Food rundown: Hodge’s Cleveland

Jack Behrend, Food Reporter / Copy Editor

Created by Food and Wine Magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef Award 2013” nominee Chris Hodgson and restaurateur Scott Kuhn, Hodge’s Cleveland presents a delightful blend of modernity and comfort food at a price reasonable for a middle to upscale outing. For those who may be a bit shy about spending $20 or more on a plate, the portions and flavor more than match the price and will leave any appetite more than satisfied (a finding confirmed by my two football-playing companions and I).

Hodge’s is extremely student accessible, located on Euclid near East 9th street. Students can take the train, ride the bus, or comfortably drive with both valet and lot parking close by.

The most outstanding detail of the Hodge’s experience is the restaurant’s keen focus on embodying its charter — to present familiar comfort food in creative and modern ways — in every aspect of the dining experience. This thorough expression was immediately evident the moment I walked through the doors and saw the brilliant dichotomy of the restaurant’s décor. Stylish red-leather seats and metallic tables offset incongruently-stained wood planks that flow from the floor to midway up the walls. The unique contrast is made even starker as a stainless steel bar, lofted ceilings, and bar-friendly televisions are grounded by the truly unique presence of what looked to me like a sliding barn door.

First Course
The décor was only the beginning of this unusual blend, however, and continued right into the first course: selections from the pre-appetizer “snack” portion of the menu. This sort of complimentary warm-up nosh is fairly uncommon at middle to upper-middle priced restaurants, so I was particularly curious. I selected the deviled eggs (a personal favorite). Tuna poppers and chicken liver toast were among the other “snack” options, the latter of which was a bit too comfortable for me. As was the case with most other dishes on the menu, the deviled eggs reflected a unique and delicious take on an old staple. The standard egg and cream flavor was pleasantly offset by the seemingly incompatible blend of sweet beets and savory horseradish. The flavors blended together marvelously and were a wonderful way to begin the meal.

Second Course
To follow up the initial bite, my companions and I selected a plate of Korean barbeque and a plate of tempura-fried popcorn shrimp. While each appetizer was OK, they were a bit of a letdown, probably given that such selections were not particularly reflective of Hodge’s soul-food mantra. The Korean chicken was a hearty plate of wings that were fried to perfection and coated in a light, sweet sauce. They were quite tasty, but didn’t particularly wow, especially for their $9 price tag. The shrimp were equally disappointing as $12 got us all but flavorless, previously frozen baby shrimp doused in a bland sauce unreflective of its “jalapeño” description.

Main Course
While the appetizers were notably mediocre, the main course put the outing on its back with absolutely delicious servings of braised veal short ribs and house-brined pork chop. In each case, the meat was phenomenally cooked. Truly, truly, truly, my veal short ribs were easily the most tender meat I have ever eaten. The pork chop was equally delectable as a crisp, flavorful outside provided the perfect textural contrast to a melt-in-your-mouth interior. Perhaps the best aspect of the meats was that, though doused in their respective sauces, only the deep, rich flavor of the meat dominated each bite. And the deliciousness didn’t stop there! The veal short ribs lay on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, adjacent to three stalks of fire-grilled asparagus. I was at a loss for words as the asparagus was as sweet, savory, salty, and magnificent as I have ever tasted, given the miserable weather we’ve experienced for months. Each plate cost less than $25 and was worth every penny.

In my opinion, no meal is complete without dessert. Thus, despite my loosened belt and drooping eyes, a dessert menu was a must. To my dismay, there were only two selections offered: an apple crisp and a flowerless chocolate brownie, topped with Mitchell’s chocolate ice cream. Naturally, we ordered both. While the Mitchell’s and brownie combination is basically the greatest thing ever in theory, in actuality, it was a bit overwhelming. The two chocolates did not complement one another and, in the end, had to be enjoyed separately. The apple crisp was markedly pedestrian. The apples were tart and the ice cream was sweet, but the $8 may have been better spent back home at the real Mitchell’s Ice Cream.

Fun Surprises
While every meal is predominately defined by the main courses, fun and pleasurable little details can make or break a dining experience. Hodge’s was full of little surprises that really made the meal a complete dining experience. One such surprise came at the end of the meal when our checks came in little red envelopes that read “the damage.” Also, throughout the meal, courses were broken up by small, free dishes that, to a table of large young men, were quite the treat. The snack course coincided with bowl of tater tots – need I say more? Our main course was preceded by a serving of corn bread as rich, textured, and tasty as I have ever eaten. One last detail, often overlooked during the dining experience, is the background music. Our meal was accompanied by number-one hit after number-one hit from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Repeatedly throughout the course of the meal, my companions and I broke our conversation to sing along to Bill Withers, The Beatles, and even Journey. I regret nothing.

Overall, Hodge’s offers a wonderful dining experience that pairs an upscale feel with home-grown dining at a mid-range price. Wonderful service, fantastic décor, and superb music complement remarkable dishes for a thoroughly positive dining experience. Given all of these factors and the intermixing of a few minor letdowns, I give Hodge’s four out of five stars and would gladly recommend it as a prime date location or for just a nice meal with hungry friends. Enjoy!