Gonna Take Her Back to Somerville

by James Boo on May 10, 2011 · 5 comments

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While Girlfriend and I weren’t out touring Boston at the end of April, we rested our heads in nearby Somerville. The neighborhoods of this town, bordering three major universities and cradling the last stretch of the Red Line out of Boston, have been through more than one wave of history – including the familiar story of gentrification.

Turkish Coffee - Istanbul'lu - Somerville, MA
As such, it seemed fitting to take sips of strong Turkish coffee at Istanbul’lu, a young, charming Turkish restaurant between Davis Square and Teele Square. Refined enough to feel high-end and suburban enough to feel familiar, Istanbul’lu was a refreshing taste of immigrant cuisine that required neither travail nor translation to be digested.

Haydari - Turkish Yogurt With Mint, Garlic and Butter - Istanbul'lu - Somerville, MA
Haydari was one of the house’s many tasty uses of Turkish yogurt, which found its way into almost all of our dishes. This “cold tapas” presentation was little more than a luscious, high-fat yogurt, strained until stand-up thick and seasoned with crushed garlic and chopped dill.

Topped with a drizzle of melted butter, a sprinkle of dried red pepper, and a pinch of fresh mint, it made a happy partner to Istanbul’lu’s fluffy, buttery house bread – though not as stellar as the house’s complementary garlic-and-red pepper sauce. It was also perfectly fine eaten one creamy spoonful at a time; the subtleties of the dish’s seasoning added just the right layer of extra flavor to the simple pleasure of well-prepared yogurt.

Kirmizi Beyaz - Stuffed Pepper - Istanbul'lu - Somerville, MA
I’ve read that beyaz is actually a form of cheese made from fresh sheeps’ milk, but Istanbul’lu’s menu lists the filling for its kirmizi beyaz as suzme, the same strained yogurt prepared as the base for haydari. Whatever was lost in my translation, this particular sample was closer to a whipped cream cheese than savory feta, noticeably tangier and lighter than its full-bore counterpart. Used to stuff a delicate roasted pepper and laid over melted butter, it was simple, satisfying, and (sadly) short-lived.

Mucver - Turkish Zucchini Fritter - Istanbul'lu - Somerville, MA
Mucver, a fritter constructed from finely chopped zucchini, carrot, egg, beyaz and smattering of herbs and spices, is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Pan-fried to a deep brown crisp, rested on a mound of yogurt and paired with a single slice of red tomato, the mucver at Istanbul’lu is home cooking, perfectly elevated to white-tablecloth status. The fritter itself shows off a fantastic balance between crunchy crust and fluffy core, while the dollop of yogurt and streak of tomato juice round out each bite with graceful calculation.

Paca - Lamb, Yogurt and Garlic Soup - Istanbul'lu - Somerville, MA
The soup menu’s paca (pronounced “pahtch-ah”) does just as much in the opposite direction, offering a straightforward lamb soup for the soul. Rich as a concentrated serving of lamb bone extract should be, this soup was boosted by yogurt and sharpened by garlic. Scraps of lamb meat and fat at the bottom of the bowl punctuate the paca’s essential character, a gratitude to home cooking that makes Istanbul’lu more than just an edible import into a nice neighborhood.

The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery - Somerville, MA
Home-bred character was in equally high supply at The Neighborhood, a Portugese-American diner that’s been serving all-day breakfast at the foot of Somerville’s Prospect Hill for almost 30 years.

Upon placing our orders we were immediately offered a complement of either a baked apple or a bowl of cream of wheat. Girlfriend, confused by this sudden, off-the-menu decision, asked our Boston-bound waiter to explain.

“Cream of wheat,” he responded, making a spooning motion from an invisible bowl to his jaw. “It’s a hot cereal.”

Baked Apple - The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery - Somerville, MA
We all chose the baked apple. Cored, filled with butter and cinnamon, then baked to a mash and glazed with maple syrup, it was a bit heavy as an appetizer, but not so sweet or heavy that it couldn’t be polished off in just a few bites.

Linguica With Fried Banana, Home Fries, and Fried Eggs - The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery - Somerville, MA
For eight bucks, I was then handed a platter of grilled linguica, home fries from scratch, three fried eggs, and a whole grilled banana.

My home fries were just barely crusty and tasted of butter and salt without being heavy, greasy or over-salted. My eggs delivered their nondescript lines without a second thought to creativity. My Portugese sausage was true to form, with a snappy casing and a juicy, fall-apart filling. The Neighborhood’s grilled banana, tender and overripe, snubbed dill pickle spears everywhere with its sweet, caramelized edges. This was the American breakfast dream, realized just as splendidly by the Borges family as it has been by other favorites of mine, like Ann’s Kitchen and Stage Restaurant.

Blueberry Pancakes - The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery - Somerville, MA
The Neighborhood confirms its destination status with an outstanding plate of blueberry pancakes. This particular short stack wasn’t as crisp on the edges or as fluffy and airy on the inside as the platonic perfect pancake my childhood memory often fools me into chasing. Still, these moist, berry-stuffed pancakes had sides just crisp enough to lead us right into another bite, and before we knew it, we were left with a faint puddle of maple syrup.

Eating within big city limits, it’s easy to forget that suburban living doesn’t necessarily equate to culinary surrender. If the Flushings, Westminsters and Somervilles of the world are any indication, I’ll have plenty to look forward to when it’s time to think about leaving suck city for good.

237 Holland St
Somerville, MA 02144
The Neighborhood Restaurant and Bakery
25 Bow St.
Somerville, MA 02143
Kris May 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Did you happen to make it down to Inman Square at any point during your stay? There’s a couple excellent hole-in-the-wall restaurants there, Olecito and Punjabi Dhaba. Clearly too late now if you didn’t make it, but places to keep in mind should you ever return.

James Boo May 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Kris – I actually did little exploring, since I made a conscious effort to not get totally bogged down in the hunt for amazing food this time around :) Thanks for the recommendations, though! I’ll be keeping a list with them for my next visit.

Joon S. May 14, 2011 at 3:17 am

The haydari reminds me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGJVkByYyRA.

JO May 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm

woahMG, that portugeuese looks amazing. I can’t believe i want to go to boston.

James Boo May 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Jeff, they even had a “Portugese Breakfast” platter which had everything I had, plus three more kinds of Portugese grilled meats all kinda delicious shit. The Neighborhood gets it right.

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