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Sauce

Highland Kitchen satiates Somerville neighborhood's cravings

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

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SOMERVILLE - I've always dreamed of living within walking distance of a restaurant with delicious, affordable food, a decent bar, and a comfortable vibe. A place I could go to a few times a month to have dinner or a drink. A place I could call my hangout.

So when Highland Kitchen opened around the corner from my house last month, my hopes were high. I knew it was owned by the former chef at Green Street Grill in Central Square, where I had feasted on mahi mahi with mango-avocado salsa and sampled lip-scorching curried goat stew. And when I heard Tom Waits playing on the jukebox the first time I walked in, and saw the silver menus gleaming with promises of brandy flips and chili cheese fries, I was instantly smitten. Halfway through our first drinks, my husband and I were on a first-name basis with the bartender.

The spot on Highland Avenue was formerly occupied by Madison's on the Ave., a low-rent jazz bar with abysmal food run by guys who got in fist-fights in the parking lot. What a difference new owners make. Mark Romano, the former Green Street chef, and his wife, Marci Joy, who was a manager at East Coast Grill, spruced up the interior, installed a killer juke box (using Romano's CD collection), and created a simple, appealing menu, with nothing over $19 on it. The cocktail list is classic, with periodistas and bourbon smashes - perfectly mixed by bartenders fresh from Gaslight and UpStairs on the Square - and the cooler is well stocked with Miller High Life and Pabst.

On New Year's Eve, we happily rang out 2007 with to-die-for scallops and cauliflower puree, tender braised beef short rib, lip-smacking cheeseburgers, and the mahi mahi and spicy coconut-curried goat stew from Romano's days at Green Street. We should have skipped the fried catfish and hushpuppies, though, which didn't taste like much of anything.

That night we had the place practically to ourselves, but when we returned last Saturday, the joint was jumping. Our projected 45-minute wait for a wait for a table stretched into an hour and a half, but we didn't get cranky. How could we with James Brown, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding pouring out of the jukebox, and a boisterous vibe filling the big, open room? The staff was dancing in the open kitchen, and a skinny guy in saggy jeans was dancing by the bar. When he started swaying to "Respect," a member of our party jumped up to join him; when the song was over, the whole room erupted in applause.

We wolfed down our appetizers - lightly fried calamari with a smoked tomato dipping sauce, mellow bluefish cakes, and cheese fries topped with spicy, chunky chili - but our favorite dishes that night were the sandwiches: namely, the fried oyster po' boy and the Cuban Reuben with roasted pork, corned beef, Russian dressing, and pickled cabbage. The vegan tajine with almond, apricot, and raisin couscous, wasn't thrilling; and the vinegary pulled pork sandwich was so-so, but we ended on a high note: warm, gooey chocolate cake and chocolate ice cream.

Highland Kitchen has a B-Side feel to it, a similar hip, laid-back atmosphere and killer selection of food and drinks - only here's there's a parking lot in back and live country music during Sunday brunch. We returned to sample the latter last weekend, and it was our favorite visit yet. A guitar, banjo, and fiddle trio played in the corner while we ate flaky, buttery biscuits with rich sausage gravy; shrimp and creamy grits with bits of smoked bacon, mushrooms, and greens; and light, spongy pancakes with crispy edges smothered in bourbon maple syrup. We could have stayed for hours.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Highland Kitchen. Hope you like us as much as we like you, because we're going to be seeing quite a bit of each other.

Highland Kitchen, 150 Highland Ave., Somerville. 617-625-1131. Entrees $6.95-$18.95. Wines by the glass $7-$9.

Katie Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com