Country music and classic rock are taking turns on the sound system, you’re eating off a tray, there’s a cold can of beer in your hand, and on the counter before you is a frosted cake on a covered stand. It feels like a perfect night on the other side of the Mason-Dixon, even though your sweetheart waitress might be a student at Tufts. M3 opened in Davis Square in June, the latest project from Nashville native Jason Owens (American Provisions). The name of the new place stands for “meat and three” — a concept where the diner chooses from an assortment of meat dishes and picks three sides to go along. At M3, the pork chops are kurobuta, the oysters in the po’boy are Island Creeks, and the fried chicken is free-range. With turquoise ceilings that look like pressed tin, chalkboard walls and tables, semi-Gothic plastic chandeliers, orange vinyl chairs, and shelves bearing plastic farm animals and jars of pickles, it is a sweet Southern diner with a strong Somerville accent. It’s like the little sister of Highland Kitchen just up the road, and if it’s not yet quite as accomplished, it’s still plenty lovable.
The kitchen embraces the art of frying, but many dishes display a lighter, brighter touch. The menu begins with charcuterie and snacks, a.k.a. “vittles.” Small, fresh Maine cheese curds are fried and served with red sauce, like mozzarella sticks but more delicate. Fried green pickled tomatoes are fragrant with clove, a bit sweet for my taste, but cloaked in wonderfully fragile, flaky batter. Pickles figure prominently at M3, from an excellent garlic dill to a less-successful, mushy shishito pepper. Get those dills fried up in the same batter as the tomatoes and you won’t be sad. The pickled okra is 86’d each time I visit, as is helpfully noted in chalk on the wall, along with plenty of daily specials.
Crab meat gets added to deviled eggs, a good idea that yields a strange, chunky filling and not enough crab flavor. Leftover macaroni and cheese, one of more than a dozen sides, may wind up fried into fritters — they’re not hot when served, but even at room temperature, a macaroni-and-cheese fritter can be hard to resist. (Unfrittered, the macaroni is standard issue, on the side of bland but serving its cheesy purpose.) “Cold green soup,” described as green tomato gazpacho, looks like swamp water. The algae turn out to be herbs, and the predominant flavor is watercress; we dredge up a mass of pink rings tangled together, drowned pickled onions. A server notices our lack of interest in the dish, inquires, and removes it from the bill.
Shrimp and grits, however, is one of the better versions of this trendy dish. It is truly, deliciously, surprisingly spicy, tempered and enriched with Caerphilly cheese, studded with bites of okra. The luxurious, creamy grits are topped with shrimp just cooked through, each component at its ideal texture. Grits are also available as a side, along with the likes of the very 1950s-esque broccoli and cauliflower casserole, a bright and crunchy apple-jicama slaw, fries topped with tangy pimento cheese, and more. The Mother Hen plate is simply a choice of four sides, confirming the counterintuitive truth that barbecue-leaning restaurants are among the best places for vegetarians to enjoy variety.
A rainbow trout dish cooked en papillote pairs well with lemony green tomatoes, but fried catfish is a disappointment. It has a strongly fishy flavor, and the promising-sounding “white harissa” turns out to be a bland sauce. But a blue-plate special of barbecue pork studded with crisp bits yields balanced flavors, sweet and tangy. A beer can hen is served with the can still lodged where the sun don’t shine; the person who orders it must steady the bird while the server wrests free the Porkslap Ale.
Fried chicken is always a challenge for Southern restaurants in the North. Expectations are high. It’s not perfect here, but it’s still darn good — a portion that can suffice for dinner and lunch the next day, fried dark and crisp. The issue, as it often is with fried chicken, is dry breast meat. This is less of a problem with the wings, which is one reason M3’s chicken and waffles are worth ordering. The dish includes several mahogany wings and a waffle that is slightly but forgivably undercooked — forgivable because the plump cherries and pecans that accompany it, along with apple butter syrup, offer such a satisfying array of flavors. Also, there is always something pleasing about eating breakfast food for dinner, a fact M3 recognizes by officially serving a Monday “breakfast for dinner” blue-plate special (think dishes such as scrambled eggs with pulled pork and a scone).
It’s this spirit of fun that animates M3 — the food is to be enjoyed, not taken overly seriously. The beer list begins with the category “cans” and ends with the category “more cans.” It’s an impressive array. (There’s also pinot grigio and a cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend from the Gotham Project on tap, a “wine cooler cocktail” that tastes a lot like sangria, and Snapple-esque fruit tea — served, of course, in a jar.) Dessert brings the likes of strawberry red velvet cake and decadent fried Fluffernutter sandwiches.
M3 is the kind of place you want to linger, talking and eating fried pickles as the beer cans sweat on the table and Johnny Cash falls, again, into a burning ring of fire. Why leave? It’s a perfect Southern night in Somerville.