>> Tuesday, September 24, 2013
I'm usually not the type of diner who rushes out to try a new restaurant the moment that it opens. Maybe it's because I'm scared of crowds; or perhaps it's because I know things are always a bit shaky in the beginning, and it's usually not a fair or accurate representation of what a place is really like.
But I buckled this week.
I guess I was just too curious. I mean, it's Tony Maws. He's one of the most well-respected chefs in the Boston area. His restaurant, Craigie on Main, is virtually impossible to reserve at the last minute. His bone-marrow infused grass-fed burger became so popular he had to take it off the regular menu and serve just a limited daily number (18) at the bar. We have celebrated several special occasions there, and the food is always phenomenal.
So when Cambridge's darling celebrity chef announces he's opening a new restaurant - a place that's more casual, more accessible, more like "what Chef Maws cooks at home for friends and family" - you listen.
And you show up to taste, as soon as possible.
The Kirkland Tap and Trotter is located right on the border of Somerville and Cambridge, next to Dali and across the street from Bergamot. They've done an incredible job on the space. It feels open and airy, yet rustic and just a bit country at the same time.
I felt very comfortable and relaxed. Sure, the volume of noise was just a tad louder than I would have liked, but overall, the atmosphere was lively, convivial, and fun (yes, it was packed, of course).
The cocktail menu has several fun drinks. I tried their interpretation of a gin & tonic, called The KT&T&T, which was made with Perry’s Tot Gin, Kirkland Tonic, and Montenegro. It was alright, but my favorite is still the one from Jaleo (José Andrés's favorite). My friend got The Storm Cloud, their version of a Dark & Stormy, which was made with Cocchi Americano, Fernet Branca, and citrus. She thought that the drink was refreshing, though she did wish for a stronger Fernet flavor.
They have this fun drink called The Bag or the Bat? Feeling Lucky? For $6, the bartender whips you up something to try. Nobody else, not even the servers, know what's inside those glasses. It's typically about the size of a shot, and you just take your chances.
Bryan and our other friend each ordered one. Both were bourbon based drinks. We think Bryan's (which was the darker one), had elements of almond flavor, while my friend's version, the lighter one, was much sweeter, though we couldn't quite put our fingers on the flavors. It was a fun little experiment, though neither person ordered another one, opting instead for beer.
My friend was really interested in trying the Harpoon ‘Hundred Barrel’ Saison ($7) which he really enjoyed. Bryan tried the Blatant IPA (comes in a 22 oz bottle for $12). Although it was solid, he still thinks the Blatant One (their limited edition anniversary beer) was much better.
The menu is current quite a manageable size, with just over a dozen different choices ranging in size from small appetizer sized plates to hearty main courses. The smaller courses run around $14-$16 while the main courses are $24-$26.
They encourage sharing and ordering things family style. Food comes out the moment it's ready, and it can come in any order. They want you to enjoy it while it's fresh.
Since we had four people, it was easy to order a large part of the menu. The server recommended that we order around four smaller plates and two larger ones, which worked out really well.
We started with one of the specials of the day (conveniently written on multiple chalkboards throughout the restaurant), a Bluefish Rillette ($14), which came with grilled bread (yum!) and house made pickles on the side. It was more on the chunky side and less creamy than I expected. It was solid, though Bryan and I both commented that we actually liked the free bluefish pate at Ten Tables better, which has a deeper, smokier flavor.
The Grilled Root Vegetable Salad ($14) had eggplant (which the server admitted was not a root vegetable), lots of fennel, and golden beets, tossed with pimente d’Esplette vinaigrette. I liked this one. It was one of the few vegetable-focused plates, and it was done well.
One of Bryan's favorites was this House-Made Spaghetti ($15) made with a sauce of chicken liver, pumpkin, and brown butter. The fresh pasta was cooked perfectly and had a lovely al dente texture. The creamy sauce was rich, flavorful, and not too liver-y tasting (for those like me who don't love the strong taste of liver).
I've had skate wing at Craigie before during one of those Chef's Whim dinners late at night. I think Tony Maws enjoys cooking this slightly more unusual seafood. One of the larger plates we had was the Braised Local Skate Wing ($27), which was cooked with little neck clams, smoked tomatoes, and beans. I always though of skate wing as being a tougher "fish", but this was executed very well. It was moist, tender, and quite flavorful. Skate wing is tricky to eat because there's a big piece of cartilage in the middle that you sort of have to eat around. In general this was not really an issue, since the meat was so soft it easily flaked off the cartilage.
Unfortunately, the dish (literally) left a bad taste in Bryan's mouth because one of the clams was filled with a ton of sand, which was a bit hard to clean out.
The unanimous favorite dish at the table was the Grilled Squid ($14), which was one of the specials of the night. It takes skill to cook squid correctly. It can quickly become tough and rubbery if it's overcooked, which unfortunately happens way too often. This squid was phenomenal. Just briefly seared on the restaurant's massive grill, it had the perfect blend of char and tenderness. The flavors, of course, were also excellent. In fact, we thought the squid tasted so good by itself, we actually thought that the caponata on which it was served overpowered the squid, and we all opted to eat the squid sans-sauce.
Another favorite was the Lamb Ribs (around $14), which were served with some sort of pepper (cubano, I think - they weren't too spicy). This was another one of Bryan's favorites, and I agree it was excellent. These ribs were gorgeously charred on the outside yet fall-off-the-bone soft and tender on the inside. The flavor was fantastic, and we were all a bit bummed that one order only came with three ribs, which is always a bit tricky when sharing with four people. If you have meat lovers at your table, it wouldn't hurt to order two.
They offered a few side dishes: a grilled corn on the cob (which we didn't order because we thought it would be hard to share) and duck fat roasted Brussels sprouts. These were solid, indistinguishable from the ones they sell at Craigie at the bar. I personally would have preferred them to be just a bit more crispy, but I'm guessing that you would have to roast the sprouts to achieve the texture I wanted. Overall, they were fine.
We shared two desserts. My favorite was the Taza Chocolate Tarte ($10), which was excellent. You could definitely taste Taza's signature chocolate (which I really like!). What made this dish fantastic, however, was the bourbon cream on top. It was quite strong, and I loved the pairing of the bourbon with the chocolate.
The Market Fruits Crisp ($10), which had a lot of nectarines, came with a walnut streusel and vanilla bean ice cream. I found it to be fine, but it didn't really stand out to me.
Chef Tony Maws has definitely put a lot of thought and hard work into this restaurant, and it shows. The space is beautiful, the kitchen is top notch, and the menu is solid. Except for the unfortunately sandy clam incident, I would say there were really no major misses, which is impressive for a packed restaurant during its first week of service. The service was excellent, the food came out surprisingly quickly, and everything was good. In some ways, I wouldn't expect any less of Tony Maws.
I'm thrilled that Chef Maws has offered a more accessible way of accessing his food on a more regular basis (instead of trying to catch those bar seats at Craigie -always tricky!). I love the small plate concept - it allows diners to really try a wide variety of his food without getting too bored. Oh - I forgot to mention - there is a cheeseburger on the menu, though I'm not sure how similar it is to his famous burger at Craigie.
I do wish there were more vegetable and seafood options, but that is more of a personal bias since I'm less of a meat person in general. Overall, though, the restaurant is doing a fantastic job already and I am confident it will become a new favorite hangout for the neighborhood.
Kirkland Tap & Trotter
425 Washington St