You can't see inside the market at Hubbell & Hudson anymore. The expansive windows that allowed pedestrians to view the bounty of fruits, vegetables, breads and meats are now fogged and glazed. The elevator that used to drop you off at the floral department now dumps you out onto the Woodlands Waterway. There isn't anything left inside; the only thing that remains is the Hubbell & Hudson Bistro next door.
Dishes using local ingredients and in-season produce still dominate the menu. A chef-inspired cheese board that once included fromage from the deli is a popular starter among patrons who begin their meal with it and a glass of wine while seated at the bar.
Dry-aged beef is still offered, and is accompanied by other local Texas cuts of beef, like the tender, but sadly underseasoned, eight-ounce Akaushi Texas Wagyu tenderloin. The New Bistro Burger reminds guests of the original burger bar situated inside the market. Not all the burgers that were offered in the grocery portion remain on the menu, but the upgraded cheeseburger known as the New Bistro Burger is the only option you need.
We ordered the awkwardly named Shellfish in the Style of Ceviche, which sounded enticing with its combination of rich Maine lobster tail, jumbo lump crabmeat and succulent shrimp marinated in a combination of yuzu (an East Asian citrus fruit) and cilantro. But the bowl of shellfish drowning in too much juice was not a beautiful presentation; the crabmeat should have been served in large chunks rather than finely shredded pieces. There wasn't enough shellfish mass to soak up all the marinade.
"It is refreshing," my dining companion noted. She was correct, but the pool of yuzu juice at the bottom of the bowl only left me wishing for more shellfish.
It's hard not to compare the bistro to what it once was, a restaurant connected to a specialty market serving dishes prepared with ingredients sold just steps away from the kitchen.
Hubbell & Hudson used to have something special. Being connected to its own market filled with a direct supply of signature meats, an international selection of cheeses and locally sourced produce made it a unique place for Woodlands residents to frequent. But now that the bistro must source all its foods elsewhere, H&H has lost some of its spark.
Hubbell & Hudson opened as a market and bistro in November 2008. More than five years later, on March 12, the grocery portion and Viking cooking school both officially closed, but the attached bistro and off-site kitchen remained in business.
Originally, the bistro served dishes featuring the market's offerings. The menu was much larger, and meals were deconstructed on the plate with wisps of sauce strategically placed in corners and on the sides of the dish. By day, it was a place to grab a juicy burger or hearty sandwich, and at night, it transformed into an upscale fine-dining establishment where patrons could select any cut of meat offered from the butcher shop, a seasoning rub, sauce and two sides.
The bistro appealed to residents of The Woodlands seeking a "downtown Houston" restaurant in the suburbs. More often than not, these diners would end their meal grocery shopping on the other side.
In 2012, H&H's menu was upgraded and modified by the then newly promoted executive chef, Austin Simmons. Simmons gained experience at the now closed Tesar's Modern Steak and Seafood in The Woodlands before joining the culinary team at the bistro. Now that the restaurant no longer has a symbiotic relationship with a market, it must get its ingredients from other providers. Simmons purchases seafood from the Gulf Coast, East Coast and other countries; he tries to use as much local produce as he can, buying in-season items from Hardie's Fruit & Vegetable Co. The menu changes more often now that Simmons has taken the reins; he maintains an offering of dishes using the freshest ingredients he can get his hands on.
A Fog & Parm starter demonstrates his culinary abilities. Creamy and salty Parmesan cheese (Parm) drapes perfectly over a beautiful circle of firm goat cheese (Fog) sitting atop tender avocado slices. A finely diced herb-seasoned tomato compote adds an extra dose of salt; I cut a chunk of goat cheese covered in melted Parmesan, then placed it on a slice of sweet, toasted walnut cranberry bread with avocado and tomatoes. The salty compote and Parm elevate the subtle flavors of goat cheese and avocado, but it all comes together with a bite of the chewy, fruity toast.
While plates like the Fog & Parm dazzle, other options lack the oomph and kick you're expecting after you've read their descriptions.
Added oil and sauce appears to be a theme at Hubbell & Hudson. As a previous frequent shopper at the Market, I thought it right to order the roasted baby vegetables from a restaurant once tied to its own market. A plate filled with the freshest produce atop a sushi rice cake sounds refreshing and light, an appropriate dish during the summer months. But what actually appeared was not what I had in mind. Charred and burned pattypan squash, okra, baby bell peppers, cauliflower and carrots glistened from a too-generous addition of olive oil. Each vegetable tasted the same: Oily, burned and bitter. The extra tomato sauce in the bottom of the bowl took this dish from swimming in liquid to drowning in it.
But a small bowl of Brussels sprouts redeems Simmons ability to simply unlock the natural flavors of the vegetable. The sprouts are cooked with soy sauce, creating a crispy, charred and caramelized coating on each veggie; the serving is topped with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Combining the proper amount of soy sauce with the Brussels sprouts diminishes the bitterness by bringing out the sweetness, and the Parmesan shavings are just an added salty bonus.
At the same time, though, a side dish of cauliflower gratin missed the appropriate ratio of cheese sauce to florets. The overly oiled sauce clearly broke from an excessive amount of heat. And what a shame; the cauliflower was tender and slightly nutty, and could have been an excellent companion to the Wagyu tenderloin, but the leftover broken sauce was not appealing.
While some dishes crash and burn (some of them literally), others are so spot-on you can't find a fault. Our server highly recommended the sea bass, saying it was one of her favorites. Perfectly flaky fish is topped with luscious lump crab and a choron sauce, a twist on the classic béarnaise without tarragon and with the addition of a tomato puree. Light lemon and goat cheese whipped potatoes rest underneath the delicate sea bass, inviting you to slice your fork through the entire stack for the ultimate bite -- the tart citrus and cheese blended with the mild potatoes harmonize with the tender sea bass and creamy topping.
The New Bistro Burger can be ordered only at lunch and during brunch on the weekends, but it should be offered all the time since it reveals Simmons's love for the American classic. A tender, juicy half-pound sirloin patty cooked to order is topped with salty melted Vermont Cheddar cheese, crunchy shredded Bibb lettuce, a single caramelized oven-dried tomato and sweet Applewood smoked bacon slices, the whole lying in a toasted house-made Challah bun. It's a simple cheeseburger elevated by the added touch of an exquisitely soft and chewy roasted Roma tomato atop high-quality cheese and crispy bacon.
Every great burger needs great french fries, especially if they are smothered in roasted garlic and mint. And if there's an appropriate time for an extra bit of oil, it's with these fries. Crispy thin fried potatoes are heavily coated in finely diced garlic, creating rich and savory fries balanced by the cool and refreshing mint leaves.
Dishes like the New Bistro Burger, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and sea bass with crab and whipped potatoes serve as reminders of the uniqueness Hubbell & Hudson once had when the market was still open.
But with or without the market, serving unsalted steaks, overly oiled vegetables and an unimpressive shellfish ceviche doesn't seem to be good strategy.
The bistro is in a state of renovation and transition. Perhaps the burger should be on every menu, while other items should be removed or seriously modified.
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Perhaps the beautiful desserts -- such as a peanut butter cup complete with layers of chocolate and peanut butter mousse with sea salt caramel and organic peanut butter topped with peanut butter powder and a scoop of banana ice cream -- should be brought to center stage, especially when paired with the French press coffee prepared tableside.
Hubbell & Hudson lost part of its mojo and needs to get it back. A few high notes are not enough to mask the sorely disappointing ones.
Hubbell & Hudson Bistro 24 Waterway Avenue, Suite 125, 281-203-5641. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Shellfish in the Style of Ceviche $21 Fog & Parm $11 8 oz. Akaushi Texas Wagyu tenderloin $49 Sea bass $44 Roasted baby vegetables $24 Parm & soy caramel Brussels spouts $8 Cauliflower gratin $8 New Bistro Burger $17 Peanut butter cup $7.95 French press coffee $4.25