One longstanding Boston mystery is why we’ve lacked great restaurants offering the traditional delicatessen cuisine of the Central and Eastern European Jewish diaspora. One could find echoes of it—a creditable bagel here, some fine pastrami there, plenty of gastropub-inspired forays into pickling, curing and smoking—but no single place with a decent range of high-quality, canonical Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, never mind finding them prepared in-house. With the new Mamaleh’s near Kendall Square, a group of seven co-owners, most connected with the nearby State Park restaurant, have filled that gap with a vengeance.
Chef Tyler Sundet sounds a very promising opening note with matzah ball soup ($6 small, $8 large), with its limpid, deeply flavored chicken broth and chewy/tender, slightly fluffy cracker-meal dumpling. Mushroom barley soup ($6/$8) similarly wows with a darkly rich porcini broth and hearty mix of root vegetables and grains. Scoops of vegetables from the takeout deli case include a crisp, sweet-tart red cabbage slaw with currants ($4) and roasted whole carrots ($5) scented with coriander and dotted with goat’s milk feta and the crispy-cereal crunch of puffed wild rice.
The fried and the fatty get their luscious due in many dishes, first with knishes, fist-sized wheat-dough turnovers filled with chopped pastrami and corned beef ($6) or mashed potato ($4) and served with deli mustard for dipping. Minnie’s blintzes ($10 for three) read like delightfully eggy crepes stuffed with smooth farmer cheese, refried in butter and topped with bright raspberry preserves. Abraham’s potato latkes ($8) are fried cakes of shredded potatoes, outwardly crisp and tender within, frankly the best hash brownsin the city, served with sour cream and applesauce. Duck kreplach ($7) tops fried, duck-stuffed triangular wontons with a bit of sinus-clearing grated horseradish. Schmaltz, the clarified fat produced by rendering chicken skin, is like a paler, more heavenly version of butter, thickly smeared on rye toast ($7) and topped with parsley leaves, pickled shallots and briny capers. The similarly swoony byproduct of schmaltz-making is gribenes ($6), a tall heap of crisp-fried chicken skin with tender fried onions mixed in—like the best parts of well-fried chicken wings. Chopped chicken liver ($8) is fabulous: darker and funkier than most versions, served in a crock under more schmaltz and gribenes.
The “appetizing deli” portion of the menu—fish and dairy served with breads—features particularly beautiful smoked and/or pickled fish served with classic accoutrements of cream cheese, capers and sliced red onions, cucumbers and tomatoes. Mamaleh’s makes its own gorgeous, delicately brined, thinly sliced salmon lox ($14) and a slightly sweet, chunky pickled herring ($11) with sour cream; it uses a quality outside purveyor for its thicker-sliced smoked sable ($20). Terrific in-house renditions of the accompanying boiled-and-baked bagel or baked-only bialy (the bagel’s hole-free sibling, topped with savory dollops like diced onions or tiny tomatoes) are a huge plus.
Sandwiches evoke NYC destination delis like Katz’s but with less wretched excess, building on superb in-house hot corned beef ($12 small, $24 groaningly large), rather thickly cut hot pastrami ($12/$24) and cold tongue ($12) served with mustard on great rye bread from Hyannis’ Pain d’Avignon boulangerie. Another famed New York deli gets a nod with the Barney Greengrass ($16), which layers smoked sturgeon, cream cheese, tomato and cucumber on an onion bialy. Sides are all very good, as in a sweet-spiced, cornflake-topped, past al-dente noodle kugel ($6), potato salad ($5) and a pickle plate ($5). Specials include a stunning smoked and perfectly roasted salmon collar ($14), a honey-horseradish glaze slicking its chewy skin.
Co-owner/pastry chef Rachel Sundet’s desserts are similarly traditional and nostalgically note-perfect, as in the chocolate-swirled, eggy cake that is babka ($2.75), tall chocolate layer cake ($6), firm and not-too-sweet NY-style cheesecake with strawberry-rhubarb preserves ($5.50) and sublime rugelach ($4), rolled flaky-dough cookies with chocolate or raspberry-walnut filling. There’s also an inventive drinks program by co-owners/bar managers Heather Mojer and Evan Harrison, including a vivid housemade celery soda ($4), chocolate egg cream ($4.50)—think carbonated, foamy chocolate milk with a pretzel-rod stirrer for a sweet/salty hit—and high-quality Barrington drip coffee ($2.50). Yiddish-accented craft cocktails include the Moravian ($12) of slivovitz, Becherovka bitters and vermouth, complemented by boozy soda-fountain variants like aged rum and chocolate phosphate ($10). A short, basic wine list boasts nice prices ($7-$11/glass, most $40-$60/bottle), while a 17-deep beer and cider list ($4-$13.75) focuses on Central and Eastern European styles like the food-friendly Polish lager Okocim O.K. Beer ($4).
The sunny, tall-ceilinged room is centered on a 20-seat bar backed by an open kitchen and surrounded by 80 dining-room seats, flanked by a takeout deli counter and small retail market; it’s bustling and comfortably noisy. Co-owners Rachel Miller Munzer, Alon Munzer and John Kessen help the cheery waitstaff keep the crowds turning over smoothly. In a time when the storied Jewish deli tradition is ebbing, hobbled by rising costs and kids who no longer want to run the family business—and especially in Boston, which hasn’t had an outstanding example of it in living memory—Mamaleh’s is an extraordinary gift to Jews and gentiles alike.
-Matzah ball soup
-Pickled herring with sour cream
-Hot corned beef sandwich
Mamaleh’s One Kendall Square, Building 300, Cambridge (617-958-3354) mamalehs.com
Hours: Tue.-Sat., 8 am-10 pm, Sun., 8 am-4 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby cinema garage (validated after 5 pm weeknights and all day weekends)
Liquor: Full bar