[ review ]
It was 10:30 p.m. at the Cambridge, and my ass was asleep.
Not my ass metaphorically, like how you might sigh, “My ass is dragging,” after running a 5K or spending the morning at traffic court. No, my actual ass. In lieu of chairs, elfin wood-and-iron stools are arrayed about the loud, shadowy footprint of the old Tritone. They were built of reclaimed material by a carpenter friend of the Cambridge’s (and Hawthorne’s) owners, Chris Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico, and they’re about as comfortable as sitting on a wooden mushroom. They look handsome, but so do a lot of serial killers.
Fortunately, I and countless other numb-butt customers in the Cambridge’s 10 weeks of business have suffered so you don’t have to. “New chairs are being delivered today,” Annechiarico told me when we talked; the point of the stools, she explained, was to nurture a casual, communal vibe. “We wanted to make this a gathering space where people would be able to crowd around tables.”
It’s a fair explanation, but a moot one. The stools are gone. So why would I even bring them up? To illustrate (and applaud) Fetfatzes and Annechiarico for hearing their customers’ complaints and, more importantly, doing something about them. (There are restaurateurs with bigger egos and bigger pockets who would have told all our asses to just fuck off.) Their adaptability is a skill that will serve them well in the coming months, as the Cambridge, though not without its charms, still has things that need changing.
The noise, to start. Even with South Street siphoning off some of the sound through the open front windows, it was nearly as excruciating as the seating. The willowy club kids, fantasy-football-league members, hardcore beer geeks and bro-ish stockbrokers comprising the Cambridge’s clientele had devolved to straight-out screaming as their preferred form of communication in the 45-seat dining room. Blame the hard, sound-repelling surfaces: crusty brick, pockmarked plaster and original wood, the unforgiving underwear Fetfatzes exposed during his (un)renovation of Tritone. He “stripped everything to the plywood” and seemed to stop there, leaving a dark, shadowy shell that, despite the new reclaimed-wood furniture, flea-market fixtures and vintage apothecary jars, looks less like the intended “rustic farmhouse” and more like a decaying barn.
Beers took long. Food took longer. A shame, because both the Cambridge’s bar and the kitchen delivered during my visit, with dry, fizzy cider and tart cranberry lambic from the 24-deep draught system complementing sharable plates like housemade pierogies, poutine and pork belly with pickled fennel from chefs Matthew Plank (a Hawthorne’s transfer) and Jason VanderVossen. Grilled and pulled dark-meat chicken was charged with black pepper and lemon zest for one of several rotating fillings for those pierogies. The seasoned meat joined mashed potatoes and onions before being stuffed into sour-cream dough; crispy, buttery and drizzled with sticky balsamic, the pierogies might not win a Polish granny’s approval in Port Richmond, but on this revitalized stretch of South Street, they’re something to celebrate.
Huge whole wings got brined in hot sauce for 48 hours, braised and fried for a reverse Buffalo situation where the heat hid sneakily under the chicken’s crisp, salty exterior. Carrot-and-cucumber slaw sat on the side, crunchy, cool and creamed with blue cheese. A peach and pecan salad arrived missing pecans, a silly oversight, but the fruit, macerated in vanilla liqueur and lavender then grilled, provided a last glimpse of summer, sweet and smoky against bitter frisee, tangy herbed goat cheese and sharp sherry-shallot vinaigrette. Keeping the ingredients seasonal, VanderVossen, who serves as the Cambridge’s exec with Plank back at Hawthorne’s, has since scrapped it for a salad of butternut squash, celeriac and other root vegetables. Here’s hoping no one forgets the lentil vinaigrette, though I wouldn’t mind if someone spaced on the tough, measly hanger steak perched over a thicket of crunchy, well-seasoned fries in the Cambridge’s chimichurri-splashed take on steak frites.
Save your appetite for the “silver platter” fried chicken — but not because of the actual chicken. Brined, soaked in a mix of hot sauce and cream, floured, fried and fried again, it was a fine specimen full of glistening, juicy meat, but the choice to not break down this half-bird into leg, breast and thigh made it difficult to eat and minimized the surface area of thick, zesty crust. Sides to the rescue! The vinegary collards, angry jalapeño cornbread and big bowl of gooey, barbecue-y smoked-Gouda mac-n-cheese made this platter worth its (told in advance) 30-minute wait.
Desserts, oddly, also took forever — and they didn’t come with a warning like the fried chicken. But oh, man, the Black Forest cheesecake. You wouldn’t necessarily expect the Cambridge to have such a virtuous sweets program, but that wedge of tangy chocolate-cream-cheese custard trimmed in a coco-lime crust and topped with fat, dark, saucy cherries proved otherwise. Furnished with salted pecan brittle and ripe blackberries, cool bars of Creamsicle semifreddo didn’t offer quite the thrill of the cheesecake, but got devoured just as well. Maybe it wasn’t the stool that had my ass numb, but the week’s worth of calories I consumed instead?
Either way, I won’t have to worry about it next time I come to the Cambridge. I’m looking forward to a soft place to sit, wings, smoky macaroni, cheesecake and beer. But the thing I’m most looking forward to is seeing how Fetfatzes and Annechiarico develop into the role of budding restauranteurs. They’ve got one success, Hawthorne’s, in their pocket. With time and tweaks, the Cambridge could be their second.
THE CAMBRIDGE | 1508 South St., 267-455-0647, cambridgeonsouth.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $8-$13; entrees, $11-$21; desserts, $6-$7.