When my whole small branzino with brown butter and butternut squash ravioli arrived at my table in the Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, I regarded the stuffing that filled its cavity with a certain dismay. There was a lot of tomato in it, and tiny croutons, and a bunch of other stuff I hadn't been expecting. I worried that the fish would be overpowered.
To my surprise, that didn't happen. The flavor of the Mediterranean fish shone through with its clear, delicate minerality, and the tomato filling positively bounced off the fish, brightening and highlighting rather than obscuring it. Lots of lemon saturated those little croutons, making each one a sunny explosion; and the brown butter conferred a mellow, nutty flavor that brought fish and filling together.
I love when that happens: when my expectations are confounded; when a chef tries something counter intuitive and brings it off. I would have been perfectly happy if the sweet squash ravioli underpinning the fish hadn't been on the plate, but they were agreeable enough, if one element too many.
And my hat is off to the execution of the hard-sear cooking method, which must be done with great exactitude to avoid overcooking the fish. This was perfect: the seared side of the fish so crisp-skinned you could peel it off and eat it like an ethereal fish chip or crackling, alternating with bites of the satiny flesh inside. That is exactly what I did, pausing for hits of the invigorating tomato filling.
Friends of mine who live in The Woodlands have been insisting for a while now that the bistro adjacent to and run by the fancy Hubbell & Hudson grocers has upped its game with a new chef and refreshed menu, with cooking that rivals fine restaurants inside the Loop. Based on that branzino, and on a lively Caesar salad with a stealth texture of flash-fried kale leaves, both crushed and whole, I'm thinking they have a point.
Hubbell & Hudson's executive chef these days is Austin Simmons, who was one of two sous chefs in thetoo-brief heyday of nearby Tesar's, which closed in 2010. (The other was Jeramie Robison, who went on to Cinq at La Colombe d'Or before becoming chef de cuisine at Austin's fabled Uchi.)
I even liked my dessert, a small brown-buttered banana cake with vanilla gelato and slices of bruleed banana. Only the rather dreary wines by the glass selection, and the flabbiness of a warm-room-temperature glass of Gary Farrell pinot noir that deserved better, interfered with my enjoyment. And I do wish my server had bothered to tell me the specials; I heard them only when another staffer told the next diner down the banquette from me.
All in all, though, I'd return with pleasure and raised expectations.
Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, 281-203-5641. L&D: Monday — Thursday 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.; Brunch: Saturday 11 a.m. — 3 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. — 3 p.m.; Dinner Sunday 3 p.m. — 9 p.m.