In a town with a major university and a relatively sophisticated, well-traveled populace, Davis has few appealing options for fine dining.
The Mustard Seed has endured and thrived since it opened in 1984. People love the patio in summer and spring, and they ask for tables inside near the fireplace when the weather turns wintry.
The restaurant has always showcased top- quality ingredients with a straightforward approach to cooking, and a menu that changes with the seasons.
Mustard Seed tends to fall short in what it does with those ingredients. It's straightforward to a fault – not fun enough, not cheeky enough and not interesting enough to make us love it – or even remember it.
Mustard Seed is locked in the most competitive restaurant category in the region, considering its price point and style of cooking. It's up against Waterboy, Mulvaney's, Ella, Ambience, Taste and Hawks – restaurants that distinguish themselves with professional-caliber service and a creative bent in the kitchen. They turn out food that not only satisfies but also inspires.
During our visits to Mustard Seed, we enjoyed nearly every dish. But there were no epiphanies, no surprises and certainly no thrills. We were happy, occasionally puzzled, mostly content and partly frustrated that a restaurant with this much goodwill built up over all those years was not more willing to take chances and reach for more.
Is this the restaurant's fault? Maybe not, for who would ask a business that continues to be full most nights to change its approach?
Is it the fault of the customer who is, supposedly, always right? In this case and in this city, maybe the customers are complacent.
Pork chops sitting atop mashed potatoes? A pretty fair rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes and topped with large onion rings that simply weren't crisp enough? Macadamia-crusted halibut with black rice that turned out a tad too dry and a featured crust that wasn't crusty enough? A grilled rack of lamb with more of that dry black rice?
This is a road map that takes the middle of the road. No one gets hurt. Everyone is safe and well-rested.
And the trip? Well, let's just say we won't be talking about it a year from now, possibly because we can't remember it.
All the dishes we encountered were clearly sourced well. The beef, the fish, the pork were good quality. But the overall thinking of the menu left us with a question we should never have to ask when we sit down at a restaurant that proposes to do fine dining: Where are we again?
The menu is a list of food looking for an identity. What is the restaurant's theme? What is the chef's style? What does this place stand for? What culinary adventure are we about to encounter?
There were inconsistencies that puzzled us, too. We had a very fine server one evening on the patio and a server on another occasion we will charitably call rough around the edges. When she greeted us at the front door – and when we informed her we did not have reservations – she turned to the owner and described us, in a rather loud voice, as "walk ins."
Yes, we walked in someplace when we were hungry and hoping to spend $75, but it was clunky and jarring to hear us labeled that way.
The lesson here is a simple one when talking about fine-dining restaurants that occasionally flub the little things. Fine dining is a fantasy of sorts – as customers, we look at a list of things, we ask for some of them and in minutes someone brings them to us to enjoy. The restaurant's staff is onstage during service, and employees should remain in character for the fantasy to be maintained.
Imposing labels and in-house jargon on customers takes us out of the fantasy.
If that was a misstep, the wine service was a flub that left a bitter taste. During one dinner on the patio, five of us talked about the impressive wine list, which focuses entirely on California labels. Yet, the white wines were served too cold – muting the subtleties in flavor and bouquet until they warmed up – and the reds were significantly too warm – giving them all the drinkability of vinegar.
The food worked for us, but it simply didn't do enough to place Mustard Seed among the heavy hitters on the fine-dining scene.
The grilled herbed polenta appetizer was excellent, though its overall presentation with a small salad seemed clunky, as if the organic greens were simply filler. The beef carpaccio featured tissue-thin sheets of beef we wished we could have tasted – instead we sensed nothing on the palate except a dousing of truffle oil. The gazpacho was decent, if too ordinary.
The rib-eye was quite good each time we tried it, though we wished for something more sophisticated in the overall thinking of the dish. Those onion rings were charming, and made us think of a bistro, maybe even a truck stop, but they would only work at a restaurant like this if they were something extraordinary. I could tell they were limp by looking at them. That usually means the culprit is oil that isn't hot enough – it is absorbed into the batter before the batter starts to crisp.
Perhaps the finest entree on the menu was the one that required the least amount of heat. The pan-seared ahi tuna was simple and delicious – a wonderful slab of fish, accompanied by crispy wontons and wasabi potatoes.
For a bargain entree, the gnocchi with basil was an appealing option, featuring the bright and bitter flavor of basil with the saltiness of Kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Throw in some toasted pine nuts and you're serving up a pretty fair vegetarian option.
The desserts were a pleasant surprise both for their range and their quality. The best of those was the delightful, decadent twist on traditional bread pudding. It took this pauper's staple from the old country, in which stale bread is reimagined, and instead used croissants, chocolate and a rich custard to make it something special.
It was fun, it was daring. And it made us wish for more of the same throughout a straightforward menu that took us on a journey that was so strait-laced we probably won't remember it for long.
The Mustard Seed
222 D St. No. 11, Davis
Hours: Dinner, Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. till close; lunch Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m.
Full bar? Beer and wine only.
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.
Overall 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The competition is stiff in the upscale dining category, and Mustard Seed holds its own with quality ingredients, solid cooking and pleasant surroundings. But the menu is straightforward to a fault, lacking creative approaches that distinguish the best restaurants and elevate the dining experience.
Food 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The meals here will always be solid and of good quality – steaks, pork chops, rack of lamb, scallops – and if you're not seeking out a "wow factor," you will be content dining here regularly. To get better, the kitchen must create dishes that give Mustard Seed a distinct personality, to the delight of the adventurous food lover.
Service 2 stars (fair)
Jarring, rough around the edges, knowledgeable, not-so-knowledgeable. Which server will you get? More consistency through better training and supervision will lead to improvement here.
Ambience 3 stars (good)
The best part of dining at Mustard Seed is simply being there, whether it is out back on the cozy patio or inside at the closeknit tables.
Value 2 1/2 stars
The Alaskan halibut was $26, but I am told wholesale halibut prices have skyrocketed. For that price, a more careful and/or creative approach is called for to make this appealing but rather bland-tasting fish seem worth the money. The pork chop is $19, rack of lamb $22, rib-eye $26, scallops $21. These are all within reason for fine dining.