East Bay Express
Today, its meandering garden is in midsummer riot, choked with savagely fertile cornstalks and zucchini plants whose floppy blossoms look like shreds of apricot-colored silk. It makes you think that this has got to be any chef's dream. But for Darren Robey, stepping into the kitchen at Mudd's last February was more like slipping into a nightmare.
"I got there and I was offended," the 39-year-old executive chef said. "Deeply."
Robey might be, I don't know, the tenth chef to take up the kitchen clipboard at this place with a close connection to food on the stalk, a restaurant that first breathed life in 1981. His dismay had everything to do with years of neglect: a battered kitchen infrastructure, and cooks not quite up to the task of crafting a destination cuisine to go with Mudd's destination setting.
Thirty years ago, Virginia Mudd bought ten acres at the east end of Crow Canyon, which links the Diablo Valley watershed to the bay. She hoped for a teaching garden that could sell its produce to local restaurants, and when few were interested, she opened her own. But Virginia was no Alice, and the house that Mudd built favored education and local ecology more than anything as purely frivolous as cuisine. And with its undulating cedar-plank ceiling and prim cottage feel, the restaurant smacks of nature worship with more than a whiff of the Norse. Mudd sold off and moved to Santa Fe in 1991. Current owner John Ebert was general manager beginning in the late '80s.
Today, San Ramon is right up against Mudd's sprawling idyll, and the restaurant finds itself in the midst of an office-park landscape. Fortunately, Virginia Mudd left her tangled-looking gardens in the city's hands, to stay in food production forever. The city cultivates the dense patch near the stone patios as a demo garden for kids from local schools to explore, and also sells relatively small amounts of produce to the kitchen. Farther out, the land's a patchwork of community plots.
When I first explored this place in 2005, the menu's signature flourish was quiche. Quiche. As if it were perpetually 1982, and eggy pie was just the thing to get you in the car for the half-hour drive through the tunnel. But Robey has dragged the menu from the musty depths of the Reagan years and into the greenhouse-gassed air of the 21st century. Already, Mudd's is teetering on the cusp of being a destination worth the journey. Just make sure you've got a credit card juiced up with plenty of limit.
At lunch a couple of weeks ago, quiche was gone from the menu. Instead there was a fried soft-shell crab sandwich, all spidery, tempura-battered legs sticking out of its bun in a way that felt like a warning: Mudd's has crept ever so slightly into edgy.
At the next table, a lady with white hair was complaining to the manager that the rémoulade on her soft-shell sandwich was too spicy. The manager reassured her, somewhat unconvincingly, that he'd scold the kitchen. And when he pointed to another white-haired lady at the same table who didn't seemed to mind the rémoulade, White-Haired Lady Number One raised a thin voice of exasperation: "She's younger than I am!"
But there was nothing to apologize for. This was a sammy that seemed at peace with itself: a vaguely sealike whiff of crab framed by its dark sheath of batter, creamy rémoulade, and even creamier avocado. It came with a little cluster of roasted banana fingerlings that looked like they'd be leaden but which tasted just right: salty, crisp-edged, potato-y sweet, and chewy. Better than fries.
At dinner one night, an appetizer of seared scallops seemed just as contemporary, and every bit as effortless. In the pan, the sauté cook had fused a tasty mantle of brown to the little muscles, while keeping the insides quivering and translucent. Rusky shreds of frisée and a drift of pan-fried chanterelles mingled with the scallops over a viscous sauce that looked like lumpy béchamel. In fact, it was a kind of roughly puréed soubise: long-cooked onion, maybe a bit of rice, and cream. Its earthy sweetness was just right for the dish.
The entrées' grand scale seems fitting for a destination place, even as I found myself yearning for slightly smaller plates with more jewel-like sparkle. Set in the rubble of panzanella (bread salad) stained terra-cotta with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, a seared and roasted pancetta-wrapped chicken breast was prodigiously thick and tasty. Parsley-crusted halibut had a similar outline: hefty, mild-tasting protein set amid a thick scatter of some vivid garnish — succotash, in the halibut's case, though the effect was of perfumy sweet corn, whose fulsome sweetness seemed heightened by its having been roasted.
The brined pork chop was an entrée with an extra dimension. Pan-fried garlic gnocchi combined with grilled escarole to strike a single dark note, even as a compote of figs stained with balsamic vinegar added a nice little gloss of sweet and sour.
But nothing expressed Mudd's current state quite like a lunchtime dish of tomato-basil ravioli. The ravioli themselves were less than perfect. Actually, the house-made filling of ricotta and roasted tomato tasted fine, but the commercial pasta sheets surrounding it were dull and heavy. But never mind: The real heart of the dish was its broth of roasted garlic and brilliant little stew of more garlic with diced green and yellow summer squashes, pure distillation of the season.
Darren Robey told me those squashes were from the garden just beyond the patio, fruit of the year's early planting. But really, they seemed to have been far longer in the making than that.