Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square has been on my radar since I moved back to the area a few months ago. The place is all over Instagram, it’s a staple on local burger and brunch lists, and my sister has raved about it. So needless to say, when I finally caught an invite to eat there a few weeks ago, I jumped on the opportunity.
I had high, if vague, expectations – the place is humble and casual and serves basic bar food, but it’s also widely regarded as a foodie haven, and the menu is slathered with fancy local ingredients.
This pub-foodie duality is a tough sweet spot for a restaurant to hit consistently; at its best, Russell House elevates simple dishes with elaborate ingredients, but at its worst, the overcomplicated flavor combinations canceled out into bland, standard dishes.
First bite: Charcuterie
I’m all in on Charcuterie. First, it’s a meat and cheese and bread plate. What’s not to like? Second, it’s the best way to sample as many different tastes as possible without filling up or totally emptying your bank account.
This plate was strongly recommended by our server; some items were great, but others were extremely bland. Anytime you’re served a plate with this many ingredients it’s tough to remember what’s on there, but I’ll do my best.
The cheese and jam accoutrements were a B plus. Russell house made a really nice cranberry mustard, but smeared just a dash of it on the board, so nobody at our table really got more than a simple hint. An apricot jam I was excited about tasted more like granular sugar than any sort of apricot. Thankfully, the local cheeses were delicious, though I had to dodge the bleu cheese (I won’t ever eat it again, thanks to a fraternity hazing incident that doesn’t need more detail).
Most of the meats were forgettable. I had high hopes for the duck pastrami, but it was simple and plasticky. A pulled pork terrine was fatty, oversalted, and stale. A pork tenderloin cup tasted great, but came unnecessarily covered in a gross, thick layer of congealed duck fat – nobody but me had the guts to dig it out, and I spent too much of my time trying to scrape off the lard.
The chicken liver pate was outstanding, thick but creamy enough to spread over bread, nice and savory, perhaps the best I’ve ever had. But a lot of people just don’t mess with Paté. On the whole, the plate was fine, more or less what you’d expect.
Best bite: Seared swordfish, with braised calamari, swiss chard and tomato
Russell House nailed this one, partially, I think, because the formula wasn’t overly ambitious. The fish was crispy seared and soft in the middle. The calamari, sautéed greens and tomato blended and stuck together well, almost forming a delicious, soupy slaw to pour over the fish. Nothing complicated, just a flavorful, yummy dinner. If only more on the menu could say the same.
Mixed feelings on these guys. On the one hand, each cake was extremely standard, more or less exactly what you think it would taste like. On the other hand, this was the only dish we tried that benefited from its fancy accompaniments. The cakes came with crisp, crunchy strands of apple and watermelon radish, and served over a sweet pickle tartar. The crab cake was average, but these little touches really brought out the best in it.
It’s been ages since I had a great lobster roll, or anything similar. I was pumped to order this. Then, I was extremely disappointed. That’s as much as I can say for this one – it came with barely a smidge of lobster and too much arugula, and some sort of fruit spread that totally neutralized the taste. It felt like i was eating a plain, arugula sandwich. The bun was well-toasted, I guess – my compliments to whoever toasted it.
A few more positive notes: First, the place has a killer drink list – enough great beer, wine and liquor options to endlessly explore. That’s what you’d expect from a nice bar, but still, I wanted to end on a positive note. Second, it’s relatively affordable, which deserves recognition.
TL;dr: Russell House Tavern is solid. Everything tastes the way its supposed to. But I hoped for much more.The place feels caught in no man’s land between great pub fare and fancy foodie concoctions.