Restaurant Review: Mamaleh’s in Kendall Square
Everything at Mamaleh’s in Kendall looks, on first glance, to be in fine working order: the very model of a real, live Jewish deli. Or, better, a convincing sound stage build-out for a TV show set in one. The space looks terrific, and feels impeccably thought out. You can all but see the producer’s clipboard, with a fastidious punch list a mile long.
Retro soda fountain hawking egg creams and cherry phosphates? Check. Rotating vertical showcase of yester-era desserts? Check. Backlit takeout counter where spiffy aproned attendants dole out house-cured cold cuts, house-baked breads and bagels, and translucent, hand-sliced swaths of smoked fish sourced from legendary Brooklyn purveyor Acme by the pound, loaf, and dozen? Check, check, check, check.
In other words: everything Greater Boston’s foodie Jews have been pining for for decades, given our bleak offerings. Brought to fruition by the bulk of the crew behind State Park, the beloved industry hangout downstairs, and Hungry Mother, the now-shuttered tribute to southern fare, Mamaleh’s has been mobbed since day one, the same day it rose instantly to the top of the local Jewish food chain.
So how’d they do? Pretty darned good, for the most part. No small feat, given the Herculean mandate: slinging every last item in the Jewish pantheon. If I’m quibbling, the deli meats, which they “cure, brine, smoke, roast, braise, and steam” in house, were a little on the safe side in terms of fat and salt, especially the pastrami and corned beef ($30 a pound). I found the marble rye and seeded light rye (the only breads not baked in house) the slightest bit stale and unstructured. I thought “Nana’s Noodle Kugel” ($6.25) played it safely down the middle, expunging controversial raisins but jazzing things up with a crushed-cornflake topping. Local Jews, myself (half) included, should be thrilled.
And yet. I can’t help but wonder if this version of Mamaleh’s is the one everyone involved wanted to do, or if the pressure of the sweeping mandate pushed them in this clean, controversy-averse direction. I say this only because, amid the parade of irreproachably correct classics on the menu, there are breathtaking bursts of creative brilliance that feel like they slipped out despite conscientious efforts to color inside the lines. A punk band sworn to keep it G-rated for the weekend bat mitzvah gig, but ending up a smidge too thrashy on “Celebration.”
After five visits, I am convinced there’s an existential struggle at Mamaleh’s between two takes on the Jewish deli: Nostalgia Trip and Modern Update. An awkward straddling of the line between correct-if-dusty offerings from the Museum of All Jewish Food and living, breathing, even—gasp!—evolving testaments to a traditional cuisine. In fact, if you rolled the dice and somehow managed to order nothing but the reinventions, you’d be hard-pressed to find better, and more relevant, Jewish-deli fare anywhere.
Humble kreplach ($9), mini dumplings typically boiled, got the crispy-wonton treatment, filled with caramelized onion and ricotta and garnished with mushroom crema, horseradish, and sliced house-pickled turnip. Chopped chicken liver ($8), reminiscent of soft, velvety rillettes, will annoy purists in principle but win over most once they experience the glorious texture and clean, earthy flavor. Frumpy old kasha varnishkes ($7) looked stunning made over with a smattering of wild mushrooms and Brussels sprouts tossed in with the buckwheat and al dente bowties.
Presided over by co-owner/pastry chef Rachel Sundet, the baking program here is on point. The bagels, which come gratis with smoked-fish platters, are excellent, but Sundet’s novel take on onion bialys is a genre-changer. She said she achieves the airy, ciabatta-like texture with an elaborate folding and resting process, creating copious warrens of air pockets and deep gluten development. My recommendation for anything that comes with a choice of bread.
Jewish-food nostalgia can be zealously personal and subjective—for a sharper dose of everyone’s-a-critic grief, you’d probably have to open a themed eatery called Thanksgiving Sides Bistro. But I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be blown away by the flawless latkes ($8 for three) at Mamaleh’s. Done rösti-style using little more than grated onion, egg, and starchy, Russet-like Shepody potatoes, they had a craggly exterior and a just-tender-enough interior to create a textural foil. Five times ordered, five times perfect, and one of the rare “unreformed” classics that rose to the level of the reinventions.
The matzo-ball soup ($7 cup; $8.50 bowl), on the other hand, could use a bit of reform—starting with a consistent recipe. Flat, anemic, and underseasoned, the broth was one day so carrot-driven you’d guess it was veggie stock. The matzo ball itself, a decent hybrid of dense and airy styles, could’ve used more schmaltz. For many diners, fair or not, matzo-ball soup is the benchmark: It either needs to be A-game or chucked.
The latter of which would have been a viable option had the Mamaleh’s team not gone the encyclopedic Nostalgia Trip route. If it’s unfair to bring up Hungry Mother comparisons, it’s also hard not to ponder—given the menu’s pattern of strengths and weaknesses—how a “Hungry Mamaleh’s” model would have gone: Jewish-deli-inspired small plates built for the modern palate.
Service at Mamaleh’s is something of a crapshoot. One meal you’ll luck out with a server so polished you’ll wonder if she suits up for a second shift at L’Espalier. The next, you’ll be convinced your server’s about to sit right down at your table to read off the specials, because, you know, that was his trademark folksy flair back at Ruby Tuesday. All joking aside, it’s inconsistent to the point of distraction, especially at night—when I can only imagine it’s challenging to find seasoned staffers willing to work at deli price points.
Speaking of the night shift, nowhere more than dinner hour did the Nostalgia Trip vs. Modern Update toggle feel more off-kilter. In a deserted room, my date and I doubled down on the dinner-only specials—including a foie gras “Reuben” ($17) with Manischewitz agrodolce—sipping first-rate original cocktails (my favorite: mezcal, earthy beet soda, punt e mes, and lemon, $10). It was a tease. An unexpected flower burst through the straight-and-narrow interstices of the Jewish-deli grid. Making me wonder, yet again, what would happen if the Mamaleh’s punch list of compulsories weren’t so long: What else might blossom?
One Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-958-3354, mamalehs.com.
Potato latkes, $8
House lox with bialy, $14
Kasha varnishkes, $7
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and The Week.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor