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

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

Lunch at The Eagle.

Our last London meal was a bit stressful.  We needed a place that would be quick, didn’t require a reservation and was near where we had stored our luggage.  Oh, and ideally, the restaurant would be atmospheric and the food delicious… With these caveats firmly in place, we found ourselves at The Eagle, a gastropub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of Islington.

When I use the word “gastropub,” what I really mean in this case is The Gastropub.  The team behind The Eagle were the first of London’s pubs to not only start serving dishes beyond the usual pub fare of bangers and mash or fish and chips, but to also create the genre of food itself.  In fact, if you look up gastropub on Wikipedia, there’s a photograph of The Eagle at the top of the page.  Seriously.

It was a typical British day (sunny in the morning, bullet-sized raindrops by mid-day) when we squeezed in amongst the crowded tables.  The Eagle is incredibly popular; we luckily snagged two stools at the counter overlooking Farringdon Road.  From there we could watch the activity behind the bar, where immense sausages were frizzling away on a flattop grill.  We also had a great view of the dining room itself; it’s a massive, window-lined space full of tables, mismatched chairs and squashy looking sofas underneath a pressed tin ceiling and framed with hunter green walls.  It was also absolutely packed with loud, chatty Londoners tossing back pints and ordering their lunches up at the bar, where the day’s offerings are chalked up on blackboards.

the-eagle2While I warmed my wet feet on the radiator underneath the narrow counter, Keith got in line at the bar.  He decided to go with a few of the aforementioned sausages; I chose the chicken, ham and mushroom risotto (£8.50), mostly because it’s a dish I have no patience to make myself.  The thought of all that stirring makes my arm feel sore even now, as I sit comfortably on my sofa, nowhere near a stove.

The Eagle’s risotto has a lovely creamy texture, and the dish wasn’t laced overwhelmingly with mushroom.  It was also neither laced overwhelmingly with any other flavor; the rice was almost too subtle, and I found myself adding liberal amounts of both salt and pepper to my plate, something I very rarely do.  In all fairness, each bite of chicken was especially tender and the ham was amazingly juicy — it was just the rice itself that I found a bit lacking.  Perhaps lacking is not the most appropriate word to use here.  I think missing is more accurate.

The menu at The Eagle begins with very English cuisine like Keith’s sausages, and then moves across Europe to land squarely in the Mediterranean; aside from my risotto, the chalkboard listed both a Spanish fish stew and similarly-styled grilled prawns.  It doesn’t matter if you prefer to stand on the British or Iberian side of the culinary fence, since a trip to London’s first gastropub shouldn’t be skipped.  The risotto, on the other hand…  Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Eagle
159, Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3
+44 020 7837 1353

The Eagle on Urbanspoon

Lunch at The Anchor + Hope.

I know it may seem unAmerican and possibly anti-food to say this, but I’ve never been one for Thanksgiving.  This partially has to do with my dislike of roast turkey, but there’s more to it than that — I don’t like being told when I should be appreciative of the people in my life or when I should thankful for my good fortune.  (However, I do like Christmas, but only because I find its evolution into a spectacle of consumerism utterly fascinating.  And I love giving presents.  Oh, and gift wrap.)

Regardless of how I feel about the November holiday, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of postings advertising archetypal Thanksgiving meals around London.  In fact, when Keith and I stopped by the Anchor & Hope for lunch, we were surprised to see a group of about fifteen sitting around a turkey and all the trimmings.  After eavesdropping for a bit, we were able to determine that about half were expats from the States, and that they had specially requested the bird.

anchor-hopeI had no interest in turkey, deciding instead to go with an item suggested by one of the gastropub’s waitstaff: the Arbroath smokie with cream and chives (£11.80).  I wasn’t familiar with the smokie — it’s a Scottish whitefish similar to haddock — but the idea of delicate chives lolling about milky cream sounded too irresistible to pass up.

Let me say one thing: if you ever encounter this or similar on a menu somewhere, or should you drop in here for a meal, get the smokie.  Its fragrance alone could have been enough to fill me up.  It was heady without being intoxicating: layers of bracing lemon over the subtle waft of the chives, with the sweetness of cream floating under the fresh, clean scent of fish.  To top it off, the dish tasted precisely as it smelled.  If I could have gotten away with it, I would have pressed my nose against my plate, and lapped at it.

A few things to note:

  • There are apparently several Anchors & Hopes/Hopes & Anchors throughout London and England in general, or so says my pal Dorian, who is British and therefore an authority on the matter.  This particular Anchor & Hope sits on the border of the borough of Lambeth, about a block and a half from the Southwark tube (Jubilee line) and less than ten minutes walking from Waterloo Station (Bakerloo, Jubilee, Northern and Waterloo & City lines).
  • Cuisine-wise, the menu is unapologetically English, with both time-honored and modern dishes.  For example, Keith had a faggot, a very traditional meatball of sorts wrapped in cabbage and made of (mostly pork) offal.
  • The Anchor & Hope does not take reservations, is very popular and almost always crowded. so plan your visit with time to spare.  Keith and I lucked out by stumbling in as a table was wrapping up; still, we had a bit of a wait.
  • Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 2.30, and at two on Sundays  Dinner is served from six until 10.30 Monday through Saturday.  The pub is open eleven to eleven Tuesday through Saturday, and five to eleven on Monday.

The Anchor + Hope
36, The Cut
London SE1 8LP
+44 0 20 7928 9898

Anchor & Hope 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

Garden at the Cellar on Urbanspoon