Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Not Chopped Liver at Lehrhaus in Somerville. (Photo: Tom Meek)

That thin line between Somerville and Cambridge and Inman and Porter squares at the intersection of Washington/Kirkland and Beacon streets has been the home of some longtime classic stop-ins. Dalí, the otherworldly tapas experience that’s been a go-to for nearly 35 years, and the Kebab Factory, a popular Indian grab-and-go spot, are still there. Gone are The Biscuit coffee shop and the Tap and Trotter, Tony Maws’ family-friendly gastropub that sadly closed just before the pandemic. The Trotter’s open space was a wonderful reimagining of the old Kirkland Cafe, a classic dive bar and homey music venue that many still mourn. The space has again been reimagined as Lehrhaus, a place of Jewish learning, as the website tells us, and powered by some pretty decent kosher pescatarian and vegetarian offerings. (You can count a note of incongruity in the name change: Trotters are pigs’ feet and most definitely not kosher.) It still has the open space, with a spare, roomy bar area and plenty of window seating, but some of the dining area in the back has been transformed into a stately library of sorts with a grand, heavy wood table in the center and books by Jewish authors and about all things Jewish lining the shelves. The concept, I am told, is to host lectures and readings.

My visit was on one a soft-opening day, but nothing felt soft about it. The staff were pretty on it, and there was no snag or mix-up that I caught. The food list is not vast, but it is intriguing and set to expand. As of now, the only mains are fish and chips and a Beet Reuben. Yup, you read that right, the classic deli corned beef sandwich with slices of the red-root veggie subbed in for the bovine. I did not partake in either, but remain very gastro-curious about that sando. That night my friendly server steered me toward the Not Chopped Liver and Haus Herring Tartine, both excellent.

Lehrhaus has a central library for lectures and readings. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The not-liver is a rich purée of eggplant, nuts, olive oil and mushrooms that is as smooth, creamy and savory as its fowl counterparts – and guilt-free. The portion comes with fluffy warm pita pillows and olive oil to dip in, and goes down quicker than you think given the heaping mound. As for the herring, I was expecting something salty and slightly pickled (that’s a good thing) but what came out were thin strips of near-translucent whitefish that looked like ceviche atop a lightly toasted piece of bread slathered with cultured butter and labneh and topped with pickled peppers. The combination of textures and flavors was not only unique, but tastebud-ticklingly divine. The fish flavor was subtle but resolute and meshed well with the thick yogurt smear. If you’re a fan of deli-style whitefish salad, this is your jam to try a new spin on an old reliable.

Mac and cheese, fries and the Haus Herring Tartine at Lehrhaus. (Photo: Tom Meek)

I also tried the mac and cheese kugel, which was fine, basic mac and cheese but nice to see on the menu, as there were a lot of families pouring in with hungry little ones. I also had the Old Bay fries, which come out crisp on the outside and airy and fluffy on the steak-fry-cut inside, but ask for them to do them up plain if you don’t like Old Bay seasoning, as there is generous seasoning shake given. The Kosher white wine I had was clean and crisp, and a solid dinner accent.

The one thing about Lehrhaus that threw me was the food ordering process. On the corner of that awesome bar sits a kiosk where the bartender takes your order. You get a number card, hit the pour-it-yourself water stand and grab a table where you put your number fob up – cafe-style, like at Tatte. The food and drinks are brought to you. But if you dine at the bar, you have legions looming over you, drifting in and out of your business. You can tune it out eventually, but it feels like a real miss; bar corners are sacred gathering spots for sharing dishes with friends and nattering about climate change, the workplace, significant others, the latest TV series you just binged or even, perhaps, Jewish lore. The fix is a no-brainer: Set the kiosk up by the water station or the host stand. I mean, imagine if the Abbey lost the four seats at its coveted corner?

Lehrhaus (425 Washington St., Somerville) 

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.