Dinner at Merchants Social in Hudson often superb but a bit soulless

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Merchants Social, a new Hudson restaurant from John DeLucie, the New York City chef and restaurateur behind the two-location Ainslie and the iconic Empire Diner, is finally in business after building-code issues halted a May opening. As the story goes, DeLucie was convinced to open a restaurant upstate by the perfection of an organically fermented croissant from cult-favorite Breadfolks Bakery (now closed). While I like to imagine DeLucie having an epiphany with croissant in hand, anyone with his access to his deep-pocketed backers might have recognized the opportunity to move into the Warren Street corner spot vacated by Ca’Mea when it moved down the street. 

In contrast with the predecessor’s dark wood paneling, Merchants Social has been opened and lightened to an airy elegance with walls and ceilings painted like mottled birch bark, the long bar glistening in glass and brass and treasures of a raw bar tucked in a bed of glittering ice. Dining room walls are now covered in a silver velvet, like lichen on rock, for aesthetic and acoustic effect, while the once-hidden kitchen is open to the room and frames the movements of chefs in white uniforms like a culinary play.

Merchants Social

Address: 333 Warren St., Hudson

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday

Prices: Main food menu, $7 to $36; raw bar, $2.50 to $95; cheese and charcuterie, $19 to $35; cocktails, $10 to $14; wine by the glass, $14 to $19; by the bottle, $46 to $190. Full liquor license pending.

Info: 518-697-5005 and merchantssocial.com

Etc: Street parking. Disabled-accessible

 


That play is the kind of love letter to local farms that we have come to expect from transplanted city chefs. (There are a full 46 farms named on the website.) But Executive Chef Kevin Rubis, most recently of Kingston’s Hutton Brickyards, tweaks the supporting acts of his seasonal menu weekly to reflect the growing season and readiness of kitchen veggies put up to ferment. Pickled turnips, celery and grapes grace plates like pops of acid; clues to an alchemist kitchen are in smoked-onion yogurt deployed alongside seasonal summer squash, or masala granola and popped sorghum scattered over leaves of kale for a diminutive minefield of flavor bombs and textural treats.

Cleanly shucked oysters brim with brine, the mignonette and hot sauce unneeded but a platonic ideal. A future visit to the bar might warrant a dozen followed by the cheese and charcuterie chosen from the in-town purveyors Talbott & Arding, once the full liquor license arrives. In the meantime, wines curated by neighbor Hudson Wine Merchants are a playlist of natural and boutique wines including a juicy frappato presented in its short stubby bottle and selected by vintners who sell vinegar in same-shaped vessels. For now, specialty cocktails are limited to amari and fortified wines in pleasant but clear placeholders for future creativity: The Bamboo makes use of sherry and dry vermouth with aromatic bitters and lemon peel amplifying bitter notes, and the Cappelletti Spritz of summer 2022 that feels a shade too sweet. 

Menu choices are listed as “From the kitchen,” which I find a nice way for guests to mix and match without laboring over which course comes first. Though we skipped the $7 bread and green garlic butter, the kitchen sent it out, a complementary onion-rosemary focaccia boule with springy crumb and crunchy crust, and I knew I’d been identified on sight.  

There’s smoothness to service overseen by partner/general manager Jaime Donato; plates glide onto white-clothed tables, depositing florets of shawarma-spiced fried cauliflower with tomato, onion and cilantro in Middle Eastern flair, and tahini-licked kale hiding marcona almonds and those consciousness-expanding pickled grapes. There’s something honest about a menu with only a dozen savory choices and just four — chicken, trout, eggplant, steak — that meet the criteria and price of mains. The hanger steak is impeccable, seared rare, juicy and dotted with a transcendent bone-marrow butter. The slices float on naturally sweet celeriac puree, while bitter greens and pickled celery cause subtle ricochets that redirect the brain. 

Interestingly, it’s neither interior nor food that makes first or last impression but the acutely “new Hudson” patrons: a trio of 30-somethings in haute fashion, one dining in a puffy rain jacket that stops just below his nipples (unhelpful when it rains); and an older woman in a deconstructed chocolate suit with exposed seams wrapped in orange piping. A family of five — we imagine the three adults as a throuple with kids — is hemmed in by their stroller and a fussy baby, so a free-range toddler makes an attempt to swipe our bread. No judgment — I’ve been in their position — and the Merchants Social website makes clear that children are welcome and, on the patio, dogs too. But just as I know the sun will rise, there will be those who grumble about the menu’s tiny print in baby blue ink and those for whom OPB (Other People’s Babies) will dampen the mood.

Merchants Social exudes such a swanlike elegance that the frenzied paddling of feet is hidden beneath the surface. This can be a good thing in the sense of serene, well-timed service and beautiful wine pours enjoyed by a peaceable clientele nibbling away. But scripted perfection can also feel like color-by-numbers, attaining proof of concept but leaving a certain ennui in the air. While my guest and I ponder what’s missing, the answer comes in two desserts that are elevated in design and unmemorable in taste. The best part of the buttermilk panna cotta is the pretty bowl in which it’s served, the roasted grapes, rosemary, candied pistachio, brown butter and lavender flowers fighting but having no final say. A chocolate pudding with banana crumb, hazelnut and cherry puree is pretty but forgettable once cleared away. 

At the bar, where clams and oysters sit behind glass, the empty backbar awaits a full complement of liquor, which I suspect will have broad appeal for those seeking comfort in a cozy living room or the soon-to-be-enclosed and heated courtyard. It’s hard to find fault in the farm-inspired small plates, pretty decor and competent service that Hudson’s newer restaurants generally do well.

But perhaps it’s beginning to feel like a facsimile — tropes seen and tried — and missing the joie de vivre suggested in their chosen name. The lingering question is not whether they are doing well, but how they can distinguish themselves in an already close field.  

 

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