Chris Hodgson has already had much success with his Dim and Den Sum food truck — even appearing on the Food Network's second season of The Great Food Truck Race with his second truck, Hodge Podge. All the fame and accolades for his gourmet street food is a tough act to follow.
But the young chef with a big personality took a chance by opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant with his partner Scott Kuhn last March. Running a 136-seat restaurant (plus a private room and large seasonal patio) with a staff of 40 serving dinner seven days a week (and lunch Monday through Friday) is a very different thing. It's tough to maintain the same edginess and spontaneity when you have to make real estate pay for itself and please a very diverse audience.
Hodgson and his staff have taken some time to find their footing and define a niche among the big dogs of downtown dining.
"We've gradually moved away from extremes toward more approachable cooking," says Hodgson. "Our first two menus were explorations of who we wanted to be and what our customers wanted to eat."
The third and current iteration, developed with executive chef John Roskowski, is the strongest, emphasizing easy to understand favorites, uncomplicated flavors and consistency of execution over the one-offs and grab-your-taste-buds stuff Hodgson is accustomed to doing, with just a few reminders of the Asian-inflected, over-the-top creations that launched his Cleveland career.
Korean fried chicken ($9) gives a nod to the old food truck days when Dim and Den Sum served up its popular curry duck tacos and milk-braised pork banh mi. The six plump wing pieces are covered with barbecue sauce, and deliciously messy to eat, especially after a dunk in the side of zesty "kimchiainaise."
The gnocchi ($11) is another equally appealing appetizer. Mushrooms and green herbs provide an earthy note — and a lovely aroma — while the grape syrup made by stewing the fruit with star anise, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaf deliver a touch of sweetness, amplified by a few roasted grapes tossed with the dumplings.
We suggest pairing either one with the baby kale and smoked mozzarella salad ($7.50). Speckled with crispy shallots, cubes of roasted apple and fennel shavings dressed in a shallot emulsion, it's full of interesting tastes and textures. Or you can turn it into an excellent entrée by going for a bigger portion ($10.50) and adding chicken, salmon or rack of lamb for an additional charge.
While the menu has evolved at Hodge's, a couple originals have survived. The goat cheese and leek tart ($8) — one of two dishes that remain from the opening — offers a flaky crust with mild custardlike filling that is offset by a dense full-bodied onion jam. The appetizer portion could easily be a main dish for the moderately hungry.
The popular ricotta and Gruyere ravioli ($19.50) in a dark, rich and beefy French onion soup reduction has also survived all the tweaking. But calorie counters and carbophobes beware, the bird bath-sized bowl of pasta comes topped with two slices of toasted cheesy bread.
Instead of the usual starch basket, every table gets a complimentary serving of sweet potato tater tots with a dipping sauce that changes often. (We are partial to the Southwestern chipotle aioli.) And if an entrée is ordered, a small cast iron skillet of moist cakelike cornbread arrives with a crock of whipped honey butter, also at no charge.
We're fans of hangar steak ($24), and the kitchen did a nice job, preparing it rare as requested. But what prompted us to get it here was all the other stuff that came along for the ride: tomato-ginger heirloom green beans, crisped and golden potato shards and a dollop of salsa verde, a tangy mix of parsley, vinegar, capers, garlic, onion, anchovies and olive oil.
It was a top-shelf piece of meat at a good price, and everything else on the plate was just as good.
Hodge's décor of barn wood meets industrial chic fits the chef's creative and eclectic personality.
The service was always friendly, but not always expert. An over-zealous busser asked if he could clear half-filled plates. When we requested that the bartender go light on the simple syrup in our cocktail, it came out bitter, and on the second try the waiter brought out the sweetener on the side and suggested we add it ourselves.
But that lack of finesse isn't keeping people away.
The place is typically bustling, with drinkers and diners spread out among the lounge area at the front, an adjoining room, another slightly larger space behind it and a second floor mezzanine. The crowds are evidence that Hodgson and Kuhn know just what it takes to make their customers happy.