Style and substance
South Wedge bar and eatery channels old New York
It was one of the most glamorous nightspots in the world: the Stork Club. Between 1929 and 1965, the Manhattan venue was the favored destination of the upper crust and celebrities from around the world. Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway, the Vanderbilts, and J. Edgar Hoover frequented the club; golden days only documented now by fragmented stories and iconic black-and-white photos.
When husband and wife restaurateurs Greg and Jodi Johnson relocated to Rochester from New York City several years ago, they had visited the Stork Club’s exclusive club-within-a-club, the Cub Room, and dubbed their South Wedge restaurant its namesake. Greg, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, is also executive chef at the Cub Room and worked with big names like Mario Batali as well as operating his own spot in NYC. Jodi directs the front of house and is often the first smile to greet patrons on any given night.
Located on South Clinton Avenue on the edge of the Swillburg neighborhood, the Cub Room spans the entire first floor of a warehouse-like building next to McCann’s Local Meats. (Dozens of brightly lit lofts occupy the floors above the restaurant.) Raw wood columns, exposed brick, and an airy, open-floor-plan dining room with luxurious, leather booth seating tucked against a few walls creates an atmosphere that’s at once trendy and old school. Vintage photos of the Cub Room and Stork Club line the walls of the restaurant, and a stall inside the women’s room is papered with pages from The Great Gatsby.
A separate bar area with booth and stool seating makes for an ideal happy hour stop, but let’s be clear: every visit to the Cub Room should begin with—or include—a cocktail, no matter the time of night (or day, for that matter). The Cub Room’s cocktail program, headed by bar manager Anthony Rouhana, is experimental without straying from classics that feel native to the ambience. In addition to his house-made strawberry vermouth (used in jam for the famed donut holes on the dessert menu), Rouhana has collaborated with Black Button Distilling on Railroad Street to create a gin and a bourbon, both of which are featured prominently on the cocktail menu. (The Cub Room has also collaborated with Fifth Frame Brewing on beers and release parties.)
One recent meal started with the Fitzgerald (Haymen’s London Dry Gin, lemon, angostura bitters), a just-sweet-enough cocktail reminiscent of a Tom Collins or French 75 without the bubbles. The Cub Room cocktail (featuring Cub Room Gin, aperol, pamplemousse rose, honey, lemon) is almost too photo-worthy to sip before snagging a shot—but do it fast, because once you start drinking you won’t want to put it down. This one has more of a kick from the pamplemousse (grapefruit).
Loyalists to the Cub Room often rave about the Kale Caesar—a longtime fixture on the appetizer portion of the menu—a generous portion of massaged kale, shaved parmesan, and large, crunchy croutons tossed in a tangy dressing. It’s an earthier version of a Caesar, and vastly satisfying. The grilled octopus—also on the appetizer menu—is served on a bed of beluga lentils, grilled chicory, romescu (a Spanish, tomato-based sauce) and seasoned with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar. While the octopus could have been crispier, the dish’s flavors complement one another, and getting a bit of each flavor in one bite was key.
Every Friday and Saturday, the Cub Room creates a seasonal gnudi special. Gnudi resembles large gnocchi and is essentially dumplings made with semolina and ricotta rather than potato. The special on the evening of this visit featured fresh porcini mushroom cream, honey-roasted figs, chanterelle mushrooms, shaved parmesan, and aged balsamic. The result was creamy, dreamy you-could-eat-this-for-days delicious—and the tartness of the balsamic added a welcome counter to the rich flavors of the other ingredients.
The pork chop, like the kale salad, has been on the menu for a while—and for good reason. It’s popular, and frequently ordered. This isn’t your mama’s Shake ’n’ Bake pork chop. This is a bone-in, big-as-a-man’s-hand chop that’s expertly seared and served with artichoke puree, fingerling potatoes, spring onion, and a white port reduction drizzled over top.
For dessert, two options were sampled because a batch of the famous Cub Room Bourbon–glazed Manhattan doughnut holes filled with strawberry-rose vermouth jam appeared compliments of the house. The melt-in-your-mouth donuts are dessert enough for two, but we also ordered the Cub Room S’mores (housemade marshmallow, chocolate semifreddo, graham cracker brownie), a towering ode to the campfire treat. Pair it with black coffee, because this dessert is a sweet tooth’s paradise.
Between the bar program, elevated dinner and brunch menus, and the New York City–level service, the Cub Room has established itself as a top contender in the city’s fine dining scene. As Rochester’s food and drink culture continues to grow, places like the Cub Room are vital in educating patrons about what a good meal—and drink—tastes like, and how enjoyable the experience can be, given the right environment.
Leah Stacy is a food- and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.