ONE TOMATO, TWO TOMATO: The green-tomato trio at Hungry Mother falls between haute
cuisine and down home.
At the Hungry Mother, a new restaurant in Kendall Square, chef/co-owner Barry Maiden has focused French techniques on the foods of Appalachia. That sounds like a sitcom, like a reversal of The Beverly Hillbillies. And like Jed Clampett, platters such as “catfish pâté” can be visually hilarious. But Maiden’s food is also really, really delicious. So anytime France wants to rethink that old Louisiana deal and make a bid, this is where the treaty should be signed.
|Hungry Mother | 617.499.0090 | 233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue, Cambridge | Open Tues–Sun, 5–10 PM | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking; validated discount at Binney Street garage at Kendall Cinema, $5 | Access to some tables up two steps; most tables up four steps|
We started with a bar bite of boiled peanuts ($3). They’re served like edamame, in the shell and sprinkled with salt. Before this, I’d never seen the point of boiled peanuts. It turns out that the key is serving them hot so they are squishy and starchy, more like potatoes.
A green-tomato trio ($8) put us right between haute cuisine and down home. A thick slice of fried green tomato had the lively sourness of the fruit wrapped in a crisp batter, with an accompanying spicy rémoulade sauce. Then there was a heap of green-tomato chutney on toast, delectable and in the spirit of old-time Southern relishes. With a shooter of green tomato and chervil water, we’re at the cutting edge of “molecular gastronomy,” and a long way from Virginia. (We’ve also lost all the chervil flavor and most of the green-tomato-ness, but science marches on.)
Likewise, the “catfish pâté and Virginia ham plate” ($10) is all dressed up for a Parisian table, but stays true to its roots. The pâté is made of smoked catfish, and it’s scrumptious with or without the tiny decorative salad of shaved vegetables with micro greens on top. The ham is sliced as thin as prosciutto and served with fig compote, two kinds of olives, toasts, and — here we return to the South — ramps. But the ramps (Appalachian wild leeks) are pickled.
One frankly Southern dish is shrimp and grits ($9). Maiden’s grits have more varied texture than most, and he adds some salty Louisiana tasso-style ham for soul. Smoked chicken bratwurst ($8) is a big, spicy sausage that doesn’t have too much smoke, nor does the accompanying mash of parsnips and waxy potatoes end up with too much parsnip over-sweetening and overpowering the dish. It’s a nice platter.
For a main course, it’s hard to beat the bourbon-braised Berkshire pork shoulder with smoky rib and creamy grits ($19). Berkshire is a heritage breed revived originally for the Japanese market. Because these hogs have more fat than was marketable when producers were selling pork as “the other white meat,” Berkshire pork has an old-time flavor. The rib isn’t very smoky, just enough to contrast with the boneless chunks of shoulder stew. It also has some chew, where the stew chunks are fork-tender slow food. The grittier grits are ideal with this gravy. Roasted chicken ($18) is wonderfully juicy and flavorful and comes with a round little spoonbread, like finer, eggy cornbread flecked with green garlic. Slightly sour beet greens are the perfect foil, and — thank you, Virginia — this one has gravy, too.
Though we soaked up said gravy with the very good sourdough bread provided, we also ordered a side dish of cornbread ($4). It too was mighty fine, a little sweet, and served in two shapes: a dodger and a wedge.
Can they fry catfish, though ($16)? Oh, yes, they can. Ours was a nice-size chunk in cornmeal crust, served with Carolina gold rice, a heritage grain that’s coming back into cultivation. This is long-grain rice, but it breaks up as it cooks to make a dish as creamy as risotto, with — thank you, Paris — some finely-diced vegetables. There were collards, perhaps underdone, on this plate. We’re accustomed to over-boiled collards.
This cuisine does run to salty, but our servers often refilled our pint mason jars with water and brewed, sweetened-just-right iced tea ($2.25). On the wine lists is 2006 Terrazas malbec ($7/glass; $27/bottle), my favorite cheap malbec, and — being from Argentina — about as Southern a wine as there is. A 2005 Oreana pinot noir ($8/$30) from California also had enough structure to complement the food. The drinks include some local and not-so-local microbrews, a tempting list of bourbons and ryes, and the deadly cocktail No. 10 ($9). That’s the iced tea, here mellowed with Ezra Brooks bourbon and limoncello. Look out! One of these sneaks right up on you; the second one would already have you. One of the only off notes of our visit was a cup of brutally burnt decaf ($2.75).