We'll talk about food in a minute. First, let it be said that Highland Kitchen has one of the best-stocked jukeboxes in town. In fact, music is such an integral part of the Highland Kitchen experience, it may be illustrative to talk about the restaurant and bar in terms of the blues, country, soul, and other eclectic nuggets chef-owner Mark Romano clearly loves. If Highland Kitchen were a playlist, what would be on it?
It's tempting to kick things off with Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen," for some old-school blues. But the hordes flocking to the restaurant don't seem to need persuading to come on in. "Soul Kitchen," by the Doors, is really more like it. Highland Kitchen has plenty of soul - you can taste it in the seafood gumbo, brimming with okra and andouille, deeply flavored from the dark roux at its foundation. You can taste it in the braised pork shoulder with bacon, the tender meat melting into creamy, grits-like polenta. The dish makes one ordinarily manly diner, flushed from downing a well-made periodista (rum, apricot brandy, and more), say, "Oh. Oh my. Oh goodness," in the high, girlish tones of a Southern belle. (Cocktail aside, it is good.)
Plus, the Doors' refrain "I'd really like to stay here all night" seems fitting. With a semi-bare, arty aesthetic - white brick walls, wood floors, chalkboards on the wall, and a long, L-shaped wood bar - Highland Kitchen has an appealing feeling of late-hour cool, even when it's not that late.
The next song might be Johnny Cash's version of "Further On (Up the Road)." Highland Kitchen's not in Porter Square. It's not in Davis Square. It's a mile from either. The previous tenant, the ill-conceived jazz bar Madison's on the Ave., couldn't make a go of it here. But Highland Kitchen has hit upon the perfect formula for the area, populated by plenty of young professionals and (under)served primarily by takeout from Yummy Hut and pizza delivery.
Locals were longing for a real hangout, a place with solid bartending, good food, and a relaxed vibe, and that's what Highland Kitchen delivers. (For non-locals, there's a tiny parking lot in back.) Now the hipsters and the post-work crowd and the moms and dads and toddlers of the 02143 have a place to call their own. Cue Billy Bragg's "You Woke Up My Neighbourhood."
Then segue into a medley: "Catfish," John Lee Hooker; "The Goat," Junior Wells; "Hungry Like the Wolf," Duran Duran; "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer," Bessie Smith. The food here is comforting and often Cajun-tinged. The Highland fish fry is a piece of moist, perfectly fried catfish served with hush puppies and remoulade. There's also a craveable po' boy of blackened catfish on baguette, served with sweet house-made pickles. There's a bit of heat to it from cayenne, but it tastes downright mild beside a bowl of curried goat stew on jasmine rice, a version of the dish Romano served in his former post as the chef at Green Street. It's described on the menu as "spicy," and for once a menu really means it. The dish is delightfully gamy, the meat complemented by chunks of squash, sweet fried plantains, and coconut milk, but above all it is hot. Incendiary. Delicious, if you can take it.
Roast chicken is juicy with crisp skin, served with garlic mashed potatoes and greens, but meatloaf is a dried-out disappointment. It tastes like crumbly sausage, heavy on the dried herbs. This is a dish you would expect to be great here. You would also expect the Highland cheeseburger to be great, and the restaurant nails it. The half-pounder is made with Angus steak, and the meat is so good that even when the burger is a hair overdone, it's still delicious.
Highland Kitchen has plenty of good bar snacks, too. What's not to like about a place where you can order deviled eggs and a beer? (Not to mention listen to live country music during Sunday brunch.) The eggs are great, with light, relish-studded centers. Calamari, served Rhode Island style with slices of pickled cherry peppers, is fried in an appealing cornmeal batter, but the portion is tiny. Chili cheese fries are a soggy mess, the potatoes limp and sad beneath the chili.
The beer list ranges from Miller High Life to Louisiana brew Abita Turbodog to Chimay. The wine list is short and sweet, with 10 whites, 10 reds, and a few sparklers; it's also reasonable, with plenty of bottles in the $20s and $30s. And the mixology is excellent, with bartending favorite Joe McGuirk (formerly of Chez Henri, the B-Side, Green Street, and more) among those shaking Somerville Sidecars.
Do I hear Tom Waits singing "Chocolate Jesus"? Dessert plays it fairly simple, with a perfectly pleasant chocolate pudding and a moist, just-right slice of chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice cream. (With the exception of the pudding, all desserts at Highland Kitchen are a la mode.)
"It Don't Cost Very Much," by Mahalia Jackson, is music to diners' ears. At $19.95, a grilled salmon special comes the closest to breaking out of the teens; appetizers and sandwiches generally range from $6.95 to $8.95.
Highland Kitchen calls itself a gastropub, borrowing the term from the UK, where these pubs-plus-good-food run rampant. As they do in New York, a trend inaugurated by the wildly popular Spotted Pig, which opened four years ago; suddenly gastropubs were everywhere. The term may not have caught on yet here - and whether it should is a matter of opinion - but the concept isn't new. Highland Kitchen follows in the footsteps of the B-Side, Green Street (naturally), and more. It's already popular. When the nearby Armory begins hosting live music and other events, it promises to become even more so. That's good, because it deserves it. There's only one problem, as evidenced by the hour wait for a table on a recent Sunday.
Cue Booker T. & the MG's, singing "You Can't Sit Down."
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.