Tomato soup and grilled cheese revived at a new Cambridge cafe
Tomato soup and grilled cheese is a beautiful thing, at least to a generation of American kids raised on it. “There’s something comforting about it, even to this day,” says chef Steve “Nookie” Postal, co-owner of the four-month-old Revival Cafe + Kitchen in an office park behind the Alewife T in Cambridge.
Postal is making a version that is almost unrelated to the Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup he (and the rest of us) grew to love. His is the same deep coral color, and it’s very smooth, but then you sip it and it’s smoky. That’s bacon you’re tasting.
The chef understands nostalgia; he’s a former executive chef of Fenway Park, where he oversaw the food for over 35,000 people on a game day. He was also on the Bravo TV reality show “Around the World in 80 Plates.” Currently he is chef-owner of Commonwealth restaurant in Kendall Square, Cambridge. In Revival, he’s partnered with Liza Shirazi of Crema Cafe in Harvard Square (he cooks and she runs the front of house and the coffee and drinks program).
Revival is on the first floor of a building that once housed a Whole Foods regional headquarters. Postal says the name Revival can refer to the fact that coffee can revive you, or it can mean the renovation that he and Shirazi did to the space before moving in. Now it looks like a hip warehouse cafeteria with “YOU GOT THIS” spelled out in small hexagonal blue tiles on the floor, wooden Scrabble tiles on wide wall racks to say what’s on offer, a magnificent Italian turquoise-blue La Marzocco espresso machine, and funky artwork.
The cafe’s late-season menu offers a number of sandwiches made with local farm ingredients on homemade bread, like The Cornholio, which is brisket with Verrill Farm corn, pickled carrots, and roasted garlic aioli on a potato roll. All breads are made here and include flavors like smoked oat, honey wheat, sweet potato, jalapeno, and sourdough.
The tomato soup is simmered with San Marzano canned tomatoes and fresh tomato “seconds” that Postal gets from Concord’s Verrill Farm. “They have some blemishes. You wouldn’t use them for a sliced tomato salad,” he says, “but they’re perfect for soup.”
He begins by rendering bacon in butter (yes! double fat here and nothing is discarded). Then he cooks carrots, onions, celery, and garlic in the bacon fat-butter mixture to soften them. To that sofrito he adds tomato paste, then whisks in a little flour for a roux, and pours in beef stock and cream. The canned tomatoes go into the pot with the fresh ones, trimmed of blemishes, but not peeled or seeded. After simmering, says Postal, “you buzz it all up,” then he strains it to get that nice, smooth texture. It’s ladled into a 16-ounce bowl.
The baby grilled cheese that accompanies it is Monterey Jack on potato bread, griddled in butter. Like the soup, it’s divine. (The soup is also served at Crema Cafe.) If you stay to sip the soup, it comes on melamine dinnerware that looks like the distressed and rustic pottery you might find in southern Europe; you have to tap it to see it’s plastic.
In his childhood home, says Postal, tomato soup came from a Campbell’s can and the sandwich was made with American cheese slices on Classic White Wonder Bread. “Sometimes my mom classed it up and used honey-wheat bread,” he says.
He’s gone her one better.