Diner: Destination: Dinner

Dayton's Meadowlark sparks memories of Mullane's

Dec 20, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Go: 2094 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Dayton

Call: 937-434-4750

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken and vegetarian options

Accessibility: Fully accessible

Grade: A-

Elizabeth Wiley stood in her packed dining room surveying the scene. A long, dark wooden bench runs along one wall. The rest of the room features tables that are filled with an eclectic collection of customers. The richly colored walls make the place cozy with the buzz of conversation and clinking of wine glasses.

Feet planted and arms akimbo, Wiley reminded me of a ship captain. The Meadowlark owner, a former co-owner of The Winds in Yellow Springs, spotted a table in need of bussing and rushed forward to get it ready for the folks contentedly sipping wine in her foyer.

Eating at The Meadowlark is much like eating at Mullane's in the old days.

It doesn't take long for you to realize that these folks care — about their food, their space, each other and their customers.

Many of the dinner guests knew each other, greeting and hugging as they run into each other at what is obviously a neighborhood favorite. For that neighborhood, down the street from the Dayton Mall and next to a half a dozen chains, The Meadowlark lights and unobtrusively offers a warm, cheery respite from the bland, cold chain experience that surrounds it.

After our "group bouche" — a little dish of lentil dip flavored with cumin and garlic and served with celery and crackers — we started with Slow Roasted Red Beets with horseradish, pecans and crumbled goat cheese ($5.95) and Garlic Fries ($5.95). The fries were sprinkled with salt, Parmesan and garlic and served with two housemade sauces — a caper mayonnaise and homemade ketchup. I liked the caper mayo best — it reminded me of a decadent fry-eating experience in New York. My friends preferred the clean flavor of the cumin-spiked ketchup.

The chef among us was impressed that the coarse pieces of salt and garlic actually stuck to our potatoes, noting it's not an easy task to achieve. We continued to refer to them as we nibbled at the beets.

I have to admit, I was suspicious of this appetizer choice. In my experience all beets taste like dirt, but I was pleasantly surprised to finally taste a beet dish that did not.

The entrée choices included a few vegetarian options such as Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Tofu ($10.95) and Ricotta Tacos with Green Chiles, Capers and Spicy Tomatoes ($14.95), but we all opted for the flesh as our main course.

My friend's decision on the Fish, Shrimp and Grits ($19.95) entrée was greeted with nodding approval by two women finishing their dinner. "Good choice," they confided as they walked past us. And they were right. The mahi mahi and popcorn shrimp were served with mushrooms, tomato, garlic, cumin and lemon over cheesy grits.

The flavors of the Niman Ranch Pork Tenderloin with Jezebel Sauce ($18.95) were just as tasty. The description of the sauce — a combination of peach preserves, mustard, horseradish and a shot of cream — was much creamier than I had envisioned, but the silky texture was nice with the pork, even if the meat was a bit overdone.

My Roast Chicken Thighs ($14.95) were an excellent winter dish. The thighs, from Dorothy Lane Markets, had feta and olives and ricotta tucked under the skin then were baked in a lemon, wine and stock. In a sauce-laden world, it's good to run across a simple dish that doesn't need to be covered up.

All of our entrees came with different starches, but unlike some of the hipper places The Meadowlark served the same vegetable with each dish — a mélange of roasted vegetables. It was homey touch, like someone invited us over for a good home-cooked meal.

For dessert we chose the Blood Orange Sorbet with Dave's mom's homemade peanut brittle ($3.95). Upon questioning, our server revealed that this "Dave" is Wiley's sous chef, Dave Rawson.

We also had the Buttermilk Chocolate Cake with a caramel toffee sauce ($5.95). The cake was a little dry, but the flavor was good and the soft, billowy homemade whipped cream was an excellent touch. We also tried the Warm Banana Fritters ($5.95), which came with two big scoops of real vanilla ice cream from Palazzolo's in Cleveland.

Dessert was slow in getting to us. Service seemed a little uneven as the place got busier, but you could tell everyone was trying to pitch in and put the customer first, a rare concept these days. Our server was friendly, though harried for a while, but her demeanor made us feel welcome.

Meadowlarks are prairie birds with bright yellow chest and a distinctive song. I couldn't find a connection between the state bird of Wiley's native Kansas, but I liked the sound. Wiley says she likes the name because it sounds friendly and not too "fancy pants." And that's just the kind of place The Meadowlark is. ©