Dinner at Russell House Tavern.

My cousin Niki’s in town from the Philippines for a month, and since she’s a cook this means we’ll likely be eating out a lot while she’s here.  Last night we met up at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, and let me tell you that you should stop reading right now and get yourself over there.

It’s busy and loud at the restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying your food — especially if you get the crispy soft-poached egg ($7.00) off of the small plates menu.  Don’t pay any attention to the spare, boring-sounding description (“Pecorino aïoli, toasted brioche, house pancetta”).  Honestly, those words do nothing for this dish.  Maybe it should instead say something like “absolutely amazing, will make you want to order thirds, trust me.”

I’m really not being ridiculous here.  The sous-chef is a friend of Niki’s, and after introductions and hellos, we pummeled him with questions about this dish.  Apparently the egg is poached at a precise temperature — I think he said 140° — for something like forty-five minutes before it is breaded and deep-fried.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Breaded and deep-fried.)  The egg is then placed on a small mound of greens and encircled with a creamy ring of aïoli that just about knocked me out of my chair.  Though the restaurant has only been open for barely over a month, the egg is already considered to be its signature dish.

After such a start, I guess it would be natural to have doubts as to whether other menu items could possibly stand next to that fantastic egg but I’m here to assure you that you have nothing to worry about.  I made a meal of small plates and appetizers — some of which I grudgingly shared — but the very reasonably-priced dinner menu has options that include pizzas, sandwiches and steak frites.  It’s an American gastropub after all, and though I can’t speak for its British predecessors, I don’t think they’d have any objection to Russell House sharing the category.

In addition to the egg (oh, that egg), we ordered the spinach gratin ($9.00) and charcuterie board ($10.00) to share.  I never have anything negative to say about charcuterie, and I dare anyone to try to do that regarding the chicken liver pâté, the smoky pork rillettes and the anise-flavored terrine that I tried to keep for myself.  The gratin was nothing to complain about either; its blue cheese base went so well with the sesame-zahtar flatbreads we spooned the spinach onto.

The one dish I didn’t share was the steak tartare ($10.00), which is probably because I’m just a greedy person at my core.  What I really liked about the tartare was, aside from its tenderness and delicate flavor, that the beef was chopped rather than ground.  Otherwise, I feel as though I’m eating a raw hamburger.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go: make sure to have a safe way to get home because when you see the beer/wine/cocktail list you are going to want to try one of everything.  I don’t advise that, but I do suggest you get the Battle of Trafalgar (which is worth its price of $9.00 and more).  It’s dangerously good, and should be since it’s made with Pimm’s, St. Germain and honey.  If you’re not a mixed drink kind of person, the beer selection will probably make you happy.  I know I was pleased to see Goose Island Matilda, my favorite beer from my trip to Chicago, on the roster.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Russell House Tavern is affordably-priced.  The portions, even on the small plates, are generous (though I’ve got to say that no one at my table ordered an entrée, so I can’t truthfully comment on that).  Gigantic salads passed us, we couldn’t finish the gratin, Keith took half a pizza home.   I truly think that the menu is comparable in value-for-money to Garden at the Cellar, which is one of my favorite places to eat in the area, and if Russell House proves to be consistent both will be competing for a place in my heart.  Or stomach.  Whichever.

So what are you waiting for?  Go already.

Russell House Tavern
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.500.3055
russellhousecambridge.com

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

CSA 2009, Weeks Two + Three.

CSA 2 + 3Have I mentioned lately that this past week was an unusually frenzied one for me?  In between all of the running around and dining out, I barely had any time at all to even think about cooking, let alone actually using a pot or pan — which was so stressful, by the way, knowing I had a fridge full of produce at home, feeling neglected. Don’t worry… none of the food went to waste.  It was just a bit of a challenge and a scramble to use it all up, though.

Our past two weeks of boxes contained the following:

  • Bok choy
  • Hakurei salad turnips
  • Joi choi
  • Lettuce
  • Radishes
  • Scallions
  • Spinach

Scallion + Sesame PancakesBoth weeks’ haul each included a bunch of scallions, one of Keith’s favorite things to eat, so I decided to try my hand at making scallion pancakes.  This recipe is from Veggie Planet‘s Didi Emmons; the restaurant’s “Vegan Oddlot” over brown rice is my favorite dish, in case you were wondering.  Here Emmons adds sesame seeds to the mix, bringing a nuttiness to the dough; next time, however, I just might increase the scallion quantity to even out the ratio between scallion and sesame.  The flavor is nice regardless, but keep in mind that sesame comes before scallion in the recipe’s name for a reason…

Sesame-Scallion Pancakes, from Entertaining for a Veggie Planet by Didi Emmons

for the pancakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons canola oil, plus more as needed
3 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
3 tablespoons toasted black or white sesame seeds

for the dipping sauce:
3 small, skinny chile peppers, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons black vinegar or balsamic vinegar

  1. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon of the oil.  With a wooden spoon, stir in ½ cup boiling water to form a soft dough.  (Add additional flour or boiling water if necessary.)  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Cover the dough with its bowl and let stand for 30 minutes.
  2. Dust the dough with a bit of flour and roll it into an 8 x 16 inch rectangle.  Brush 1 tablespoon of the oil over the surface of the dough and sprinkle it with the scallions and sesame seeds.  Starting on one long side,  roll up the dough like a jelly roll.  Cut the roll into 8 even slices.  One at a time, lay a slice of dough on the work surface.  Flatten it with a floured hand, then roll it into a 4-inch disk.
  3. To make the dipping sauce:  In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves.  Set aside.
  4. In a large, nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium-high heat.  Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the skillet and adding oil as necessary, pan-fry the pancakes until crispy and brown, turning once, about 1 minute per side.  As the pancakes are done, transfer them to a baking sheet and keep them warm in a 250° oven while you fry the  rest.  Serve the pancakes warm with the dipping sauce.

Café Round-Up: Peet’s Coffee + Tea.

Who: Peet’s Coffee + Tea
Where: Harvard Square, Cambridge.
When: Two hours in the early afternoon.
Ordered: Almond croissant and small latte for $5.52
Info: Not a lot of seating.  Classical music in the background.  I don’t get a seat at the bar or on a bench, and find the chairs very uncomfortable.  Consider bundling up coat and scarf to make a supportive pillow of sorts for lower back.  Very limited sockets.  End up sitting next to the bathroom in order to plug in.  Very high-traffic area — don’t want to breathe too deeply, especially when door swings open.  Am so uncomfortable I contemplate leaving without writing; instead reposition self so can spy on patrons sitting in Ideal Spot on a high bench next to a socket.  When they leave I shall swoop in.  Feel like a vulture.  Free wireless, but access code needed to log in.
Conclusion: Avoid if you plan to linger or get any real writing done.

Peet’s Coffee + Tea
100 Mount Auburn Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.492.1844
peets.com

Peet's Coffee & Tea. on Urbanspoon

Café Round-Up: Crema Café.

What: Crema Café
Where: Harvard Square, Cambridge
When: Three and a half hours spanning early morning to just before lunchtime.
Ordered: Toasted plain bagel with lox and plain cream cheese, and a latte with sugar-free vanilla for $8.51
Info: Extremely busy, though there are a few undesirable tables — wobbly, cramped, in tight corners.  The crowd doesn’t let up at all; there doesn’t seem to be a quiet period.  I pounce on a table near a socket but have to drag another table over since the one in the covetable spot is wobbly.  Very loud, what with customer chatter, background music and employees calling out names for latte pick-up, but I like the commotion.  Wireless limited to certain hours.
Conclusion: Only for those who don’t mind writing amidst hustle, bustle and preying on empty tables.

Crema Café
27 Brattle Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.876.2700
cremacambridge.com

Crema Café on Urbanspoon

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I remember the first time I had read The Handmaid’s Tale — I was twelve, I was at my grandparents’ house in the Philippines, and I had found a beat-up copy amongst my mother’s things. My mother’s books were always forbidden to me, mostly because she read (and still reads) the sort of literature that includes a lot of bodice-ripping, flashing eyes and strong, muscular arms. There was something about the cover of Margaret Atwood’s novel, though, that I couldn’t resist, and for about a week or so, I would sneak-read it whenever I stole a chance. I ended up smuggling the book back to the States with me, buried deep within my T-shirts and shorts.

For me, The Handmaid’s Tale has held up over the years; its dystopian and distant future always makes me think about what we consider to be important and how much of that actually is expendable. The novel, interestingly enough, takes place in Cambridge and Harvard Square, areas I never imagined at age twelve that I would eventually become intimately familiar.

Atwood tells the story of a mother who has been — over the course of a short period of time and an internal war within the United States — separated from her young daughter and husband, who may or may not be dead. She goes through what I suppose could only be called behavioral rehabilitation so that she can learn her new role in society, and what it means to be a handmaid. In the story, some women have somehow become barren, making children especially precious and valuable. The narrator and her equals are used for reproduction; they are the few whose ovaries are still viable, and are allocated to high-ranking members of the military. The narrator is given the name “Offred,” which I always inevitably read as “off-red” even though I now know it is actually intended as “of-Fred,” as in “belonging to Fred.” Fred, as it happens, is the name of the military official to whom Offred is designated, though she refers to him solely as The Commander.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is about more than women’s roles in society, though it is incontestably about exactly that. Atwood writes about the power religion holds over us, as well as the multiple meanings behind the word and the act of sex. She writes about motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood, as well as the traps our own minds will set for us during a time of great distress. Told through a mixture of haunting flashbacks and equally disturbing depictions of the novel’s present, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately describes the lengths some women will go through to survive.

Breakfast at Crema Café.

Darlington and I are breakfast buddies.  Our schedules can be tricky to match up, but now and again we seem to find time to squeeze in an early morning bite.  We try as often as possible to rotate between our usual haunts, and this time we found ourselves at Harvard Square’s Crema Café.

Crema Café takes up a space formerly occupied by an Au Bon Pain, something I personally find thrilling because I:

  1. can’t stand Au Bon Pain; and
  2. happily welcome independently-owned businesses, particularly those opening their doors in chain-dominated areas like Harvard Square.

Unlike its predecessor’s in-and-out set up, the café’s layout encourages lingering over a cup of coffee and a scone.  There’s ample seating inside — including at a large and battered farmhouse-style table — as well as smaller tables set up outside, directly in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows.  After ordering, Darlington and I headed up to the loft, another seating area overlooking the main floor.

The menu at Crema focuses mainly on baked goods such as muffins, croissants, biscotti and other cookies.  If I’m going to take a moment to eat breakfast, I need more than a sweet to get me going; I decided to go with a toasted sesame bagel with caper cream cheese and lox ($2.25, plus 25¢ for the caper cream cheese), because I can rarely resist a bagel with lox and cream cheese.  I also ordered a medium caffe latte with a shot of vanilla ($3.10, plus 50¢ for the flavor shot).  I’m proud to say that I was able to carry my latte, with its lovely marbleized foam, up the stairs to the loft without spilling a drop.  That’s quite a feat for a twinkle-toes like me.

My breakfast bagel was good, though nothing spectacular; it certainly satisfied my lox craving, albeit temporarily.  If I were to order it again, I would most likely eschew the caper cream cheese for plain; I expected that the capers would add saltiness to the cheese, but even I was surprised by its intensity.  If I were getting an onion or garlic bagel without lox the caper might be the way to go, but once the already-salty fish is added to the mix, it is almost overwhelming.

What makes Crema such a lovely spot is most definitely the aesthetic of the café, as well as its ambiance and friendly employees.  The feeling you get while nursing a cup of something warm is that, should you feel so inclined, you could while away the morning without anyone uttering a word to coerce you into buying another scone.  Could you ask for anything more from your neighborhood café?  I don’t think so.

Crema Café
27 Brattle Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.876.2700
cremacambridge.com

Crema Café on Urbanspoon

Intuition by Allegra Goodman.

intuition.jpg I really wanted to like this book. Instead I wanted to toss it under the sofa, never to see its wrinkled dustcover again. The concept behind Intuition seemed more than vaguely interesting: a charismatic postdoc in Cambridge discovers what could be a cancer cure, only to have his findings disputed by an embittered ex-girlfriend; a scientific hearing follows. Quite dramatic, no?

As a lover of The Crucible, I was looking forward to reading about the witch hunt the characters would have to endure. Instead, the high point for me was Goodman’s description of the mice used in the lab’s testing. A portion of the novel’s second act (there are six parts altogether) is devoted to mice and the stage of research at which they are injected with cancer cells; it is for these fictional animals and these animals alone that I felt any sort of empathy whatsoever. Indeed, Goodman writes of them with great clarity, even of their little, clinical deaths:

Here was the soft maroon heart, the size of a bean. Here the slippery liver, deep purple, its four flat lobes fanning out enormously as Cliff picked them up with his tweezers. Here the lungs. The kidneys, just the size of lentils. Here the intestines, curled intricately together. Once Cliff teased them out of the body, he’d never get them all back in again, packed as they had been.

Great stuff, right? Distressingly, nothing else in the novel stands close to this, not even in the remotest sense. In fact, the entirety reads like an inelegant mash-up of writing exercises — here is the flashback of how the young lovers first met, and of their first kiss; here is the stern co-director’s habit of knitting, bestowed upon her so that she may appear more human; here the tidy resolution, complete with the phrase “he saw the future stretching out before him”. I couldn’t believe I was actually reading the sentence from which that quotation is lifted. I thought my tired, bored mind was making it up.

Aside from the mice, the characters are wholly uninspiring. If that, in this character-driven novel, wasn’t bad enough, Goodman overzealously blankets the book with references to local landmarks. Meals aren’t just eaten at a Harvard Square restaurant, they are eaten at Harvest. Magazines aren’t simply purchased at a newsstand, they are bought at Nini’s Corner. Picnics aren’t had at a nearby pond, they take place at Walden. One character wears a Toscanini’s T-shirt. Another walks down MIT’s Infinite Corridor. Yet another goes to Plum Island to spy on the endangered Piping Plover.

Please don’t misunderstand — I am very much in favor of making a novel’s setting as authentic and integral to the story as possible. (After all, would From Here to Eternity be the same if it hadn’t taken place at Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks? Could the present in White Teeth be anywhere else but North London?) That said, Goodman is so heavy-handed with her attributions that it is completely tiresome. (Or, to use Keith’s word, irritating.) The effect is that of a name-dropper: insecure, uncertain and inflated. Exactly the opposite of how a novel should read. Unless it is intentional, of course. However, I doubt that this is the case here.

Dinner at Z-Square Café.

I was really excited to meet up with Beth this past Thursday night; we hadn’t seen each other in quite a while and had plenty to catch up on. (Forever engaging in email “conversations” with friends who live locally often loses its charm, don’t you think?) Beth and I didn’t have a solid plan as far as where to eat after a bit of a shopping jag, though. All we had prearranged was to meet in Harvard Square, head to Berk’s and take it from there. Once a very lucky Beth paid for two perfect pairs of shoes, and after a quick and fruitless detour into Urban Outfitters — which we have now decided that we are, in simple terms, too old for — we went across the street to Z-Square.

z-square-logo.jpgWhat’s interesting about Z-Square is that there is an upstairs café; downstairs, at basement-level, is a restaurant and bar. Beth and I tried downstairs first, but then the hostess informed us that it would be a fifty minute wait (Who says fifty minutes? Doesn’t everyone just lie and say forty-five and round down? Of course, I had to clarify and asked, “Did you say one-five, or five-oh?” And naturally, this made me feel a little like a loser, but really — who says fifty minutes?!). Neither Beth nor I were interested in hanging around for fifty minutes, particularly when we were both quite hungry and even more particularly so considering that the café significantly less-crowded than its subterranean counterpart, so it’s easy to spread out, relax and have a chat.

The café is mostly white and very sleek, but not in a cold, too-modern sort of way. Actually, the white tiling and white walls and bright chrome detailing made me think of a bakery: a slick, white-on-white bakery… with no baked goods. Beth and I looked over the menu — a mix of salads, sandwiches and crepes — and though we toyed with the idea of spoiling ourselves with something on the decadent side (the grilled three-cheese panini with roasted vegetables sounded especially enticing) but ultimately we both decided to at least maintain the façade of healthfulness with salads.

As I explained to Beth, sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt when I order salads, primarily because I’m most often attracted to the sort of simple salads that truly would be easy to replicate at home. That said, I sincerely doubt that I would candy walnuts just to sprinkle over my spinach and pears. (Now that I think about it, it’s not as though it’s complicated, candying walnuts. Then again, I wouldn’t candy only a handful of walnuts, and who would eat the rest, especially since they only keep for about two weeks? Possibly Keith would have a few, but he certainly wouldn’t eat them all. Wouldn’t it be weird to bring an almost-stale batch of candied nuts to work? Or to a friend’s house? Or to book club? Anyway.) Beth opted for the curried chutney chicken salad and I went for the grilled steak Cobb because, in all honesty, is it even possible to resist the combination of avocados and bacon? I know I can’t.

steak-cobb-salad-2.jpgMy salad was nicely composed, with each ingredient was in its own separate quadrant of the plate. Though I thought it looked pretty, I knew that to eat it I would have to plow through and decimate the entire thing. In spite of that, it was, all in all, a really good salad: tangy bleu cheese, flawlessly creamy avocado, crunchy lettuce, crisp bacon, and bright red tomatoes to round it all off. The only element that I found lacking was the steak, unfortunate since I specifically ordered the salad for the beef, something I had been craving. It was rubbery and difficult to cut; when I took my first bite, I looked up at Beth and said, “There’s something familiar about this but I don’t know what.” As I chewed, I realized what it was — it tasted faintly of hot dogs. It so happens I have a special fondness for hot dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t particularly want my steak to remind me of them. If that wasn’t disappointing enough, the steak was visibly on the rare end of the spectrum. Again, I happen to like my steak rarer than most, so it didn’t bother me as much as it would others, but it wasn’t pleasant to eat. Or easy to chew. Beth’s curried chicken salad, however, was full of flavor, and the unexpected sweetness of the chutney was wonderful.

lemon-butter-crepe-2.jpgWhen we ordered our salads, Beth had a flash of genius and ordered a dessert crepe for us to share. After all, who doesn’t love a crepe? In my mind, it’s one for those rare items whose novelty never fades. We need more creperies, I think, or at least crepe-selling street vendors, like in Paris. (Though I do think that, in the grand scheme of things, everything should be more like Paris.) Beth chose the lemon-butter, just about an ideal flavor combination, in my opinion. Sweet and vaguely tart with the satisfying, mild resistance of the crepe itself, it was a great finish to our meal. After a while, the melted butter began to set a bit, which might sound genuinely disgusting, but we happily ran the fruit through it. Nothing like some congealed lemony-butter to liven up an ordinary red grape, don’t you think?

Z Square
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.576.0101
z-square.com

Z Square on Urbanspoon