Hutch Bar & Eatery and its restaurant sibling, Toast, share a great commonality: warmth. It’s present in the cozy, modern décor, the just-right lighting and the faces of the servers and hosts. Having visited Toast several times — as well as its fondly remembered restaurant kin Estilo, which closed mid-June — I wasn’t surprised to walk in and find friendly service at every turn: co-owners Jessica and Josh Bufford and co-owner/executive chef Ian Kinker are adept at building a comfortable, casual atmosphere in which to highlight comfortable, casual American fare.
But while the West End restaurant’s welcoming experience succeeds in spades, the food itself can feel a bit too casual. A number of dinner dishes felt like sums of their parts: the salad greens came out half-tossed in a rather shy vinaigrette, with the rest of the veggies thrown overtop entirely unseasoned. The farrotto entrée seemed to be a helping of farro sitting in half and half, and like the salads, its toppings of ham, spinach and artichoke fought against a bland base. The oyster po’ boy came out nearly sauceless, despite promising Duke’s Mayonnaise and mignonette; this made for a dry, reach-for-your-drink eating endeavor, and when you’re looking forward to something as lip-smacking as a heap of fried oysters packed into a crisped boat of bread that’s oozing rémoulade, this is nothing short of a tragedy.
But the oysters themselves, both on the po’ boy and on the Rockefeller salad, were light, crunchy golden nuggets of excellence — no mean feat, because it can be tough to perfect a cornmeal crust without each morsel depositing half of the fryer’s grease onto the plate. The house-made corndog appetizer, unfortunately, did exactly that, and the almost funnel-cake-like batter came out far too heavy. Another fried selection, the generously portioned chicken dinner, delivered a satisfying crunch but the meat was sea-level salty after marinating in a pickle juice brine, and it overwhelmed any flavor it might have otherwise achieved. Lastly, a dining companion who ordered the vegetarian meatloaf — a mixture of spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms, with a veggie binder — noted that it became flavorless after a few bites.
Salmon atop kale salad with farro, carrot, onion, squash, Parmesan, mint and bacon at Hutch Bar & Eatery. (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
Lunch bumped things up a notch. A fresh, bright salmon-and-kale salad loaded with veggies delighted the table and made us all feel healthy enough to skip the gym that day — until the sandwiches and burgers arrived. The simpler, the better was the name of the game; the turkey and avocado sandwich with muenster, and the fixin’-stacked burger impressed, though the French dip’s beef could have used more seasoning and tenderness. I’m always thrilled to learn that a restaurant cuts its own fries, but ours arrived soggy and steeped in grease; a total mood-killer.
Toast Burger with cheese, applewood bacon, greens, fried pickle and fried onion. (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
Sunday brunch was easily the star of our visits, and it began with a maple-drizzled bang: Hutch’s killer pancakes are loaded with chocolate chips, bacon, banana and peanut butter. “But Bird,” you say, “you just finished lamenting heavy, fatty food.” Yes. And these are not that. They’re cloud-fluffy with pan-crisped edges, and the chef uses a light hand with the sweet additions. Also devoured was the Breakfast Club — a smart take on the club sandwich — featuring layers of egg, cheddar, Gruyère, turkey and bacon. Pesto hollandaise and Smithfield ham on the Green Eggs & Hash made for a decadent platter, also enjoyed.
Loaded Pancakes featuring bacon, chocolate, peanut butter and banana. (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
The thread that linked most of Hutch’s dishes, and which unraveled the success of some, was an inattention to the marriage of flavors and textures. Nicely prepared ingredients lost character on the plate because they were proportioned too lightly, too heavily or with more aggressive tastes. It’s an issue that can easily be tweaked, and luckily, the West End restaurant is only a few months in. The happy attitudes and fried oysters will get me back in the door until the kinks are ironed out.