Russell House Tavern

Thursday, August 17, 2012.  When we heard that my boyfriend’s musician friend was having her birthday party at the Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, our first question was, “Is it 21+?” Because I’m not, and in over a year and a half of dating my boyfriend my ability to socialize with these particular friends has been handicapped by the fact that they tend to meet at 21+ bars.

I had never heard of Russell House Tavern, but take that with a grain of salt since I don’t visit Harvard Square much. I called up beforehand to make sure they weren’t 21+, lest I be turned away at the door after wasting money on Cambridge parking. Finding street parking in Cambridge is usually on the same difficulty level as trying to juggle porcupines, so I planned to just use a garage and those are costly. Fortunately, Russell House Tavern confirmed that they didn’t begin carding at the door until 10 pm.

Russell House Tavern has two levels. Each level has a bar and a separate seating area, although the basement level is a bit larger. We met up with the birthday party in the upstairs bar area, and at 8:15 pm on a Thursday both the bar and the tables were already packed. There were seven of us, and we waited near the bar for a while before snagging ~five seats in the left corner of the bar. Our seating situation was complicated somewhat by the fact that a reservation had been for only five people, while our group was already seven-and-growing.

Once seated I ordered an ice water, grabbed a menu, and chatted with the birthday girl. I decided two things at this point. First, that my boyfriend has good taste in friends. Second, that I was very hungry!

The menu at Russell House was one of the more unusual I’ve seen in a while. Browsing the small plates section I found items such as foie gras and laphroig terrine, bone marrow, and crispy pig’s head cake. Yes, pig’s head cake. Granted, my foodie adventures have caused me to try types and preparations of food that I would have refused to stand within five feet of three years ago, but now when I encounter these experiences it’s usually because I sought them out. In contrast, Russell Tavern was chosen by someone else and I didn’t know what to expect going in.

Our group ordered a platter of twelve Island Creek oysters from Duxbury, MA ($2.50 per oyster, $30 for a dozen), which came accompanied by Old Bay cocktail sauce and sweet pickle mignonette. I have only started eating oysters in the past few months and am still adjusting to the texture, but I quite enjoyed these. 

Island Creek oysters with Old Bay cocktail sauce and sweet pickle mignonette.

My boyfriend ordered the Russell House grassfed burger ($12)— of course, without the standard cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions, as you expected if you’ve read my blog previously. I’ll never convert him. But the eight ounces of Maine co-op ground beef came was served not on a regular burger bun, but on an English muffin! In my typical food-blogging persistence I asked my boyfriend if he had enjoyed his burger, and in his typical sardonicism he nodded to his empty plate, which I interpreted as a “yes.” I picked at his few remaining yummy fries.

Russell House grassfed burger (sans the standard cheddar, bacon and caramelized onions) on an English muffin.
I was excited to see an item titled “crispy soft poached chip-in farm egg” on the small plates section of the dinner menu. You might think that after having been into food for a while, I would no longer be excited by seeing eggs on a menu, but you would be wrong. Poached eggs are my Happy Place. Obviously I ordered it.

The crispy soft poached chip-in farm egg ($7) came on toasted brioche with greens, slivers of red onion, chopped house pancetta, pecorino aioli, scallions, and parmesan. Read that sentence again because every word in it is good. The pancetta tasted similar to bacon bits, and the pecorino aioli similar to hollandaise sauce, so the dish had a breakfast-y feeling. Perfectly cooked egg, crispy exterior, rich aioli, salty-but-not-too-salty… I would go back to Russell House Tavern for this dish alone, it’s just that good.

Crispy soft-poached chip in farm egg on toasted brioche with greens, slivers of red onion, chopped house pancetta, pecorino aioli, scallions, and parmesan.

After about an hour, the dining area began to empty a little and our party — now eleven and still growing — moved to a long table near the bar and pulled up as many extra stools as we could fit. I am five-foot-nine and these were tall stools even for me. Partway through the meal we discovered that there were hooks conveniently placed on the underside of the table for purses and jackets.

I was tempted by the roasted Crystal Valley farm chicken in the entree section, but ultimately I opted to go with two smaller dishes so I could try more. If I have the opportunity to return to Russell House Tavern anytime soon the chicken is on my Must Order list, along with a repeated of the poached egg, of course. Roast chicken tends to be a good measure of a restaurant, good or bad, so when I already have good indications about a restaurant I am especially enthused to try it.

The first of my two smaller plates was the Jonah crab cake with sweet pickle tartar and candy-striped beet and apple salad ($8). I didn’t know what “Jonah” referred to when I ordered the dish, but it turns out that Jonah is a species of crab: “cancer borealis,” found in North America near the Atlantic Ocean, closely related to the Dungeness crab of the Pacific Coast. (Wikipedia is a close friend.) The crab cake’s spherical shape and outer crust looked similar to the poached egg. I liked this dish but I was still reminiscing about the egg at the time, so my memory is a bit clouded with images of runny yolk and pecorino aioli.

Jonah crab cake with sweet pickle tartar and candy-striped beet and apple salad.

My last course of the night was the Sonya Rose lobster slider with pickled watermelon rind and watercress on a buttery Old Bay brioche ($6). The dish had a spice to it that I couldn’t put my finger on, which gave the flavors a bit of a kick. Kudos to whoever made the decision on the roll: butter and lobster go really well together, and it was different-but-nice to find that flavor in the roll rather than in the lobster meat.

Sonya Rose lobster slider with pickled watermelon rind and watercress on an Old Bay brioche.

Other people in our group ordered the deviled eggs ($8). I didn’t try any so I can’t comment on the taste, but I did get to snap a photo (although one of the four eggs had already been claimed).

Deviled local farm eggs with white anchovies, oil cured olives, and chili oil.
My boyfriend and I left around 10:45pm. As we walked out, I was already thinking about how I should make time to return to Russell House Tavern while I am living in Boston this fall. My favorite of the three dishes that I tried was the poached egg, hands down. As I said, I’m partial to eggs and this was a well-executed egg if I have ever had one. I look forward to trying more from Russell House Tavern on a future visit!
INFORMATION as of February 2015
Address & Phone
14 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 500-3055

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