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

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Back in Town.

Friends, I am exhausted.  During a vacation, I normally like to make sure I’ve not only time to explore a new place but also that I’ve set aside an hour or two to take off my shoes and relax. An ideal schedule for me would be something like a semi-early start with a nice breakfast, followed by checking out an interesting museum exhibit, sitting down to a three o’clock lunch and walking around a picturesque neighborhood; as the day winds down, I love chilling out with a drink before heading out for a late dinner.

This, however, was not a kick-back trip.  Practically the only minutes Keith and I had off of our feet were those that found us riding the El or sitting down before a plate of food — otherwise it was all hustle hustle hustle before falling into bed each night and waking up feeling only partially restored.  Regardless, I had an absolute boatload of fun.  I’ll write more specifically on certain aspects of it, but for now, here’s a highlight reel of sorts:

hot-dougs-avecThursday
Arrived at O’Hare before ten in the morning, tired but excited,  so after a quick Starbucks detour at the baggage claim* (skinny vanilla latte for me, skim chai for Keith), we grabbed a taxi to our hotel on the Gold Coast to check in before flagging another taxi for the ride across the city to Hot Doug’s.  Afterwards we wandered around the area for a bit before sliding into fourth taxi of the day (the first was from our apartment to Logan at 5.30 AM, EST) for a ride to the Water Tower and a chilly walk up and down the Magnificent Mile.  Stopped in Borders to pick up a Frommer’s Guide and take a break from the cold; at some points, I couldn’t feel my face.  My absolute favorite building was the one that houses Bottega Veneta at 800 North Michigan, a charming gem absolutely dwarfed by the more modern Park Hyatt.  Walked back to our hotel, ducking into Barney’s and Jake when we felt too cold.  Later, we met up with Keith’s old friend Dave for a drink at the Hotel Burnham‘s Atwood Café before the three of us flagged a taxi (number five — luckily Chicago cabs are cheap) to take us to Avec in the West Loop.

millenium-park-2Friday
Overslept, but only in the sense that I got up, took a shower, then got back into bed for another two hours.  Does that count as oversleeping?  Regardless, we got off to a late start, only having time to poke around Millenium Park before hailing the first taxi of the day to ferry us to Blackbird for our one o’clock lunch reservations.  Rode the Green Line to Adams/Wabash, the stop for the Art Institute.  We didn’t get tickets to the Munch exhibit but I was excited to see Ivan Albright‘s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which is creepy and sad and evocative and thought-provoking.  Left the musum at exactly closing time, walked across the BP Bridge and along Lake Michigan to Navy Pier — which should be renamed McDonald’s Pier, as everything in sight seemed to be emblazoned with the golden arch logo.  Taxi number two back to the hotel; hung out before dinner at Alinea.  We took the El to North/Clybourn and walked from there to 1723 North Halsted, but afterwards had a taxi called for us; it was almost one AM.

chicago-riverSaturday
Wanted to sleep in but couldn’t — we had prepaid for tickets to take an eleven o’clock tour with the Architecture Foundation (though when we arrived at 224 South Michigan no one even checked).  Traveled amongst the insanity and congestion of Saint Patrick’s Day while making our way downtown.  Didn’t see the river actually get dyed green but saw the end results while we walked with the tour, squinting up at Art Deco buildings.  Avoided stepping into green-tinted vomit.  More walking to the North Wells location of Gino’s East, Dave’s recommendation for deep dish pizza.  Didn’t realize deep dish takes forty-five minutes to make so afterwards hailed a cab to bring us to the Metra, one of the few ways to get to Hyde Park and Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Robie House; had more prepaid tickets for a tour, as well as plans to meet up with my friend Lara, a Ph.D student at the University of Chicago.  After the tour she took us around campus, stopping at the Oriental Institute and Hallowed Grounds, before heading to Hopleaf for a pre-dinner beer (the bartender suggested the Goose Island Matilda and I’m here to tell you it was fantastic) and then over to The Publican for the meal itself.

the-lake-2Sunday
Wake up for brunch at Bistrot Zinc with Dave, his wife Isobel and their daughter Paloma, who just might be the most laid-back, Zen baby in the entire world.  Walked to the Lincoln Park Zoo; the weather had gotten considerably warmer and the ice was audibly thawing.  Heard two lions roar, an incredibly impressive sound, and a jaguar, um, mark his territory (if you get my drift), much to the childrens’ combined delight and disgust.  Dog watched outside the zoo before walking through Old Town to Isobel’s dining recommendation, Adobo Grill.  It was probably our earliest dinner of the year at five o’clock but within a few minutes the restaurant was packed so our timing was perfect.  Dogwatched some more from our seat next to the windows.  Realized haven’t taken a taxi all day.  Walked back to the hotel and packed.

Total number of taxis taken during trip: 9 (including taxi to O’Hare and from Logan on Monday)

* Generally, I like to travel with carry-ons only but since Alinea requests that men wear jackets, we had to not only check Keith’s suit but also pay the additional fee to do so.