Hungry Mother | Dining out

A new restaurant that does everything right

By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 4, 2008

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When Rachel Miller Munzer and Alon Munzer ran Rachel's Kitchen in Bay Village, they turned the postage stamp-size sandwich shop into a cornerstone of the neighborhood. They did it by serving great sandwiches, of course, but also by making everyone feel at home. If you'd been there once, they knew your face. Twice, they knew your order.

Now they've partnered with chef Barry Maiden and former Sel de la Terre manager John Kessen to open Hungry Mother, a not-quite-as-small marvel of a restaurant that expertly brings together Southern dishes and French technique. Much is different: nighttime hours, leg room, food you need a utensil to eat. But some things aren't. Hungry Mother is refined, in a hip, vintage-jacket-and-mint-julep way, but it's also comfortable. The hosts still make everyone feel at home. They already had the hospitality, now they have the Southern to match.

Maiden's food, too, is refined yet comfortable. He's cooked at L'Espalier, Sel de la Terre, and Lumiere, and the man knows his way around a vichyssoise, a special one night: pure, creamy, luxurious, with layers of flavor. But he's from Virginia - the restaurant is named for a state park there - and that's where the small menu's heart lies, a concise salute to peanuts and sorghum, cornmeal and grits. There are no throwaway dishes here.

The walls of the bathrooms at Hungry Mother are papered in pages from old cookbooks. One is adorned with Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," the other Mary Randolph's "The Virginia House-wife." The cooking isn't dichotomized, though - there's not a French side of the menu, then a Southern side. It's more like Child has prepared Randolph's recipes. Even the simplest of dishes display a mastery of technique. Deviled eggs are no mere picnic basic, the whites tender, the filling light and tangy, topped with bits of house-made bacon. (The eggs are from Chip-in Farm in Bedford - Maiden is devoted enough to local, seasonal ingredients that it would be fair to paper another bathroom in pages by Alice Waters.) Anything in a cornmeal batter - oysters, green tomatoes, catfish - is a beautiful thing, crisp and greaseless. Roasted chicken is juicy, something any bistro table would be honored to present, though here it's served with jalapeno-green garlic spoon bread, beet greens, and red-eye gravy "jus" - tres down home.

That perfect catfish comes with collards and Carolina gold rice "middlins," the broken grains also known as rice grits. But the middlins are made with a mirepoix, and the fish is served with mustard-caper vinaigrette. The fried green tomato comes with a toast mounded with tomato chutney and a little glass of tomato-chervil water. I have a soft spot for tomato water - it's refreshing, and pleasantly strange to find the taste of tomato like a ghost in the glass. From the reactions of my companions, however, I may be in the minority.

The green tomato dish is as overtly experimental as the food gets, although there are plenty of tweaks and winks. Flat iron steak is served with "B1 sauce," Maiden's take on A1. A side of corn bread is topped with sorghum butter, a grassy-sweet taste like nothing else. Sorghum also appears in the No. 3, a mint julep. The house cocktails go by numbers - the No. 1 (rye, Dr. Pepper, and bitters) and the No. 10 (bourbon, sweet tea, and limoncello) are standouts, unless you hit Hungry Mother when the Dr. Pepper is just starting to go flat. Shrimp and grits - elevated comforted food, made with the gold standard Anson Mills grits and tiny shrimp that melt in your mouth - includes house-made tasso ham and ramps. The classic snack of boiled Virginia peanuts meets fancy gray sea salt here; their flavor and texture remind you that peanuts are really legumes.

But much of the time the food is too delicious to ponder how it's prepared. When you're inhaling barbecued Berkshire pork ribs, every ounce of concentration is on the smoky, tender meat sticky with sauce. They come with puckery chow chow and corn bread, not sugary and with a good crust. Meat smoking is done in-house, and the results are excellent, from a smoked chicken bratwurst to a catfish pate that knocks the socks off the Virginia ham it shares a plate with (Southern surf and turf), along with olives, fig jam, and pickled ramps. A departure from the rest of the menu, French-style gnocchi with mushrooms, peas, and pea tendrils practically float out of the bowl and into your mouth - they are more like savory little pastries than dumplings. (In fact, they are. French gnocchi are made from pate a choux and are potato-free.)

Much attention has been paid to the beverages. There's a very good beer selection, from the "champagne of beers" (a.k.a. Miller) to a very different Milwaukee brew, New Grist, a gluten-free lager, plus some craft beers and a few from Massachusetts. The wine list, like the food, is affordable. It includes quite a few Burgundies, Bordeaux, and other French selections, as well as some New World options; it's a diverse, interesting range.

Desserts are very good, if not as strong as the rest of the menu. An average sticky bun comes with far-from-average sorghum ice cream - that flavor again, boiled and vegetal and sweet, embedded in a cool white scoop. Buttermilk pie is a dense, custard-like confection in a graham cracker crust; it goes down easy, not too sweet, not too tangy. Old-fashioned chocolate cake is a giant layered slab that will make any chocolate cake fan happy, particularly served with a cold glass of Thatcher Farm milk. Rhubarb sorbet with honey cream tastes, well, like rhubarb. It veers toward too pure - the tart rhubarb could use an assist from some strawberries or more sugar.

But in my visits to Hungry Mother, I never once ordered something that wasn't at least satisfying, if not soul-suffusingly delicious. I should mention that on at least one occasion I was recognized - a side effect of eating at an establishment whose owners have a photographic memory for faces - and treated just as nicely as, but no nicer than, everyone else. Hungry Mother appears to bring its A game to everyone.

And that's what makes the restaurant so good. The Hungry Mother team understands hospitality, and how to execute it; there isn't really anything they should be doing that they're not, and they're not doing anything they shouldn't be. They've created a restaurant that feels both homey and happening, full of small touches that add up to something more. That's echoed in the decor, which is spare and clean - cream walls, wood floors - with whimsical flourishes: a ham sack or an iron skillet hung on the wall, a painting of Thomas Jefferson, snacks on mismatched plates and drinks in canning jars. The space used to be the Kendall Cafe, then the Swan, and the layout is much the same, with a ground level bar area and a dining room up a few stairs. You can recall what rock 'n' roll act you last saw here as you munch beef tongue canapes and fried oysters.

It's an excellent location, right by the Kendall Square Cinema - if you eat before 6, your movie tickets are only $6; a Hungry Mother staffer will get them for you and deliver them with your check. The four owners had originally planned to open a restaurant in Bay Village called the Village Table. (You may remember this because in exchange for a donation, they offered to put your name on the restaurant wall. Those names plus some new ones appear at Hungry Mother.) Now it's hard to imagine them anywhere else. As soon as it opened in March, Hungry Mother was already a cornerstone of the neighborhood.

Devra First can be reached at