Helsinki Hudson, 405 Columbia St., Hudson, 828-4800, helsinkihudson.com. Serving dinner 5-10 daily. D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Southern-inspired farm-to-table
Entrée price range: $12 (sake-steamed mussels) to $27 (Porterhouse steak frites)
Contradictions are the spice of daily experience, and there are obvious aspects of Helsinki Hudson that teem with contradiction. It’s a restaurant/nightclub named for the capital of Finland; it’s got a warehouse-hipster look but with a menu slanted toward the deep South.
Originally opened in Great Barrington, the operation moved three years ago to take advantage of a larger space and the burgeoning cultural rebranding of Hudson. An old industrial building on Columbia Street was completely refitted to accommodate a performance and dining space that retains a 19th-century look, helped by the dark paneling, high ceilings and inverted streetlamps that serve as structural supports, as designed by co-owner Marc Schafler.
On performance nights, the large dining area gets divided by sliding walls, and the performance space itself suggests a Vegas nightspot gone rustic. When I visited, the place was relatively quiet. In fact, it seemed almost oppressively large, but as the sky darkened and the indoor lighting took over, it transformed into something with a charmingly intimate feel.
I’m trying to imagine my West Virginia grandma, known as Ol’ Idy, asking, “You want some o’ them frites with your collards and grits?” and it’s just not working. Not that she wouldn’t have leapt at the chance to add fries to a meal, but it was bad enough that the word “French” was applied. And she’d never have rubbed a pork chop with coffee and chili. So let’s turn the culinary proceedings over to the man who does, chef Hugh Horner. He grew up in Atlanta and started cooking in Charlotte, a through-the-ranks chef who worked his way north, hitting Brooklyn at the right moment to add a unique culinary voice to the area by co-founding the Williamsburg Café.
Love of the business sent him north; love itself brought him to Hudson, natal town of the girlfriend he met at the Café. The circle was completed when he met Schafler and Helsinki co-owner Deborah McDowell (whose grandfather worked at Finland’s Hotel Helsinki). Horner’s menu is about to change; set your expectations accordingly. Its fundamentals will remain, which means a tripartite page separating beasts and fish and verdure. Starters ribbon across the top (imprecisely labeled “lagniappe”—they are, in fact, marked with prices); old favorites are at the bottom, the latter including shrimp and grits ($23), “Great Aunt Theo’s fried chicken” ($23), and Porterhouse steak frites ($27).
Fried green tomatoes ($7) are offered as a starter with maple-buttermilk dressing; deviled eggs ($8) have shrimp and chipotle worked in. Fried okra with green-tabasco mayo ($6) put me in mind of many an unpleasant okra encounter, so I sampled it and, not surprisingly, it confounded my fears. Barricaded in a crisp cornmeal coating, the okra maintained its flavor identity without succumbing to the nauseous, snotty texture that too-easily befalls it. The mayo was a bonus.
Bluefish is an undervalued fish that Horner favors because when he gets it, he’s able to get it absolutely fresh from Montauk. It figured in a smoked bluefish pâté ($8), served on locally crafted bread, and I’d put it up against preparations of tuna and even liver any day. It also figured, grilled, as an entrée ($24). Grill a good piece of bluefish and that’s enough. The dill-enhanced yogurt on top added a deliciously sour note, and the underlayer of roasted beets and grilled fennel edged it into a warm, near-the-ground flavor.
Other seafood preparations include shrimp and crawfish cakes ($12), lemonade-poached halibut ($25) and seared scallops with carrot purée ($25).
The aforementioned beasts are listed in the menu’s “smoke” category. A local cheese and smokeboard ($16) offers lamb sausage and steelhead trout; applewood-smoked ribs ($25, from Helsinki’s giant smoker, nicknamed “Atticus”) come with sweet potato salad, and the tarragon-seasoned half-chicken ($25) is served with charred broccolini and lemon-ricotta grits.
But then there’s that grandma-defying pork chop ($25), and I’m going to guess that had she ever sampled it (and assured herself that it wasn’t cooked by some Yankee), she would have swooned. Who can argue with coffee? And chili seasoning adds the right notes of cumin and garlic. It’s a gargantuan chop that yields to the steak knife with what seems, to my carnivorous sensibility, like pleasure, and continues to please as it releases its flavors. White-turnip-and-pork-belly hash is found below; a side of red-eye gravy, applied discreetly, mutes but prolongs those flavors.
Salads. Should have mentioned this earlier, I suppose, but we’re about to deal with kale and you might have stopped reading. Arugula salad is $9. The quinoa and veggie salad includes snap peas, papaya and pickled raisins ($12). The kale salad ($12) sports greens from Holmquest Farms, but, really, have we not had enough of this vile weed shoved down our throats? Not when it’s fresh and young and—another contradiction—crunchy and tender. It’s raw, which is kale’s best showcase, and it’s presented with roasted garlic, slices of pear and currants in a white balsamic vinaigrette, and I would have enjoyed it with only the dressing.
Horner spends his days inspecting ingredients, traveling to area farms to see the goods up close, or searching for the more distant suppliers for whatever has to be farther-found. The Hudson Valley has been at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement; the city of Hudson has welcomed a varied array of restaurants, many of which lean in that direction; it may be yet one more seeming contradiction that Helsinki’s Southern-inspired restaurant is the leader of that pack.