Almost exactly a year ago, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I sidled up to the counter at Russ & Daughters Cafe — the newish full-service outpost of the iconic appetizer shop — and hoped, prayed even, that we’d one day have a similar spot in the Boston area. My plea was answered when Mamaleh’s, a Jewish delicatessen and restaurant from the team at the adjacent State Park, opened its doors this summer.
About those prayers . . . I’m not Jewish. I have no nostalgia attached to the chewy bialys piled with smoked sable, the rich chicken liver spread, the schmaltzy matzoh balls (I cannot tell you if they were sinkers or floaters; the bowl was too shallow, the matzoh balls most plump). But whatever one’s background, there’s no denying the appeal of a meal at Mamaleh’s.
Part deli, part restaurant, part soda-fountain-with-a-liquor license, Mamaleh’s has a lot going on. But not dinner. At least not yet. They hope to extend their hours in the future.
Before 11 a.m. it’s all counter service. The morning staff is sweet, if sometimes harried, and you should order bagels or bialys — the latter hard to come by in these parts — with house-made kippered (hot-smoked) salmon ($11), or treat yourself to silky sable from Brookyln’s Acme Smoked Fish ($20). All the fish plates come with red onion, tomato, cucumber, capers, and olives, plus a schmear.
If you are really excited about chewy, New York-style bagels in Cambridge, you can add an extra one for $2. But if you’re looking for a sweet start to the day, try a thick slice of dense chocolate babka to go with very strong, very good iced coffee ($3).
We don’t have as much luck with the chocolate egg cream ($4.50), the egg-less, cream-less drink (it’s a blend of seltzer, milk, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, for those not in the know). It arrives tepid, garnished with a large pretzel rod that threatens to tip over the flimsy to-go cup.
The beverages ordered through table service at lunch, however, arrive thoroughly chilled, and very delicious. A classic root beer float ($6) with New England-made Tower brand soda and a scoop of Toscanini’s vanilla ice cream aims to please in a heavy footed glass with a sundae spoon. Same for the pineapple lactart float ($6), a tropical concoction of pineapple-infused soda made slightly sour with the addition of lactic acid, and topped with a creamy scoop of vanilla.
And you can add the malted brandy Alexander ($12) to your boozy-milkshake bucket list. Indulging in this chocolaty, Cognac-infused frappe reminds you that being a grownup has its perks.
Classic drinks like the Wayfarer ($9), with Hayman’s gin, Salers aperitif, grapefruit, and bitters, showcase the team’s bar chops. Happily, the staff puts as much care into the soft stuff as the cocktails. We’ll return to make our way through the phosphates and housemade sodas ($4), including lemon-cardamom and celery.
Well, we’ll return for a lot of reasons, including that divine chopped chicken liver ($8), which arrives looking like a refined French pate, topped with a slick of schmaltz. It’s served with a refreshing cucumber salad and a pile of crunchy bagel chips. One of the added bonuses of serving good bagels: the delectable crisps to be made out of leftovers. The chips also show up with a vegetable combo from the deli case — $9 for three fresh, bright salads. On this day, they’re marinated zucchini, French lentil with shredded carrots, and green bean with the bite of salty olive.
More substantial fare includes Reuben and Rachel sandwiches ($12) made with teetering-on-the-edge-of-too-salty corned beef and pastrami, respectively; they end up tasting just right with creamy Russian dressing, Swiss cheese, and snappy sauerkraut or slaw on light rye.
We also love the beef kreplach ($7), like crisp, savory wontons topped with spicy horseradish sour cream and pickled shallots.
For dessert, don’t miss the lemony, cakey black & white cookies. Or just order another round from the soda fountain.
Mamaleh’s is the kind of place you just can’t stay away from. I find myself making excuses to return: bringing my out-of-town sister for bagels; sneaking out for Friday lunch with my husband; stopping by for a mid-morning coffee — and raspberry walnut rugelach ($4), which I really wasn’t planning to order.
You can chalk it up to diligence: “Another order of the house-cured lox, please. It’s for research!” But the real reason I keep coming back? Same as all the other patrons pouring in from the far reaches of Kendall Square — Mamaleh’s is fun, and the food at this deli is delicious.
Catherine Smart can be reached at email@example.com.