Monday, March 2, 2009

Hungry Mother Needs A Scolding

Please allow me to be the first and perhaps last food critic to express my disappointment in Hungry Mother. Sure, it’s had an inordinate amount of hype and positive press behind it since its opening last year in Cambridge, MA. But Chef/Owner Barry Maiden’s French-Southern comfort cuisine – a rarity in the city to be sure – left me perplexed about what the hubbub has been all about.

Maiden – a Virginia native who previously spent his days as Chef de Cuisine under Michael Leviton at West Newton’s much revered Lumiere – clearly cooks with passion for all things Southern, as evidenced by adventurous dishes such as boiled peanuts, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp with grits. This is true comfort grub consumed by those South of the Mason Dixon line. Even house mixed drinks, which are listed numerically, contain a hint of the deep South. Take, for instance, the no. 2, mixed with maker’s mark, sorghum syrup, luxardo amaretto, and boiled peanut for good measure. Southern comfort, indeed. Even water glasses resemble Southern-style jars.

Where there’s promise, however, there’s much letdown. While the aforementioned no.2 was unique in taste, it lacked the distinct peanuty aftertaste I expected. My drinking companion’s no. 47 (laird’s applejack, aperol, buffalo trace bourbon) was much too heavy on the bourbon and practically undrinkable. First courses also proved to be a mixed bag. Fried green tomatoes - while accompanied by a zesty remouloude sauce and a perfectly cooked, delicious, meaty piece of bacon – contained too much batter and too little tomato (which wasn’t ripe enough for my taste). Warm beef toungue canapé with gruyere and Dijon was overcooked and quite bland. A tasting tray containing artisinal cheese, fois gras, and candied prunes, was shockingly small in both size and taste. The lone appetizer that had me wanting more: a Southern staple of shrimp and grits, which contained Maine shrimp (though on the small side), salty tasso ham, New Orleans barbeque, and delectable cornbread croutons. One of my companions remarked during the meal that Hungry Mother was a tad heavy-handed on its inclusion of salt (for instance, the collards). While I agreed with him to some extent, I expressed that extra salt is customary in many Southern dishes.

Main courses were equally mixed. I found the special of bourbon braised pork slightly overcooked and lacking in bourbon flavor. Though one of my eating companions believed that the cornmeal catfish lacked freshness, I did not detect this and found my dish to be rather good. While the fish could certainly have been meatier, its crunchy cornmeal exterior was just right texture-wise, while its accompanying sides of hoppin’ john, andouille sausage, and chow chow meshed well together. Giannone farm roasted chicken was also satisfactory, served alongside brussel sprouts and organic carrots, while drizzled with a savory red-eye gravy jus. Surprisingly, I found Maiden’s French-influenced dish – pillowy-soft French style gnocchi with tender foraged mushrooms, kale, butternut squash broth and sage – to be the most successful entrée on the menu.

Desserts were solid, but not spectacular. Old fashioned coconut cake with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut, while thankfully not too sweet, was not as moist as I had hoped. While my eating companion claimed that its crust was not thick enough for his taste and found its nutty crunchy texture slightly off-putting, I was a huge fan of the peanut pie, particularly the way the bite of the cooked-in bourbon was perfectly counterbalanced by the creaminess of the sorghum ice cream.

While Hungry Mother’s ambience is certainly inviting and homey, its interior proves that even Southern hospitality has its flaws. On the first floor is a tight waiting area, while behind it lies a handful of tables and a small bar. The entryway should be re-named ‘draft central’ for those tables that experience repeated wind gusts from the doorway opening and closing. The main dining area on the second floor is quaint enough, though seating is a tad cramped and acoustics are poor, as we virtually resorted to shouting throughout the evening. Worst of all, while coats are taken by the maitre’d upon arrival, they are stored right in front of the sole bathrooms in the establishment, sometimes creating long lines in the dining area and making it difficult to discern who is leaving the restaurant and who is going (to the bathroom, that is). On a more positive note decorum-wise, Southern jars are memorably converted into funky lighting fixtures (most notably, a number of these are strikingly displayed over the bar to great effect). The white walls and dark wood floors are simple and perfect for the casual family-style vibe for which Hungry Mother aims.

Our server was attentive, amiable, and knowledgeable of the menu. Like any Southern meal, ours was served at a pleasant, leisurely pace.

Value-wise, most of Hungry Mother’s appetizers come out under $10 and entrees average around $20. While some may believe these prices to be a bargain compared to other high-end city restaurants, I was not so enthusiastic given the relatively small portions.

Location-wise, Hungry Mother sits across from the Kendall Square Cinema on the corner of Medeiros Ave, which can make for a nice dinner/movie night out (especially since the restaurant offers discounted movie passes which they will pick up for customers). There is no valet parking, so customers are on their own in that regard.

Did Hungry Mother leave me hungry for seconds? Sure. Maiden’s menu is just eclectic and diverse enough for me to return for seconds. Did his fare leave me feeling as if I had just dined at the seventh-highest rated restaurant in all of Massachusetts (according to Boston Magazine’s recently published list of the Top 50 Restaurants in 2009)? I’ll try to be as Southern gentlemanly as possibly when I say unfortunately, no.