On a quiet, unassuming street in Cambridge, giant office buildings hover over tree-lined sidewalks, dotted with dimly lit streetlamps. Hungry Mother plays on the neighborhood’s discordant environment by melding tradition with wacky creativity. Nestled on the corner of a residential row, its glowing sign beckons guests like a siren’s song; only Hungry Mother seduces with boiled, salted peanuts and homemade banana pudding.
Walking into the restaurant feels like entering your crazy aunt’s renovated split-level. The first floor occupies an oddly shaped space with a narrow walkway between two fourtops and a bar built into a u-shaped alcove. The walls are splashed with pea green paint and instead of art, light bulbs sit in gilded picture frames. The bar tap has been retrofitted with a porcelain antique vase base and the chandelier above has crystal bar glasses standing in for light bulbs. With light bulbs on the wall and glasses on the ceiling, it’s clear this restaurant isn’t playing by the rules.
The bar menu is a motley assortment of local and international beers, wines, and specialty cocktails. They even offer sparkling cider and a gluten free lager. At the end of the bar, there’s a wall filled with the names of people who supported the fledgling restaurant before it opened last year. The chef and owners had dreamed up an entirely different restaurant in a Back Bay location, which fell through; this opening was the exciting realization of a dream that Chef/Owner Barry Maiden (of Lumiere), owners Rachel and Alon Munzer (of Rachel’s Kitchen), and owner John Kessen (former GM of Sel de la Terre), had nearly given up on.
Black and white framed cameo-style portraits line the wall up the wooden stairs to the L-shaped dining room. The dining room balances country and city with white-tiled walls and votive candlelight paired with mason jar water glasses and butcher-block tabletops. Nearby, a table that finished their meal tasted moonshine out of a mason jar and reminisced about the last time they got as drunk as they were about to get.
The dinner menu is small but diverse, and a southern staple, ham, finds its way into more than one dish. Chef Barry Maiden, who grew up in southwestern Virginia and was trained in French cooking, takes care to bring both influences to his menu. Focused on using local and seasonal ingredients, and preparing food in-house (he smokes his own fish and sausage, and cures his own meat), the Appalachian region is a key influence.
Split into four sections, the menu starts with inexpensive items ($3-$4) “To Tide You Over” like boiled Virginia peanuts with grey sea salt. The dark, warm peanuts came on a rustic country dish (although the illusion was shattered when a quick glance underneath revealed the plate was made in Indonesia). It was easy to ply off the steamed shells, revealing the tender, salty meat inside.
Showing his dedication to local foods, Chef Maiden is quick to identify where his food comes from. First course items like Maine shrimp and grits ($10) or grilled Rhode Island squid with hominy and ham hock ($9) are clear combinations of northern roots and southern influence.
The B.L.T. appetizer, made with fried green tomatoes, grilled bacon, a frisee salad, and red remoulade ($8) was disappointing. The green tomatoes were flavorless and under ripe and the crust was thin, dry, and bland.
Main courses run between $18 – $27. The French Style Gnocchi ($19) was a homely comforting dish perfect for a cold night. The pasta was tender and velvety, and the flirtatious butternut squash broth filled the bottom of the bowl, giving the meal a delightful sweetness. The only flaw was that all of the ingredients had a similar soft texture, and a dry or crunchy element would have added dimension.
Grilled rainbow trout ($26) atop a bed of tender roasted sunchokes and parsnips was topped with sliced almonds. A lemon brown butter sauce was perfectly undetectable, helping the dish shine without calling attention to itself. The trout was moderately salty and tender, and its humble presentation belied its depth of flavor. The chef let his fresh ingredients speak for themselves in this dish.
Sides fill in any Southern-style gaps with baked grits with ham and cheddar cheese, sautéed collard greens, and southern-style cornbread with sorghum butter.
The five desserts on the menu are each paired with a drink, like the “moon pie,” which is offered with a cold glass of Thatcher Farm milk. The Virginia Peanut Pie with callebaut chocolate and sorghum ice cream was intensely flavorful without being too rich. Instead of a dense pie, the slice had a light whipped center surrounded by a thick peanut-flavored shell drizzled with chocolate and peanut butter.
Banana pudding was served in a small white ramekin, layered with creamy pudding, crunchy crumbled homemade vanilla wafers, and silky, whipped grand Marnier cream. It was rich, comforting, and completely delicious.
The extensive drink menu, including moonshine (unfortunately not made in the backwoods of Virginia under a waning moon like I hoped), can lead into your meal or wind it down. Or, start it up late. The kitchen is open until 1am with a late night menu at the bar.
Oh, and don’t miss a trip to one of the two bathrooms. They’re papered with pages from either Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” or Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife.” You may learn how to make a good biscuit or macaroon while you’re in there.
Hungry Mother. 233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue. Kendall Square, Cambridge MA 02141. 617-499-0090. www.hungrymothercambridge.com.