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Cheap Eats

Catalyst Cafe: Come for the sandwiches, stay for the staff

Ham and cheese sandwich at Catalyst Cafe. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

I could sit in Catalyst Cafe all day. In its spot along Binney Street in Kendall Square, with windows on two sides, light pours into the large space. Polished gray concrete flooring, gray tables, and mostly gray chairs are easier on the eye than white. Banquettes are covered with gray fabric that looks, if you examine it closely, like an Escher three-dimensional pattern. Hexagons on the ceiling light, outlined in orange, are the molecular symbol for caffeine.

The counter help is unusually well trained. If things are slow, they deliver food to your table. They greet you on the second visit. By the fourth, I am an old friend.


Sandwiches ($10) are generous and well made. Rare roast beef with cheddar, arugula, and horseradish aioli has a layer of very crisp onions. A Reuben, fresh from the panini press, is melting and hot, with particularly nice corned beef and sauerkraut and just the right amount of Russian dressing. Also golden and crusty, with a perfect sweet-salt balance, is ham and Taleggio with pesto aioli and tomato jam.

But a beautiful brioche bun holds a burger that isn’t a bit juicy and seems warmed over for our order. That’s a pity, considering Catalyst restaurant’s outstanding burger. And a “Med” wrap, with white-bean hummus, roasted eggplant, red onion, feta, and greens, comes in a flabby unappealing wrap.

High-tech customers sometimes use the cafe to make presentations (one group, huddled around a laptop, was discussing a pharma project, which I hope wasn’t confidential — not that I understood any of it). There are two women, dressed almost identically in black, with high boots and Burberry trench coats in slightly different styles. Several people come in pulling roller suitcases.

The 49-seat cafe is an offshoot of Catalyst restaurant in Kendall Square. Chef William Kovel opened the restaurant five years ago and the cafe in February during a blizzard. He wanted to do another venture, he says, but not another restaurant the size of Catalyst. He liked the emerging area in East Cambridge — everywhere you look you see huge cranes — and the cafe is in a new property that is part of the expansive Alexandria Center at Kendall Square.


Sitting on the counter, next to an array of baked goods, are two giant, handsome Staub pots of soup. One holds tomato, which tastes like canned sauce and needs seasoning. Other bowls offered as specials, one with beans and chorizo, another with ham and ditalini, have no body and taste watery.

Salads ($10) are very large and can be overdressed. A Greek salad comes with drenched baby spinach. A beet and quinoa bowl, with its orange segments and goat cheese, tastes good but is desperate for salt — and a food stylist. The quinoa covers all the garnishes.

Pastries are delicious and made in house: lemon cookies and brown-butter chocolate-chip cookies ($2.75), and a perfect New England corn muffin. A cinnamon muffin has a fine texture but needs more of its aromatic spice.

Coffee comes in iconic Italian Illy cups with tiny round handles to slip your finger into. A satisfying breakfast veggie bowl ($9) is filled with highly seasoned black beans, salsa, avocado, and chipotle dressing, topped with a soft-fried egg. A cheese pocket, in which mozzarella is wrapped in brioche, is heavenly and quite light, pleasingly salty and sweet. At breakfast, you can also get a scrambled egg burrito, egg and cheese sandwich, chorizo bowl, avocado toast, many smoothies, and more.


If I hadn’t spent so much time at Catalyst restaurant, I might think the cafe is growing into its space and adjusting to the clientele. But a place this stunning, with such skilled counter workers, with a sandwich maker who can produce sweet, salty, creamy, and crusty creations again and again, should be able to soar all over the simple menu. The audience for it is upstairs, next door, and down the street. They couldn’t ask for a better location.


75 Binney St., Kendall Square, Cambridge, 857-259-6410, www.catalystcafecambridge.com. All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Smoothies $8. Breakfast sandwiches and bowls $8-$9. Lunch sandwiches, bowls, salads $10

Hours Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-5 p.m.

Liquor None

What to order Roast beef sandwich, Reuben, ham and cheese sandwich, beet bowl, breakfast veggie bowl, cheese pockets, lemon cookies, chocolate-chip cookies

Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.