When a place opens with the ambitions of shannon Wynne’s Mudhen Meat and Greens, you can’t help but want it to do well. The concept, spelled out in a paragraph on the menu, is full of earnest optimism. Develop a menu that’s varied and vibrant. Play to our best aspirations for health. Set up a space that’s playful, with crushed tin cans doubling as shingles on a brightly painted shed outside and a cow sculpture whose udder is a fountain. Bring life and presence to the newly remodeled Dallas Farmers Market. Make it a destination.
But it’s one thing to open a vegetable-forward restaurant in a farmers market, with kale and cherry tomatoes growing in planters outside and basil hanging above the patio. To have a nutritionist help guide the menu and post chalkboards that list daily vegetables. It’s quite another to cook in a way that enhances that bounty.
To lead the kitchen, Wynne tapped Suki Otsuki, who helped open his Meddlesome Moth and was most recently sous-chef at Lark on the Park. “It was perfect for me,” she says. “I feel like I eat this way anyway. It was healthful and it was exciting.”
But it presents a challenge in training. Health-conscious touches may be subtle: soaked almonds, non-dairy cashew creams, meats cooked at low temperatures to limit carcinogens. It’s still like transposing key signatures. “I was introducing these cooks: ‘These are whole grains, and you cook them longer. These are liquid aminos and it’s like soy, but it’s not soy,’ ” Otsuki says. “You have to be really driven and taste it and learn. But everybody seemed really excited to be learning.”
My first visit was far from vibrant. The best way to fall in love was not the raw “angel hair,” a mess of spiralized root vegetables in a grainy, curdle-textured walnut “cream” sauce. Carrot cake made with apple and parsnips could have been fluffy with grated carrot; its denseness felt like punishment.
So did interminable waits. Things weren’t bad, but they weren’t inspiring. Plates were sloppy. And service presaged future visits, when servers might forget to return with spoons or the answer to a question, or forget to clear half the table, so dessert arrived in a wreckage of plates. Servers were sunny, but things felt very green. “I actually have no idea, but it must be in line with the chef’s theory” was one server’s cheerful response to a question. Sometimes I wondered if they had stepped outside between courses to grow the vegetables.
I waited two months before I returned. I hoped they’d iron out the kinks, tune the timing, tighten the plates. But a second visit was worse.
A dip duo came with a lovely collection of crudités, kale chips, and a beet muhammara gently sweet with pomegranate molasses. But the chunky bean gruel of a hummus was laced with shishito peppers that had an unsettling fermented fizziness.
Slices of gorgeous 44 Farms flat-iron steak had all the makings of a standout dish. But a long stint in a garlicky, citrusy marinade had left the meat strangely sour, cured like ceviche. On the same plate, a cauliflower purée, pale and weepy, had the leached-out flavor of a crucifer cooked within an inch of its life, sulfurous and embittered, and the avocado slaw’s avocado was little more than a wetness.
The Pad Thai Crisp salad that sounded so refreshing was a gloppy mound of shredded cabbage, broccoli sprouts, cashew pieces, and transparent kelp noodles drowning in vinegary coconut-cashew cream. The cabbage was so unevenly hacked, I imagined manic machete wielders lobbing cabbage heads at one another in the back. And the browned edges of lime wedges and cabbage shreds done in big batches looked tired.
What could be a Garden of Eden showed a disappointing trend of snuffing out the vitality of produce rather than bringing it out.
I love the breadth of the chalkboard’s vegetable offerings. Solo, they come to the table in gondola-shaped dishes. Broccolini or blistered shishito peppers stand up to a little harsh treatment. More delicate treasures suffered. Otsuki admits the daily rotation is a challenge, the board a roster of skills to be taught: “Every day they walk in and it’s different.” Unfortunately, this plays out on the plate.
Sugar snap peas had been robbed of sweetness and snap. Overcooked favas were drab. Fiddlehead ferns, which can have a wonderful, tender asparagus flavor, were variegated brown and green. Not from a gentle pan sear. The discoloration leaking from cut, bruised ends was spoilage. I would have excised every frond from the plate. Instead, I was served a platter of vegetable rot.
Aside from troubled waters, there were reasons to return. In general, Otsuki treats fish gently and well. Curried red fish was served over braised greens with a light lapping of red curry sauce. Among the meats, long-braised green-chile pulled pork was excellent, bright with lime and cilantro, a fine example of the kitchen’s approach to layering flavor without adding weight. A tomahawk Duroc pork chop, a bit salty from its marinade, bore handsome grill marks. The whole-grain risotto on which it rested was a treasure, with freekeh, wheat berries, and farro melting into a soft, creamy base. Strands of pickled spring onions added zing, and an apricot mostarda had the nectar sweetness of a sun-gorged fruit. Nothing convinced me they’re using their pastry chef to their best advantage. (I visited five times in total, riding out the rocky beginning.)
The flailing execution seemed the product of a young, ambitious chef overwhelmed and lacking trained staff. The spirit was present, but not the undergirding foundation.
And then came brunch. They’d taken their time to roll out the menu, and it was as though a wind had swept through. Plates came out looking fresh and green; service had picked up, too. Green eggs and ham, a playful take on eggs Benedict, had poached eggs wearing a sash of pesto and encircled by a snaggletoothed haystack of frisée. Whole-grain pancakes were unevenly cooked, but wonderful in flavor, topped with a bouffant of whipped Greek yogurt and stellar plum-strawberry house preserves. Finally, it felt like they were playing to their strengths. Avocado toast came with house-cured beet and fennel sauerkraut and a halved egg on walnut-scallion bread. An open-faced enchilada stacked black been purée and cauliflower “rice” between corn tortillas and topped the stratas with whipped avocado and a sunny-side-up egg playfully strafed with chile-spiked Sriracha vinaigrette.
You could feel that Otsuki has taken inspiration from the breezy new brunch crop of Los Angeles, though she’s built in a hearty, homey coziness, too. “I really wanted that California lightness,” she says. “I wanted to use a lot of bright, fresh flavors and greens. So you could come to the market and have this great brunch and then walk around and not feel like you want to take a nap.”
In this context, small things could shine. A cup of the house bone broth, made with bones from their free-range rotisserie chickens, is rich and light-bodied, fragrant with oregano and rosemary and finished with a bright zing of lemon—like the prelude to the most wonderful chicken-noodle or Greek orzo soup. Smoothies are thick with goodness, not ice. (The Mercantile with coconut milk, pineapple, and matcha is delicious; the Thanksgiving Square with sweet potato and spiced almond milk is a good idea, though unremittingly starchy.) And “crack” coffee, magically aerated with a slip of local pasture-fed butter, turns coffee to velvet.
Here are foundations full of thought and heart. More training will make a rich soil in which things can grow. If they would just stop snuffing the life out of the vegetables.