Thursday, March 24, 2011

How To Sit At The Chef's Table Without A Reservation

[Full Disclosure: Carl St. John is currently the General Manager of Downtown 140. His wife, Catherine St. John is owner and teacher at Western Reserve School of Cookery, where I have taken classes in the past while pursuing my Grand Diplome. After taking the position as GM, Catherine conveyed to me that Carl had offered to comp my meal should I decide to come in and review Downtown 140. I thanked her for the gracious offer, but declined. Tonight's visit was unannounced and paid for by myself.]

Downtown 140 has been on my list of places to try for some time. Sadly, I didn't have a chance to eat at the restaurant when Chef Sean Monday was running the kitchen, but I have since sampled his food at the new One Red Door eatery located about a block and a half away from his old stomping ground. Prior to my visit tonight, I had also read mixed reviews of new Chef Don Triskett's food. While I take everything I read on the Internet with a huge grain of salt (some irony there, no?), it was reading fellow food blogger Scott's review over on The Chubby Cook that firmly put the restaurant at the front of my queue.

Being the Monday night right after the New Year's holidays, I decided this would be an opportune time to show up unannounced and without a reservation. The restaurant was located at 140 North Main Street, Hudson, OH 44236 and can be reached at 330-655-2940. There was streetside parking on Main Street available, but I decided instead to take advantage of the free two story parking garage located just behind the storefront.

While you can enter the restaurant through the Main street entrance (go down the stairs to the left), instead I opted to enter through the rear entrance, conveniently facing the aforementioned parking garage. Here was a shot of the rear entrance:

Rear Entrance to Downtown 140 in Hudson, Ohio
Once inside this door, move forward and enter a second door in front of you. The hostess stand was just inside this entrance. If you happen to come in through the Main Street entrance, you'll need to make your way across the room. It turned out that I happened to show up on the perfect day as the restaurant was barely one-third filled. Since I had so many options for seating, I looked for the best lit location in the restaurant. Many of my readers will already know that one of the more popular amenities that restaurants have been offering for the last several years is the concept of a "chef's table." This is usually either a physical table located in the kitchen or with many of the open-concept kitchens, like Downtown 140, a tabletop and chairs that sit just opposite the service window. They are popular because not only do you get to watch a working kitchen, but you can also interact directly with the chef and kitchen staff as you progress through your meal.

In what turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events, the chef's table at Downtown 140 was completely unoccupied and had arguably the best lighting in the entire restaurant. I asked if I could sit there and the hostess quickly agreed and walked me over. The good news was that sitting at the chef's table gave me a bird's eye view of the inner workings of the kitchen. The bad news, at least for a restaurant reviewer with a camera, was that within the first few snaps of the shutter, a man who turned out to be the manager, Carl St. John, came over to ascertain why, and more importantly, for whom, I was taking pictures.

I've heard it said in the past that if you want to look busy and important at work, carry around a clipboard. Gentle reader, if you wish to garner as much attention at a restaurant, take out a camera at a restaurant and start taking pictures of the menu. I guarantee you'll get results. After convincing Mr. St. John that I wasn't working for a publication, he asked if I wrote a food blog and was going to post the pictures there. After I indicated that my intention was to do exactly that, he asked me the name of my food blog. While one of the goals of my reviews is a reasonable attempt at anonymity, I'm also not going to lie either. When I told him the name, he indicated that he hadn't heard of it.

I proceeded to photograph the single page dinner menu:

Downtown 140's Dinner Menu
Once I had placed my order with my server, she brought over a large basket of roughly five different kinds of artisan bread and allowed me to select the breads I wanted:

Bread Selection
I chose a mushroom Gruyere bread and a country white French bread. Both were fresh and had an excellent crust and crumb. Accompanying my bread were some dips and a spread:

Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, Fennel Compound Butter
From left to right were extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a compound butter made with fennel. The oil and vinegar were nice, but the fennel butter was intriguing and delicious. It didn't work so well with the mushroom Gruyere bread, but for the country white French? It was delicious.

Shortly after noshing on the bread and butter, my first course arrived at the table. Here was a selection of Oysters on the Half Shell:

Oysters on the Half Shell
The one on the left was from the west coast (Quilcene) and the one on the right was from the east coast (Island Creek). Both were dressed with a bit of quick pickled cucumber and a lemon-Tabasco gelee. I slurped down both and discovered very fresh and tender oysters which were complemented nicely with the acidity from the other components. I didn't really get much brininess from either oyster, but that could be because the lemon-Tabasco gelee slightly overpowered the delicate oyster flavor, at least on the Island Creek. Overall though, I enjoyed this occasional dab at raw oysters.

For my second course, I decided to go with one of the vegetarian options from the menu, Squash Tortellini in Brown Butter:

Squash Tortellini in Brown Butter
Filled with a mixture of roasted squash and Lake Erie Creamery goat milk ricotta, these were then boiled and served with sage and pumpkin seed pesto over a balsamic brown butter. The pasta was tender and the filling flavorful. The shaved Parmesan over the of the pasta added a wonderful nuttiness and saltiness to the dish. While I am a HUGE fan of buerre noisette (aka brown butter), the one detraction on the plate was the sheer volume of it. Because the kitchen was using unsalted butter to make their buerre noisette, the finished product obviously lacked salt. Second, sometimes less is more. The sheer volume of butter on the plate meant that nearly every bite was butter-drenched. Both points made the dish teeter on becoming unbalanced, but overall I thought this was a solid dish.

For my entree, I considered my options carefully and finally ended up choosing the Ohio Pork Chop with Crispy Pork Belly:

Ohio Pork Chop with Crisp Pork Belly and Cider Reduction
The duet of pork was accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts, smoked sweet potatoes, roasted pearl onions and sat atop a drizzle of apple cider reduction. The pork chop had been garnished with a salad of julienned Granny Smith apple and micro arugula. This was a well-balanced plate of food. Seasoning was spot on and the cider reduction added some much needed sweetness and acidity to balance out the heavy flavors from the pork chop and especially the pork belly. The pork belly went from crispy on the top to melt in your mouth tender at the bottom. I had requested the pork chop cooked to medium and once I cut into the center of it, it was delivered as ordered. The only problem was that the thickness of the chop wasn't completely even. Thus, the meat toward the thinner end was cooked past medium. That being said, this seemed to me to be a case of inaccurate butchery rather than inaccurate cooking. Other than that minor quibble, the dish as a whole was excellent.

While I knew by this point that I was completely stuffed and dessert would not be an option for me, when my server offered the dessert menu, I took her up on it so I could include it in this write-up. The left pane displayed various post-meal beverages that were available:

Downtown 140's Dessert Menu 1
And the right pane listed the desserts available tonight:

Downtown 140's Dessert Menu Page 2
All said and done, the bill tonight plus tip and tax came to $51 (with water to drink). Clearly Downtown 150 is not inexpensive. At $24, the pork chop I selected for my entree was on the lower end of the price scale. The service was impeccable, the staff was friendly, and overall I thoroughly enjoyed my experience tonight. While the menu prices may very well weed out potential diners, for those who can afford to eat here, you will be pleased with your experience and the quality of the food. While I don't believe Chef Triskett was running the kitchen during my visit, his staff had clearly been trained well and executed the dishes that I tasted to a high level. The rumors about the decline of the food since Chef Monday left were not present tonight, and although I was able to easily get a very good table tonight, normally the waiting list for a table during prime dinner hours can be lengthy.

In the end, if Downtown 140 is in your price point, I recommend that you check them out if you have a chance. And if you are lucky enough to have good timing, you might just be able to get the best seat in the house.

Downtown 140 on Urbanspoon

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