'I'm gonna have the alfalfa sprouts, and a plate of mashed yeast."
That was Woody Allen ordering in a Los Angeles health food restaurant in his 1977 film Annie Hall.
The scene came rushing back to me each time I dined at Mudhen Meat and Greens, the new health-focused restaurant at the Dallas Farmers Market.
I thought about it when I dipped spring rolls filled with kelp noodles, raw carrots, cabbage and avocado in tahini-miso sauce. The rolls were wrapped not in stretchy rice paper, but in sturdy, wet, blanched collard leaves.
They weren't bad; their clear kelp noodles, which look like mung bean threads, had a nice crunch. A dab of Sriracha vinaigrette added zing. But I wouldn't be excited to order them again.
It's a noble, apt and appealing idea Shannon Wynne and his partners had for the place: healthful, produce-forward cooking. Wynne, whose group also owns Lark on the Park, the Meddlesome Moth, Rodeo Goat and other restaurants, and his executive chef, Suki Otsuki (whose last gig was as sous chef at Lark) enlisted the help of local nutrition consultant Mark Herrin as they developed the menu. Their idea of what's healthful is based on sound, widely accepted principles: Put the focus on vegetables, whole grains, wild seafood and pastured rather than factory-farmed meats and poultry, and minimize the use of sugars and refined carbohydrates. There are many choices for vegans and vegetarians.
What I find baffling, nearly 40 years after Woody Allen ordered the mashed yeast, is the idea that putting great produce and other he center winds up looking and tasting more like what the doctor ordered than what a chef created.
A kidney-shaped tray holding clunky hummus flecked with shishito peppers and a beet muhammara that never let you forget you were ingesting a superfood came with carelessly sliced raw celery and carrot sticks and steamed cauliflower, kale chips and seeded crisps. Six months after Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov's stunningly easy recipe for perfect silken hummus went viral, you'd think a high-profile restaurant could turn out something more refined than the stuff that comes in a plastic tub in the supermarket.
Nevertheless, you can eat well at Mudhen, and for a very reasonable price. I enjoyed a whole branzino steamed with herbs and lemon and set on nicely dressed arugula. The dish, meant to serve two, does so amply for $32. Osuki, in fact, has a flair for fish: She poaches salmon and serves it warm (love that idea!) over frilly red kale in a vibrant Asian-accented vinaigrette. The salmon isn't wild, but comes from a North Atlantic outfit called Wild Island; it tastes much better than most farmed salmon. Unfortunately the parsnip purée on the plate, heavy and one-note, drags it down.
In terms of their style, those two fish treatments express an appealing modern American aesthetic that has much more in common with the cooking at, say, Lark on the Park than with a plate of mashed yeast.
The dining room's aesthetic is less alluring: The sprawling, high ceilinged hall feels like a school cafeteria. Posters inspired by vintage produce crate labels decorate one wall above utility shelving crammed with cartons; Texas farm road signs adorn another. At either end hang enormous blackboards listing that day's available produce. Still, the room feels cold.
It was nearly empty on a recent balmy Sunday evening; a small side patio (the "cow porch") was the place to be. We gave the hostess our name and waited for a table; the much larger "beer garden" patio, with its view of the downtown Dallas skyline, was not in use. We were glad we waited: Sitting there was lovely.
That patio was just as delightful at lunchtime on another gorgeous day, when a friend and I chatted over sandwiches: a messy yet likeable smoked Arctic char Reuben on marble rye for me, an egg salad sandwich for her. I wished the roughly chopped, sparsely dressed egg salad was more luscious; slices of watery out-of-season tomato didn't help.
The center of the menu – the same at lunch and dinnertime – is B.Y.O.B., which stands for build your own bowl (though happily they're more like shallow soup plates). Choose a meat, fish or poultry from column A ($7 to $9), vegetable or vegetables from column B ($4 each) and a starch from column C ($3 each), in any combination you like.
This delighted my 10-year-old friend Eliza one evening, as her parents did not require her to choose anything from the vegetable column. She went for flat-iron steak from 44 Farms and fingerling potatoes. Eliza's was a winner: gorgeously medium-rare, well seared slices of super flavorful steak (about 6 ounces) fanned out next to roasted halved fingerlings. Way to go, Eliza! That's a nice plate for $12.
Her dad's bowl – mounds of pulled rotisserie chicken, leeks and parnsip purée – looked like mess hall food, though the flavors were on point. Eliza's mom chose "Suki's daily bowl," not a great success: poached Arctic char whose delicate flavor was clobbered by mashed sweet potatoes and not particularly well served by roasted cauliflower florets. It was nearly spring, and I kept wishing more greens were in evidence on the non-custom dishes.
Yet the staff's warm attentiveness to the needs of Eliza, whose celiac disease requires her to eat strictly gluten-free, made the evening a success. Only nine of the menu items contain gluten (you can ask your server for a list of them), and all of these can be tweaked to make them gluten free. Gluten-free bread is available for sandwiches. Eliza is also allergic to nuts and a few other ingredients, but our thoughtful server made sure the chef heeded a list provided by Eliza's mom. Best of all, she made Eliza feel special in a good way.
I'm glad we skipped dessert that night, as they are not a strong suit – which is surprising as pastry chef Laurel Wimberg is one of the more talented in the city. Adding avocado to a chocolate mousse only makes it taste weird. Greek yogurt panna cotta topped with grapefruit and orange supremes is a better idea, but I wouldn't brag about sprinkling Truvia on top. (Ick.) When a server announces, "Our binding agent tonight is going to be sweet potato" in describing the carrot cake, there's probably still work to be done.
But there is much to like at Mudhen, starting with the fact that its heart is in the right place. The patio could wind up being a great hangout this summer. B.Y.O.B doesn't mean alcohol's not served: There are cocktails, a good selection of craft beers on draft and a cursory wine list. If you don't want alcohol, try the delicious watermelon cooler.
If its chef and owners can embrace the idea that healthful food does not have to look and taste like health food, perhaps Mudhen can grow into a graceful mud swan.
Mudhen Meat and Greens (2 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (Appetizers and salads $8 to $16; sandwiches $9 to $15; bowls start at $10; main courses $15 to $24, or $32 for a branzino for two; desserts $7 to $9)
Service: Attentive and thoughtful
Ambience: The sprawling, high-ceilinged dining room with bare white tables and '50s-style dinette chairs feels like an indoor farmers market; there are also two inviting patios.
Noise level: The dining room has never been very busy when I visited, and conversation was easy; noise was not a problem on the patio even when busy
Location: 900 S. Harwood St., Dallas; 214-698-7000; mudheninthe.net
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with about a dozen craft beers on draft. The poorly labeled, vintage-less wine list – 11 whites and 11 reds, all available by the glass or bottle – feels like an afterthought.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50