Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Were you surprised when you heard that Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge was planning a second restaurant? I sure was. I mean, he was the kind of chef who never left the pass. You could walk into Craigie on Main any night of the year and there he'd be, calling out orders and finishing plates. Heck, an entire book on his restaurant came out last year, its overriding thesis being that Tony Maws is the kind of chef who could only ever be tied down to a single location.
But this is the good kind of surprise. With a James Beard award under his belt and more recognition than any chef could hope for, there's not much left that Maws needs to prove. The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, whose doors opened last week on the Somerville/Cambridge border, serves up the kind of food that he'd serve to his family on a lazy sunday afternoon. Grilled meats, fresh vegetables, simple sauces, bold flavors.
Family and friends have always been deeply important to Maws. The original Craigie Street Bistrot was opened on a shoestring budget, with the help of flea markets and friends who were generous with their manual labor. I remember the early days, when Tony's mother, Marjorie, would serve glasses of sparkling wine at the book- and photograph-strewn front table as we waited for our table. His wife is a constant, smiling fixture at Craigie on Main. You'll catch his toddler-aged son coloring in pictures on the pass on slow nights.
But for all that, it's tough to say that Craigie on Main is a real, everyday, neighborhood spot when meals can push into the hundreds of dollars and scoring a seat takes weeks if not months of planning. The days of "the little neighborhood bistro that could," as Maws used to call it, are long gone. The Kirkland Tap & Trotter aims to bring those ideals back to his repertoire. "No swooshes or dots of sauce on the plates here," says Maws. "We're just doing simple food, but perfectly executed. I want to see families dining here on a Monday night."
Tony is adamant that the Kirkland Tap & Trotter is not just a reincarnation of Craigie. "This isn't Craigie on Main Two," he says. And indeed, if you look at the menu and the plates of food, it'd be hard to tell that they even came from the same chef. "It's funny. At Craigie on Main, we don't allow tongs in the kitchen. Here, you wouldn't be able to cook without them," he says as he flips a swordfish chop searing on the grill.
There are some similar threads running through both restaurants. The focus on local produce and off-cuts of meat. The eclectic beer and wine lists. The extensive-but-not-overbearing use of modern cooking techniques—most meats at both restaurants are cooked through in a CVap steam oven before being finished with more traditional means—the plancha or a skillet at Craigie on Main; an oak and coal-fired grill at Kirkland Tap & Trotter.
And, of course, the burger. "Craigie's burger is still Craigie's burger," Tony tells me. That particular burger has done him well, named best burger in the city countless times and even gracing the cover of Bon Appetit. "We wanted to do something a little different for Kirkland. We ditched the powdered miso and custom beef blend." Craigie on Main's burger has suet, bone marrow, and dehydrated miso mixed into its three-cut blend of beef. Kirkland's is made with "straight up coarse ground chuck, with a little extra fat mixed in." It makes for a simpler, more familiar bite. "We plan to mix it up with the toppings and pickles," he adds.
The space is large—over 110 seats— and dominated on the left side by a long bar that leads into the open kitchen. Take a look back there and the first thing—maybe the only thing—you'll notice is the massive grill. Two elevated grates are suspended above a pit filled with charcoal and oak embers, the cook lifting them up and down with a pulley system in order to adjust the heat reaching the meat, fish, and vegetables arranged on top. Nearly every meat-based dish on the menu spends some time on that grill, and the aroma of smoke and fire is unavoidable.
The inspiration here is casual gastropub and grill. There's a grilled half chicken on the menu and a double-cut pork chop. Each night there are a half dozen or so "swordfish chops," cut from the collar of the fish—a nod to David Burke's lauded dish from Fresh, his old TriBeCa spot. There's whole grilled salmon head—you might have seen something similar at New York's Chez Sardine. Maws's comes with three sauces—two Mexican-inspired salsas, and a Vietnamese nước chấm.
Chalkboard specials run every night, and are more than just a couple of additions—they're the main part of the menu. Those used to ordering the "Chef's Whim" at Craigie on Main will be comfortable here. The grilled meats rotate each night, depending on what was available to the kitchen that day.
The dining room is a mix of high tops surrounding the bars and windows, with small tables and larger communal seating occupying the center of the room. You may well end up bumping elbows (if not sharing meals) with your neighbors here. Walls are bare, and surfaces are wood. It's a crowd-friendly space, and can get noisy—more fun than romantic.
And how was the food? Well, this is a first look and it's too early to say with certainty what it will look like a few months in, but for now, take a peep through the slideshow for a closer look at some of the dishes and the space.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.