Although I’ve never spoken personally with chef Tony Maws, I imagine that the popularity of his Craigie on Main burger leaves him feeling somewhat amused but mostly annoyed. Maws, of course, is an internationally renowned, award-winning chef, and his Central Square restaurant has earned near-universal acclaim for its highly creative, French-inspired menu and “nose-to-tail” approach to cooking. Maws’ steadfast insistence on using the freshest ingredients, typically from local farms and suppliers, means there’s no fixed menu – nightly offerings are dictated by the availability and acceptability of fresh goods. Such unpredictability requires endless improvisation, and while that might be challenging to staff and even customers, Maws never fails to dazzle. From artistic presentation to impeccable service, Craigie on Main’s reputation for brilliance is richly deserved.
But that damn burger keeps stealing the spotlight. While fairly pedestrian in the context of Maws’ nightly feats of culinary execution, the Craigie burger has achieved its own iconic status and garnered countless accolades from food critics, burger aficionados, bloggers, and customers all over the country.
It’s a telling irony. But the fact is, so much of what makes Craigie on Main exceptional is also what puts it out of reach for the average diner. While Maws is certainly talented enough to cook for anyone, the quintessential Craigie experience calls for an adventurous palate, a high regard for presentation, and a full wallet. Not everyone will find milk-fed pig’s head appetizing or be willing to drop $115 for an 8-course tasting menu. At the risk of stating the obvious, a burger just has broader appeal.
That’s a reality Maws seems to have embraced with his second restaurant – Somerville’s Kirkland Tap & Trotter.
Described as Maws’ idea of a “neighborhood joint,” KT&T’s atmosphere and stripped-down décor quickly establish it as a more casual affair. And as neighborhood joints go, it’s hard to imagine a warmer welcome than the irresistible aroma of wood smoke that emanates from grill in the open kitchen.
Opening last fall in the space once occupied by the Kirkland Café, Maws’ newest venture inherits the charm of that legendary dive bar and consciously maintains its lack of pretension. Walls of exposed brick and unfinished concrete give the space a humble, lived-in quality, while the hardwood floors and exposed ceiling beams contribute to a warm, rustic appearance. Old cabinetry and tables of varying heights, shapes, and sizes result in a simple, improvised look and feel.
And of course, every neighborhood joint needs a good bar. As Maws states on KT&T’s website, he wanted to create “a place where I could hang, and guests can embrace my jeans and a t-shirt philosophy, feeling comfortable enough to eat with their hands and play air drums.” I’ve always been more of an air guitarist, but his point is well taken. While Craigie has its own bar, which boasts an excellent cocktail program, it’s not really conducive to air jamming (drums or otherwise).
At KT&T, a plain, wood-topped bar is surrounded by 12 mismatched stools. Behind the bar, modest wooden shelving holds a broad, top-notch array of liquors. “We try to represent a wide range of spirits,” says Jared Sadoian, Kirkland’s beverage director and former Craigie bartender. ”We try to celebrate local spirits, but even when we can’t, we use craft products, even if they come from halfway around the world.”
It’s an intelligent collection marked by local craft spirits, like GrandTen, and lesser-known liqueurs like genepy. They all find their way onto a drink list characterized by the same principles of innovation and seasonality as the cocktail menu at Craigie, but in a deliberately simpler format, employing minimal ingredients for maximum effect.
Take the Dartmouth. Fresh, light, and mildly herbal, this remarkable cocktail is layered with flavor. With every sip, I found myself contemplating each ingredient and observing how the flavors interacted. Truly a thought-provoking drink. Yet for all its perceived complexity, it’s made with only three ingredients – St. George Terroir gin, orange liqueur, and maple. That such a simple composition can have so much impact is impressive.
The same can be said for the Peace Pipe, which is, without exaggeration, one of the most unique drinks I’ve had in ages. Spicy and vibrant, but restrained, a wonderfully sweet aroma precedes every sip. Again, three ingredients – gin, Cardamaro, and a house-made cardamom syrup – conspire to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.
The syrup, one of several made in house, it what truly sets it apart. “It’s actually really simple,” Jared says, as he explains the process of toasting and grinding up green cardamom, while noting that the spice works particularly well with the botanicals in the gin.
“We’re also a little irreverent,” he admits while discussing some of the more visually striking cocktails. “We just wanted to make it blue,” he says of the refreshing Leaps and Bounds, which he describes as a margarita meets a mojito, but with gin instead of tequila or rum.
The Sass Mouth looks like a snow cone. Made with Reyka vodka, Aperol, apricot, and lemon, it’s like a craft poolside drink, if ever there could be such a thing. Jared explains that Kirkland’s use of aperitifs results in “restrained” drinks, and in this case, the Aperol keeps this punch-like cocktail from veering into too-sweet territory.
Genepy, an absinthe-like liqueur, brings an edge to the Tidbit. With white rum, falernum, and lime, it has all the makings of the typical tiki drink, but the anise flavor is unexpected.
Even as he calls some of the cocktails irreverent, Jared speaks with obvious respect about the recipes and how they came to be. He names the mixologist behind each drink and explains that despite their straightforward nature, the process behind some of them is painstaking. Infusing Powers Gold Label Irish whiskey with coffee is what he calls “a labor of love,” but the work pays off. Sweetened with a little honey, the infused whiskey is rich, smooth, and has the pure flavor of cold-brewed coffee.
Our Old Fashioned, another of KT&T’s signature drinks, is distinguished by its use of house-blended whiskey. It’s a cocktail with inauspicious beginnings, as Jared explains. “It started as a way to move through some product we didn’t really love,” he acknowledges, referring to an abundance of lower-quality scotch, bourbon, and rye that was apparently taking up space. So they blended the whiskies and tried making an Old Fashioned with the mix.
The result was surprisingly good and instantly popular, so they decided to keep doing it. “Now we can design a blend that we really like, and it’s always a little different” he says, describing a mix constituted by two types of rye, bourbon, and a hickory-smoked whiskey.
Even if you’re planning on just hanging out at the bar and playing air drums, you’d be a fool not to eat while you’re here. Depending on when you arrive, you can start with the free bar snacks available Monday through Friday between 5:30 and 6:30. Flatbread with ricotta, chicken pate, and onion rings that can only be described as adorable are almost a meal unto themselves.
While KT&T’s menu is considerably more approachable than that of Craigie, even the simplest of dishes belie a certain complexity. Meaty lamb ribs, one of several hot appetizers (there’s a selection of cold apps, too), are a sweet alternative to the customary beef or pork ribs. Served with Anaheim peppers and topped with fresh cilantro, they still have everything you want in a plate of ribs – smoky goodness and fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Duck leg confit, a special when I visited, might be a little closer to something one would find at Craigie. Served with braised ancho chili sausage and green rice, it’s a spicy blend of tenderness and crunch.
And while the much-ballyhooed Craigie burger doesn’t make an appearance here, another fairly humble item has quickly achieved a similar cult status.
Let’s face it – there’s nothing glamorous about a hot dog. A guilty pleasure if ever there was one, few of us care to dwell on the mystery meats that make up the typical ballpark frank. But it probably goes without saying that KT&T’s house-made hot dog is utterly unique. Made with pork and beef, enclosed in a lamb casing, the recipe for this one-pound dog took nearly a year to perfect. Served on a pretzel bun, which adds a little sweetness and texture, this is the very definition of a gourmet hot dog. Like the Craigie burger, it’s an off-menu item and available only in limited quantities.
Now any hot dog, even the gourmet variety, naturally calls for a beer. And when a restaurant has “Tap” in its name, you might expect to see 30+ beers on draft. Not so much.
“We only have eight taps,” Jared points out, “so we’re very careful with the selections.” As with the food and cocktails, there’s a preference for local, craft products. Harpoon Belgian Pale Ale is full-bodied and complex, with fruity notes of citrus. It’s not overly hoppy, and the often distinctive Belgian yeast is fairly mild, making for a good session beer.
The Maine Beer Company’s Mean Old Tom is an American stout. Rich and creamy but not overly sweet, the notes of chocolate and coffee make this an ideal after-dinner brew.
Kirkland’s draft selection may be modest, but that doesn’t mean beer is a low priority. Another 40 to 50 beers are available in bottles and cans, and there’s a “beer of the week” special that Jared says is evolving into a “brewery of the month” special. And as will appeal to the true beer connoisseur, KT&T has an “Underground List” of hard-to-find specialty items, a selection characterized as “old, rare, funky, or otherwise near and dear to our hearts.”
Maybe it’s just part of his job as beverage director, but Jared seems able to talk at length about every one of KT&T’s beers, and he describes each brewery with the same thoughtfulness that was apparent in our discussion of cocktail recipes. One brewery he seems particularly impressed with is Stillwater Artisanal, a small outfit based in Baltimore. The Stillwater Classique, which calls itself a “postmodern beer,” is a crisp, refreshing Saison, with light notes of lemon that make it well suited to the summer months.
Artisanal but approachable, the Stillwater Classique almost seems symbolic of Kirkland Tap & Trotter itself, prompting a moment of situational awareness: I’m hanging out at the bar of a restaurant run by a highly acclaimed chef, drinking beer from a can, while people all around me order hot dogs.
I think I feel an air drum solo coming on.
It’s difficult to talk about Kirkland Tap & Trotter in a context other than that of Craigie on Main. That’s what happens when a celebrated chef opens a new restaurant. It’s also a little unfair; KT&T isn’t Craigie on Main Junior or Craigie for Beginners. It possesses its own style and identity, and while comparisons may be inevitable, the two restaurants only have so much in common.
What they do share, though, is a preference for fresh, locally sourced ingredients and an aversion to shortcuts. So while the presentation at KT&T isn’t quite as elaborate, even the simplest dishes and drinks reflect hours of preparation.
That means making a blue curacao in house for a blithe, summertime cocktail, or blending several whiskies for an otherwise straightforward Old Fashioned. And who could expect a hot dog to achieve such respectability?
It’s that sense of approachability, more than anything else, that truly distinguishes KT&T from Maws’ previous endeavor. It’s a spontaneous, weeknight kind of place that insists on quality but doesn’t demand a refined palate or require a reservation.
In other words, it’s a good neighborhood joint.
Address: 425 Washington Street, Somerville
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