Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Cambridge Chronicles: Russell House Tavern rocks it

Last weekend, I went home to visit friends, see my family, and see the Hasty Pudding show at my alma mater, not necessarily in that order. So Friday night found my parents and me at Russell House Tavern, a new addition to Cambridge's Harvard Square, located in the space that used to be Z Square (and before that was, believe it or not, an enormous Finagle a Bagel).

It's a carefully-crafted and appealing hangout spot. There's a "tavern" vibe, for sure, but it easily straddles the lines between restaurant and bar (erring on the side of restaurant) and between beer haven and cocktail den (pretty much right down the middle). All the trends get their nod: extensive beer list, raw bar, wine on tap. Check, check, and check. Jugs of house-carbonated sparkling water provided gratis? You've earned my love already, Russell.

Dad had hit traffic, so Mom and I placed our order with our very professional and accommodating server. While we waited, a bread plate arrived, such as it was: hunks of crusty but pretty average white rolls accompanied by a dish of garlicky oil. Or should I say GARLICKY oil... I had two tiny bites and was blasting everyone around me with a garlic bath for the rest of the night. Consider yourself warned...

It looks innocuous, but yet...

Dad arrived just as the apps landed on the table. For him: a very large (and purportedly tasty Caesar salad).

The many shades of white

For Mom and me, a Little Gem Salad to share. The little lettuce hearts, accompanied by sliced apple, cashews, and a little round of toasted pecorino, looked appealing... but upon further investigation, it turned out the dressing had anchovies. Ah, well. I should have asked in advance. No matter; Mom enjoyed the salad while I prepped for the arrival of the entrees. All turned out fine in the end-- you'll see.

There were little mini lettuce bouquets under there

The entrees themselves followed the trend of huge portions. Dad's cowboy cut ribeye steak was Flintstones-sized and came with a dish of creamed spinach and a little pile of thyme-roasted carrots. Mom and I also shared a side of the carrots, which were tender, sweet, and well-seasoned, if a bit oily.

That's one huge steak

Our delish carrots

Mom chose the swordfish special, which came with fennel and orange salad and green herb aioli. It was an enormous slab o' fish that came on two large planks of toasted bread. She really enjoyed the fish, noting that many restaurants don't cook swordfish well, but Russell House nailed it.

Almost a whole fish there!

My choice was the local leaf salad with walnuts, dried figs, and mustard-cider vinaigrette. It doesn't look it in the photo, but this was one of the largest restaurant salads I've ever encountered. There were ample chunks of chewy dried figs, about a cup of crunchy walnuts, and an abundance of fresh leaves. The dressing was pungent and incredibly flavorful. I kept eating... and eating... and was eventually painfully full for the rest of the evening. I'm really glad I didn't indulge in the appetizer salad, because that would have put us in disaster territory. In any case, it was so, so good.

This really doesn't do this salad justice. It was about a foot in diameter and about 6" high.

Now, don't get me wrong: I liked both Z Square and Finagle a Bagel quite a bit, but I think Russell House Tavern is the best incarnation of that restaurant space that I've experienced. It begs for repeat visits, whether to explore more of the menu, dive into the extensive beer, wine, and cocktail lists, or just raid the dessert offerings. For turning a trio of relatively picky eaters into three happy (and quite full) campers, Russell House earns four Offset Spatulas with ease.

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA

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