A meal at the Kirkland Tap & Trotter is illuminating. This Somerville spot is the new, more-casual restaurant from chef Tony Maws.
At Craigie on Main, his other project, we get dishes like pig’s head revisited: It’s confit! And it’s served with pancakes, a la Peking duck! And there’s sambal, but it’s made with pumpkin, and the hoisin involves boudin noir. It’s exciting; it’s head-rearranging, and not just for the pig.
At the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, we get dishes like a giant pork chop: It’s a pork chop! It’s unadorned but for some charred broccoli rabe pinned beneath it like Wile E Coyote under an anvil. It is also unbelievably good, juicy, with serious heft, infused with smoke from the grill. It’s camping food in someone’s fantasy about camping, where there are no mosquitoes and tents come equipped with feather beds. The whole table shares it, passing it around, carving off hunks with big, plastic-handled knives, chewing and grinning like fools.
Mussels, in their buttery broth with garlic, saffron, and herbs, are the plumpest, cleanest, finest version of themselves, a reminder why people order this dish. (Crushed by a thousand terrible restaurant iterations, shriveled and gritty, I had forgotten.) Smelts, such sweet little fish, are cased in light, crisp batter and served with a Thousand Island-style dressing for dipping. Steak tips are skewered and grilled, along with avocado halves, everything drizzled with a bold, happy chimichurri-esque slurry of green herbs. The burger here is a fine one — grass-fed beef with kimchi Russian dressing and Emmenthaler cheese, fat, crisp rounds of fried potato on the side — but it’s not the painstakingly conceived and justifiably famous Craigie burger. Craigie on Main showcases inspiration. The Kirkland Tap & Trotter lingers lovingly on the craft of cooking itself. Lest we get lost in the art of fine dining, here is a reminder of the skill it takes to pull all that off.
Which is not to say that the Kirkland’s food is basic. Rather, it is elemental and deeply satisfying, in the same way you find at places like Prune in New York or the gastropubs of the United Kingdom. Who would think to make a fish head the centerpiece of a dish? In the hands of Maws and chef de cuisine Dan Scampoli, what many think of as scraps is revealed as the salmon’s best bit: cheek meat lush beneath charred skin, with a bracing little salad of arugula and thin-sliced pink radishes, a tart, complex sauce pooling below. And house-made spaghetti with pumpkin and brown butter becomes more than simple comfort food when enriched by silky chicken liver cream. It is a dish I could eat every week.
As fine as meats are here, vegetables are costars of the show: in salads of Moroccan-spiced carrots and sprouts, or grilled root vegetables with piment d’espelette vinaigrette, or prosciutto and pears with almonds and miso mustard (OK, that last is mainly about the prosciutto, beautifully complemented by the other ingredients). Brussels sprouts are cooked in duck fat; mushrooms are grilled, brightened by a trickle of pesto. Pumpkin stew will thrill vegetarians, the bowl filled with grilled squash, eggplant, and more, with Israeli couscous and yogurt in a heady broth bejeweled with pomegranate seeds. It feels ripped from the pages of one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks.
Not everything is equal. Lamb ribs are a touch too fatty. Choucroute garni, featuring excellent sausages and sauerkraut, comes with a dried-out piece of pork belly. The pumpkin stew, mind-blowing one night, is merely good another; the spaghetti, once so compellingly chewy, is overcooked. For dessert, sweet potato cake with candied pecans and maple sugar ice cream is autumnally cozy, but a poached Mutsu apple remains a touch too crunchy, the skin thick and tough. The friendly chattiness of servers can go too far, with one too many personal anecdotes shared. “You know, we aren’t actually friends,” you may be thinking, until that server ensures you snag the very last pork chop in the house. Yes, we are friends, friends for life.
And that’s the feeling Maws is going for. This food, he has said, resembles what he cooks for friends and family. The restaurant feels casual, with brick and beams, mismatched chairs, vintage signs and specials written on chalkboards. It’s loud, with a lively bar scene, people hoisting glasses of Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale and Harpoon Leviathan Imperial IPA; toasting with cocktails like the warm, balanced Jam Juice, ancho chile rye with Gran Classico Bitter and pear; sharing carafes of pinot noir and interesting, Old World wines by the bottle. On Monday nights after 10, the bar offers Negronis by the bottle, too. It’s a party.
The place has been positioned as a neighborhood hangout, but that’s just silly; people are going to come from all over, drawn by Maws’s reputation. After a meal or two, though, the Craigie connection becomes irrelevant. The Kirkland Tap & Trotter is no spinoff. It is its own place, great fun, with great food.
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