Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

New England Regional

Eclectic Eating

A Southern-inspired grill fills a Somerville niche.

January-February 2009

Highland Kitchen blends into the neighborhood, but stands out for its cooking.

Highland Kitchen blends into the neighborhood, but stands out for its cooking.

Courtesy of Highland Kitchen

Veteran chef Mark Romano opened Highland Kitchen to feed a neighborhood hungry for a great hangout/restaurant—and to enjoy complete freedom in the kitchen. “I like to think of it as a place where everyone can feel at home,” says Romano, who grew up in the South. “It’s an American place with a definite East Coast shoreline feel—all the way from Florida to Maine.” 

Romano’s style (practiced at soul-food joints, the Blue Room, and the old Green Street Grill) has a distinctly Southern flare with some saucy Caribbean twists. But the kitchen also turns out traditional English pub food and assorted Italian pastas with nary a tropical fruit, collard green, or peppery spice in sight. “I’m not too crazy about fusion cooking,” he explains. “But we do have freedom to do whatever we want within a cuisine.” Hence the outstanding jerk swordfish entrée ($18.95) served with a chunky plantain-pineapple ketchup created by Romano’s sous chef, Chris Thompson. And nowhere else can you find such amazing Korean-style fried chicken wings ($7.95)—coated with a kicky hoisin sauce and sesame seeds and served with a fresh mound of kimchi spiced with chili paste and slivers of red pepper. Moreover, it’s a flexible, affordable menu: side dishes, around $3 each, abound, including fluffy deviled eggs, house pickles, and chili cheese fries. Or you can tuck into a Cuban Reuben, catfish po’ boy, or assorted salads, like arugula mixed with fresh figs, blue cheese, and spiced pecans —for about $10 each.

Among the entrées, people rightly rave about the delicate beer-battered fish (haddock) and chips ($15.95). Served sizzling hot, the fresh-cut potatoes come with skins on and a bottle of vinegar. Meat lovers should try the 10-ounce “flat-iron” steak with a rich basil butter sauce, those fabulous fries, and a side of peppery wilted watercress ($21.95), while vegetarians are treated to one of the most popular dishes on the menu, a subtle, Tuscan-style mushroom lasagna with butternut squash and Swiss chard ($14.95). 

Old Grill regulars will recognize the mildly incendiary coconut curried goat stew ($18.95), with softly fragrant jasmine rice and sweet fried plantains, now offered at the new Somerville location. The Kitchen draws a mixed crowd of older students, young professionals, and working-class families, nicely reflecting its neighborhood. The place has an “artistic tavern” feel—dark sky-blue walls, wooden tables, and built-in benches and a purplish-brown ceiling hung with wonderful, organic-looking chandeliers made of wire and glass by Cambridge sculptor Tom O’Connell. A neon martini sign beckons diners from a front window. 

Romano’s wife, Marci Jo, runs the dining room, and sometimes grants requests to turn down the jukebox—a decision Romano doesn’t always like. The chef sought out a vendor who’d let him play his own CDs (he has hundreds), and the music is a big part of the mood: old soul, R&B, and select country. (On Sundays, a live bluegrass band plays during brunch.) 

With Patsy Cline singing her aching heart out after our rich meal of boldly diverse flavors, we were relieved to see desserts that tended toward the comforting: warm banana-bread pudding ($6), served with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream, that slid right down, and apple crisp ($6) with a lemony undertone. What more can we say? We’ve already been back twice.