Wildflower Café is not the sort of place that tries to wow anyone with feats of inventiveness. Its formula is simple but satisfying: lots of mostly local meat and produce, a menu that continuously changes with available ingredients, a nice selection of wine and beer, and well-made, homey food. There’s elegant twist here and there, but nothing too fancy. Eating at Wildflower feels like dropping in on an excellent home cook improvising a meal out of whatever is in the pantry and the garden. Like any true improvisation, the results can be uneven: sometimes ordinary, usually pretty good, and occasionally marvelous. And because the menu keeps changing and the atmosphere is so pleasant, Wildflower is the sort of place that inspires devotion. Go any day, and you know there will be something new on the menu worth trying and it’ll be fresh, tasty, and not too weird.
Everything about the restaurant says “home.” To begin with, it’s actually located in a brightly painted old farmhouse, formerly occupied by owners Chef Todd Hudson and his wife Jenna, who once lived upstairs. Enter through the back porch under a grapevine and the spreading branches of a cherry tree. Inside, there are several little dining areas on the two floors, with just three or four tables in each former bedroom. The restaurant’s kitchen is by the stairs and doesn’t look much different from a home kitchen. Servers are casual and friendly, chatting and recommending their favorites. Blackboards are marked with rotating local beers on tap and the newest wines, along with local farms and ranches the restaurant supports.
The small, focused menu has a classic American quality (salads, steaks, burgers) with enough surprises—from a Vietnamese noodle bowl to an excellent gumbo—to keep things interesting. The menu is the same for dinner and lunch, and there is an enormous price range. You can eat a fairly modest meal for about $20 or splurge on a $60 smoked rib eye and a few glasses of wine. One of Wildflower’s special virtues is that it feels simultaneously casual and worthy of a special evening.
I dined at Wildflower in late spring, when the last asparagus stalks poke out of local gardens. The restaurant made a simple panzanella with the harvest. On the one hand, the dish is completely ordinary, with a basic balsamic vinaigrette, some fresh oregano leaves, and toasted bread and cheese to go with the asparagus. On the other hand, the chef clearly has the wisdom and restraint to know when he’s holding an ingredient that will sing on its own. The asparagus was still tender but crunchy, with a delicate flavor that’s completely absent once shipped across the country.
There are, of course, costs to this focus on freshness and availability. Sometimes, for example, Wildflower runs out of things, which occasionally means a pomegranate basil margarita without basil (the waitress apologized and substituted mint, which unfortunately didn’t quite work). Seafood is flown in daily and is very fresh, but it’s supplied in small quantities. The crab legs, breaded and fried in a tiny portion with spaghetti squash, almonds, and cucumber and lightly dressed with a basil pesto, were gone by the middle of one dinner service. It all gives you confidence, though, in the sincerity of Wildflower’s commitment to fresh food.
Many of the dishes are designed with open spaces to be filled with whatever is available in the kitchen that day, an advantage of an unfussy style. Several entrées, for instance, are listed as served with “local vegetables.” The rib eye—smoked for 10 hours and served in an enormous 14-ounce portion—came with carrots, asparagus, and charred green onions, all gradually blending together with the rosemary demi-glace on the beef.
The bread pudding, a recipe from chef Hudson’s Grandma Sheila, was made one night with chocolate chips, then figs, and then berries. We had it with figs and it was a highlight. The fig seeds added a light crunch, and the pudding—covered in a sharp bourbon brown sugar butter and a caramel sauce that didn’t drown the dish in sweetness—retained enough firmness and moisture to hold up to a spoon without dissolving.
The burger also seems to change character, though it’s always made from grass-fed beef. The version I ate featured beef from Liberty Township’s Grassland Graze and had a Greek vibe with a tzatziki-like sauce and candied bacon. In a page from The Chefs Collaborative cookbook, Hudson describes his secret for keeping this lower-fat meat moist on the grill: He puts a pat of herbed butter between two pressed-together patties. The results are amazing; moist inside with a perfect surface char. Accompanied by a simple green salad and washed down with a subtly fruity draft saison by Rockmill (a small brewery in Lancaster, Ohio), it was about as satisfying a burger as I’ve had.
Several other dishes weren’t bad, just unmemorable. Still, you don’t go to Wildflower expecting a certain kind of perfection, and you accept that your favorite dish from last time might be made differently tonight, or no longer available. Like the farmhouse that Wildflower occupies, the imperfections are part of the charm.
Wildflower Café, 207 E. Main St., Mason, (513) 492-7514, wildflowergourmetcafe.com
Lunch and dinner Tues–Sat 11–2 and 5–9
$11 (local asparagus panzanella)–$38 (smoked organic rib eye)
Sometimes ordinary, but always good, fresh, and unfussy.