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