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

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Whirlwind.

I’m in the midst of a few hectic days.  I just got back from a forty-eight-hour trip to Buffalo for a cousin’s wedding — we left for the airport at 5.15 am, and tomorrow morning I take the 7.30 bus to New York to visit Stephanie in Brooklyn for two days before she leaves to go to Italy for two months.  I’m here, on my sofa, for less than a day, and I haven’t had anything to eat since the wedding dinner, and I’m getting that cranky-nauseous feeling from lack of food.  Good thing we’re going to Garden at the Cellar for an early meal.  I’ve already got the taste of chicken and thyme croquettes on my tongue.  I’ll fill you in when I get back.

Lunch at Blackbird.

Friday afternoon found Keith and me in almost the same place as the night before, but instead of being at 615 West Randolph, we were at 619.  And  instead of sitting inside Avec‘s slick wood-paneled walls, we sat by Blackbird‘s sleek floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the street.

Blackbird is owned and operated by the same team behind Avec, but the parallels between the two restaurants mainly end there.  Both spots share an attention to detail, but it’s clear even from the sidewalk that Blackbird is Avec’s more sophisticated older sister.  While Avec is all edgy hard angles, Blackbird’s interior could only be described as, well, sexy.  It’s almost as if each surface craves human contact, particularly the soft gray banquettes.

Sexy or not, lunch is definitely the more economical way to experience Blackbird, where the dinner entrées average out at $32.50; the restaurant offers two different prix fixe menus alongside its à la carte choices.  You can select three courses from a set menu for $22.00, or spend $15.00 on a sandwich and a salad; for an additional five dollars, you can even get a glass of Blackbird’s featured wine.

blackbird-1Regardless of the special lunch deals, I ordered off of the regular lunch menu, mostly because one of the appetizers sounded too good to pass up: duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1 and tater tots ($14.00).

First of all, isn’t this the prettiest plate?  Second, a clarification: the A1 smears each encased dollops of strawberry preserves, and  were dotted with crumbled up bits of dehydrated strawberries.  It was not mixed with the tartare, which was probably the most surprising thing I’d eaten in a long time.  The first bite I took brought Asian flavors to mind — mostly sesame, specifically — but after that all I could think about was its marvelous texture and delicate taste.  In fact, I soon realized that I was sliding smaller and smaller amounts onto my fork, to make the tartare last that much longer.  When my plate was scraped clean, I asked for more detail on the tartare, and learned this: the following parts of the duck are roasted at a low temperature for four hours, then bound together with a housemade mayonnaise — breast, skin, and heart.  Now, eating heart didn’t and doesn’t bother me at all, but I did say to Keith that I found it interesting that this particular ingredient hadn’t been listed on the menu.  Should it have been?  Or is Keith right in saying that the sort of person who doesn’t mind eating a duck tartare probably wouldn’t mind eating heart?

But back to my dish…

I should take a second to say that the tater tots were fantastic.  Not too long ago, Keith and I ate at Cambridge’s Garden at the Cellar with our friend Melissa; the three of us discussed the restaurant’s tater tots.  They’re like deep-friend balls of mashed potatoes, I had said, to which Keith had replied, Isn’t that what all tater tots are? Melissa and I tried to explain that sometimes tater tots are made of shredded potato, which is exactly how Blackbird makes theirs.  Crunchily, saltily, perfectly so.

blackbird-2For my main, I chose the croque-madame, a grilled ham and Fontina sandwich topped with a fried egg and served alongside a substantial pile of pommes frites ($11.00).  I’m always so torn as to what to do with the egg on a croque-madame; I don’t know if it’s “proper” to break the yolk and let it soak messily into the toast, but that’s how I like it.  While the sandwich itself was very nice indeed, I almost felt sorry for it, as it had to follow as incredible an opening number as the tartare.  Personally I’m very familiar with having to play second fiddle, so in that regard I’m sympathetic to the  croque-madame, charming as she is, but at the same time I don’t know if anything on the menu could compare to my starter, I really don’t.

There’s a thoroughness at Blackbird that’s lovely to behold; Keith had a gorgeous little baby spinach salad with morels and white asparagus ($12.00) that was so beautifully composed that I wish I had a photograph of it to share with you.  Since I haven’t, I’ll just hope that those of you who can do drop by Blackbird.  Take advantage of the lunch menu, and pretend I’m there with you, praising each plate set in front of us.

Blackbird
619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661
312.715.0708
blackbirdrestaurant.com

Blackbird on Urbanspoon

Dinner at Garden at the Cellar.

If there is something that I am guilty of, it’s falling into a rut.  Whether that means always ordering the same (or similar) item at a restaurant or even only wanting to go to a small handful of places over and over, I tend to plummet head over heels and bum over bosom into a drab old routine.  Luckily I live with someone who’s been known on more than one occasion to grab me by the lapels and drop me out of my comfort zone.  Our dinner at Garden at the Cellar was a perfect example of that, since it’s a place we’ve been meaning to try for a while; left to my own devices, I probably would have put it off indefinitely…  and I would have missed out on some really fabulous food.

As usual, Keith and I ordered far too much food, opting to select a trio of starters and sides to get our appetites going.  We immediately agreed upon the rosemary-truffle fries ($5.00), which shouldn’t come as a shock since I adore potatoes in all forms and pretty much revere the fry.  These were everything a girl looks for in a pile of fries, though I will say that I know from years of experience that a garlic-mayo dip makes every potato stick that much better.

The second appetizer we chose was the burrata with speck, and arugula ($11.00), since cheese has a gravitational pull I am incapable of resisting.  In this case, as much as I hate to admit it, I should have put up more of a fight as this was a poor choice.  The burrata was appropriately buttery and mild, but overall this plate leaned towards the underwhelming.

The last of our trio was by far the best: chicken and thyme croquettes with a smoked paprika aïoli sauce that may have just been the brightest shade orange I’ve seen in a long time ($8.00).  Our bowl held three croquettes each the size of a golf ball, and you know what?  It wasn’t enough.  I wanted more.  I would have canceled my dinner order and gladly eaten another troika of breadcrumb-rolled globes.  Each bite of ground chicken, thyme and cheese was so deeply and richly flavored that I craved another taste even as I chewed.

Garden at the Cellar describes itself as a gastropub; for this reason, I decided to stick as much as possible to the bar menu when it came time to choose my entrée which is why I kept it simple with the restaurant’s “Cellar Burger” ($10.00).  Shaped with locally-raised and grass-fed beef, it was thoroughly succulent — though I wish it had been cooked to medium-rare, as opposed to medium-well.  I had asked to swap out the accompanying fries with house-made tater tots, which were by far the stand-out of the dish.  Soft, fluffy and encased in a crispy shell, these were the epitome of comfort.

In contrast to the warm and fuzzies I felt from the food, I got the exact opposite sensation from both the décor and the waitstaff.  Aesthetically, Garden at the Cellar’s space is very modern — from a 1980s perspective.  It is not a cozy interior at all, and on top of that, the waitstaff was flat-out indifferent to our presence at the bar.  Only when Keith and I began raving about our food did the hostess make a perfunctory inquiry about how we were enjoying our meal.  Before that: nothing.  Afterwards: even less.

In the end, how important is service?  I don’t want to be coddled, but neither do I want to be neglected.  What I truly desire is a series of stunning dishes delivered politely to my table.  Were we insulted by the staff?  Of course not.  Was our food at the proper temperature?  Without question.  At the same time, did we spend a lot of money?  No… but should a diner have to pay No. 9 prices in order to be the recipient of fine service?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, since they address something far greater than my food at Garden at the Cellar, which — with the exception of the burrata — was startlingly luscious.  If anyone has some thoughts on the service matter, I’m curious to hear them.

Garden at the Cellar
991 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.876.2580
gardenatthecellar.com

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