Meddlesome Moth: Great Beer, but the Food Doesn't Make Our Heart Flutter.
The impeccable design decisions at Meddlesome Moth, the crisp new Oak Lawn beer lounge from Flying Saucer co-founder Shannon Wynne, extend to the restrooms, which are equipped with ultra-modern hand dryers and decorated with vintage fliers from Dallas' striptease heyday. The circa 1960s posters promise visions of the city's prettiest girls doing the naughtiest things.
What the posters don't mention is what's cooking in the kitchen, a mainstay of most serious cabarets. Even Jack Ruby's gritty Carousel Club served pizza. Presumably, that's because no matter what patrons of Barney Weinstein's Theater Lounge told their wives, they didn't really go to the downtown strip club for its tender steaks.
There aren't any naked ladies at Meddlesome Moth, but the comfortable hangout shares an insouciant attitude toward food with those bygone burlesques. Just as strip clubs concocted meat-and-potato menus according to their customers' expectations, The Moth dutifully sounds all the right gastropub notes, offering pork belly, fried hominy and an explicit homage to New York City chef April Bloomfield's famed ricotta gnudi. Some of it's good, much of it isn't, but only a prig or a fool would write off the place for its culinary flaws. People aren't flocking to The Moth for its tender steaks.
The big draw at Meddlesome Moth is the beer, which spills from a sleek wall of 40 silver taps stripped of their branded pulls. To keep up with the rotating selection of brewws, The Moth's installed a long chalkboard above the tap row so the barkeeps can distinguish between, say, the Big Sky Moose Drool and the 512 Pecan Porter. There's also a cask-conditioned ale and a lengthy list of bottled beers that reads like a brewhound's scrapbook.
It's hard to quibble with an expertly chosen selection of nearly 100 bottled beers, but I wish there were more representatives from the eastern United States—or some explanation provided for the list's distinctly Californian and European tilt. Sure, Dogfish Head and Brooklyn Brewery both surface on the menu multiple times, but many of the nation's most vibrant craft beer scenes are missing from The Moth's otherwise diverse assembly. The oversight isn't immediately apparent, since The Moth doesn't indicate its beers' birthplaces on its menu. Maybe geography doesn't matter as much as tasting notes, which are admirably clear and concise here, but I like to know whether a beer's from Belgium or Baltimore.
I was surprised too by how few seasonal brews The Moth stocks: All those taps seem like a great opportunity to showcase the saisons and kolschs that dribble out of bravely experimental breweries every summer.
Still, if guests were craving something light and fruity, I'm confident their server could steer them to just the right beer, even without the helpful summertime label. Service is far from perfect at The Moth—I was waited on by an excruciatingly slow bartender and a server who insisted on using her library voice even though the restaurant's so loud it's almost impossible to hear a tablemate who isn't sitting right next to you—but the servers know their beers. They're capable sherpas through The Moth's smart thematic flights of 5-ounce pours and always ready with thoughtful pairing suggestions for the day's desserts.
Absent my server's prodding, I doubt I'd have scanned the beer list for a cappuccino stout to match my slice of cherry pie, a sloppy celebration of fruit and pastry that was one of the best things I sampled at The Moth. The thrillingly sour marble-sized cherries were a perfect counterpoint to the roasty brew.
Unfortunately, I didn't find too many other dishes that were equally memorable. While nothing I tried was so inept it might distract a table from the jolly conversation that's The Moth's lifeblood, there weren't any offerings that threatened to approach the splendor suggested by the three salvaged Hard Rock Café stained glass windows that grandly buttress the restaurant's back wall.
The Moth's dinner menu, cribbed from the world's great pub cultures, is divided into five sections: salads, mussels, meat pies, small plates (with a subcategory for meat-on-a-stick) and entrees. Almost every dish's description conjures a stereotypical image of an old-country drunkard, burying his red nose in a pint and shoveling through something hot and hearty. There's a vinegar-rich pickled herring, mussels drenched with a creamy Dijon mustard sauce, roasted chicken and stewed lamb baked in a pie. It's a bill of fare forged by centuries of habitual boozing.
Even the dishes that don't scream beer have been tweaked to be more brew-friendly. The hearts of Romaine salad, which sounds vaguely like a Caesar, turns out to be a mound of creamed white anchovies scooped over lettuce. Its salty appeal isn't subtle, but—like the best bar snacks—it makes for easy eating. Still better is the beet salad, featuring beautifully roasted beets lightly dressed with a tart cider vinaigrette.
Another salad showcases the house-smoked arctic char, which reappears on a small plate dressed for deli duty: The rich fish, salmon's bawdy cousin, is presented with hunks of rye and a handful of capers. It's a lovely starter, and a sight better than the misbegotten grilled squid. The firm rings of squid encircle dollops of braised oxtail, which is usually a say-yes meat in gastropubs. But the oxtail I had was oily and bland. Sirloin on a stick, brushed with a thick coat of pepita pesto, was similarly flavorless and sadly overcooked.
The standout on the small plate menu was a terrific boudin blanc, stuffed to the straining point with earthy pork bits and fluffy white rice. The presentation was a tad forlorn—just an albino sausage, laid out on a plate—but the robust flavor more than compensated for the aesthetics.
Disappointingly, The Moth struggles with brewpub classics that most roadhouses can execute passably. The burger was decent, but the fish and chips were depressing. The lackluster cod and taters were trimmed into identically sized oblongs and then fried to the same dull auburn hue. Perhaps the kitchen's caught up in the current anti-Brit frenzy, since the meat pie I tried also seemed to be made by a hostile hand. The rabbit pie wasn't a pie at all, but a big mug of under-salted rabbit and mustard green stew with a faintly Asian flavor, capped by a slim coaster of fried dough.
If a deep bowl of food is what you're after, I'd recommend instead one of the excellent mussel preparations. I especially liked the Thai mussels, submerged in a curry gravy ripe with basil. The mussels are fresh, plump and properly steamed.
One of my dining companions who'd previously been to The Moth insisted we order a serving of zucchini chips to accompany the shellfish. Faced with the clump of greasy, nickel-sized slivers, he mused unhappily, "They were so much better last time" when he'd downed a few beers before placing his order. Meddlesome Moth apparently counts on a somewhat drunken dinership.
That's a fair assumption, since the fun of the restaurant—the gabby bar crowd, the stylish patio, the gently sophisticated soundtrack, the frenetic open kitchen—doesn't turn on the forgettable food. Meddlesome Moth is a great place to drink beer, and there's certainly no shame in that.
Meddlesome Moth 1621 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-628-7900. mothinthe.net. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$
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