic juice of unripe grapes), already a subtle constituent when compared to vinegar, was almost undetectable. (Granted, I did drink an eight-ounce glass of verjus on a bet once, but it only means that I could taste it in my sleep.) For a real winner, and another personal favorite, the warm arugula salad with Hudson Valley camembert, oyster mushrooms, bacon and aged balsamic ($8) was perfect.
Among the not-so-small plates, we found not a single disappointment. The perfectly done beef filet with potato puree, shallot jam, wilted spinach and a rich burgundy reduction ($20) thrilled my dining companion to the extent that a reorder was required on our second visit. Slightly less thrilling, but solid and flavorful, was the vegetarian mac and cheese ($16) with caramelized onions, spinach, smoked brie and portobello mushrooms. Don't get me wrong — it's really good. I just wished that it had bacon in it. Which brings us to pork. Monday's prairie grove pork chop ($19) was outstanding.
The shrimp and cheddar grits are creamy and delicious, while the tart pieces of pickled okra provided a delightful counterpoint to the dish. Another lovely, bacon-bearing dish, the crispy organic chicken ($17) features a boneless breast-thigh combination with asparagus, early spring morels, bacon braised potatoes, and a rich, delicious chicken jus. This offering proved a satisfyingly hearty meal for a chilly spring evening: comforting, while still bearing the promise of better weather and the return of nature's abundance. To complete your dining experience, Downtown 140 offers several desserts, all of which are made in house. We sampled a strawberry trio ($7) featuring strawberries in three different preparations, which made for a nice, light palate cleanser.
The scope of a single review is far from broad enough to encompass all of a restaurant's offerings. What we must say, though, is that whether you live in downtown Hudson or downtown Cleveland, Downtown 140 more than merits a visit or two.
Downtown 140, 140 N. Main St., Hudson, (330) 655-2940 (Akron) and (330) 646-1294 (Cleveland). Hours: Mon through Sat 5 - 11 p.m.