The South — as a concept, not just as a place — is not an easy image to conjure this far west of the Mississippi. Sure, one can hang romantic sepia-toned blurry photographs of a bygone place along an empty wall. One can serve moonshine juleps in ball jars, fry chicken in bacon grease, and ask obliging servers to speak as soft and slowly as a South Carolina debutante. But these appropriations mean little if the food tastes like it was made far away from the Mason-Dixon. And as a displaced Southerner, I tend to be picky once a restaurant declares itself Southern.
Most of these restaurants fall into one of two categories. They’ll either take the barbeque approach or else they’ll compose a hodgepodge menu of obvious classics. Hutch, the new Southern spot behind the Paramount in Uptown Oakland, takes the latter approach.
The menu consists of around 20 items organized at once by size and cooking style. There are snacks, raw bar items, appetizers, large plates from the grill, a few dishes made with grits, and a standalone regular special of Brunswick stew. On Sundays they serve a rotating prix-fixe three-course Sunday Supper menu whose mains seem to be chosen on a whim. There will be Memphis-style roast pork one week and a big spaghetti dinner the next.
At first, this wide-ranging menu feels liberating: even with a relatively small selection, there is plenty of variety in terms of dish size and tone. It is easy to walk in and have whatever kind of meal you’d like. Whiskey, oysters, and some bar nuts before a show? Check. A gut-busting pork chop with a side of pimento cheese? They’ve got that too.
However, a menu of this diminutive size needs to be rock solid. Unfortunately, Hutch’s kitchen is still on shaky ground.
On a recent visit, we ordered the oysters of the day from the raw bar menu. We were served crisp, tender cove miyagis. Their subtle salinity was a perfect match to the red pepper and cucumber filled cider mignonette alongside. (You could also top the oysters with barbecue or cocktail sauce, but why ruin a perfect bivalve with all that sugar?) On another visit, they simply didn’t have oysters because their order never arrived. The other options — fishy, thickly sliced bourbon-cured salmon; over-pickled shrimp on mushy black eyed peas; and stringy, dry crawfish swimming in a flavorless swath of remoulade-like mayonnaise — didn’t fare any better.
Instead of ordering more seafood, grab a plate of the hushpuppies. Fluffy, and barely sweet, these corn and grilled scallion fritters exhibit the perfect balance between crisp shell and surprisingly light interior. The other snacks and small plates, like the clumpy and once again mayonnaise-heavy pimento cheese, have little soul. One hopes that Benton’s country ham, truly the finest in Kentucky cured meats, makes an appearance on the restaurant menu, just as it does on the website.
The centerpiece of Hutch’s menu is a trio of savory grits dishes. The grits are the same on each plate, but the toppings (shrimp, fried fish, and grillades of veal) have their own special sauces. Given these dishes’ prominence in the menu, one expects the best the kitchen has to offer. Yet if the shrimp and grits are any indication, Hutch still has a lot of work to do. Even though the shrimp are cooked properly, they lose all of their character behind the oppressively salty tomato-based “Creole” sauce dumped unceremoniously on a bed of far too-cheesy grits.
Better to stick with the rabbit Brunswick stew, a well-executed mélange of meats, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn. The rabbit meat crowned atop the stew is tender and plenty rich, with a faint funk that reflects the stew’s origins as a meal for utilizing leftover game. The crown of hushpuppies, this time filled with jalapeňos, is a nice touch. Eat them quickly before they turn to corn mush.
Even more impressive than the stew is the whiskey selection. The reasonably priced menu features 40 bourbons, 14 ryes, four Tennessees, five moonshines (these shine in the house moonshine julep that is as authentic as you can get without a julep glass), and an assortment of other whiskeys and whiskys from elsewhere around the globe. A two-fingered pour costs anything from $6 to $52 (for a 23-year Rip Van Winkle). The list is not as inclusive as at Acme Bar in Berkeley or Hard Water across the Bay, but it’s safe to say that there’s a whiskey for most everyone on that list.
The fact that Hutch’s menu is hit-or-miss may be a symptom of its newness; given the greatness of the Brunswick stew, the rest of the food could prove up to par given another 6 or 8 months. Yet the restaurant’s bigger problem is its lack of identity. Hutch is trying to be at once a Creole-esque seafood restaurant, a grits-emporium, an elevated soul food joint, and a whiskey bar. Any one of these concepts would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood, but this combination feels more like a clumsy caricature of a region than a love story to a cuisine.
Recommended dishes: Oysters of the day, rabbit Brunswick stew, grilled scallion hushpuppies, moonshine julep.
Hutch Bar and Kitchen: 2022 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, 510-419-0622, 5-10pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30am-2:30pm Sunday Brunch, 5-9pm Sunday Supper.
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
Rib-sticking soul food: the original Oakland cuisine? (12.04.12)
Bookmark Berkeleyside NOSH for East Bay food news and stories, and follow Berkeleyside NOSH on Twitter, and on Facebook.