Russell House Tavern

Tastes good, looks great — no gimmicks necessary
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  May 12, 2010
3.0 3.0 Stars

 FOOD051410_Tavern_main

RUSSELL HOUSE TAVERN | 14 JFK Street, Cambridge | 617.500.6055 |russellhouse.wordpress.com| Open Monday–Friday, 11 AM–3 PM And 5 PM–Midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 10 AM–4 PM And 5 PM–Midnight | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full Bar | Validated Parking In Eliot Street Garage | Sidewalk-Level Access
For a place with major, major foot traffic, Harvard Square has proven to be a tricky spot for restaurateurs. The conventional wisdom is that you need a gimmick, but the Grafton Group (Redline, Grafton Street, Temple Bar) has mostly abandoned its original concept (Irishness) for the most radical and under-used tactic in the restaurant business: incremental food improvements. The owners of the Grafton Group have upgraded menus, stuck to moderate price points, and made all their restaurants a little better every year. Now they have taken over the shell of the failed Z-Square, an eclectic house of gimmickry, and done their best food yet as Russell House Tavern. Nothing is going to grab national headlines, but everything is good, and they have also installed someone with an eye for presentation in the kitchen. So it all looks great.

Apart from the visuals, Russell House does a moderate job with comfort food, and then touches all the contemporary themes: charcuterie plate, locavore, sustainable, craft beers, and classic cocktails. Desserts need a little work, and the restaurant needs to invest in real wine glasses pronto. But this is such a useful restaurant for so many audiences that where the chef (Michael Scelfo, ex-Dedo, ex–North Street Grill, ex–Tea Tray in the Sky) does add a little personal style, the customer experience is like buying a serviceable coat in a thrift store and finding a $20 bill in the pocket. That’s sort of how I felt sitting in the basement dining room and dipping the fresh bread chunks into extra-virgin olive oil laced with black pepper.

Scelfo’s chilled jumbo shrimp ($12) — an utterly prosaic dish in most restaurants — is even better, like finding a $100 bill. The three large shrimp are quite fresh and arranged cleverly, but the Benjamin-discovery moment is the smooth pale green plinth, a salsa of avocado, honeydew, and cilantro that surprises with texture and flavor at every bite.

“Salt & Pepper Laughing Bird Shrimp” ($11) is a verbal puzzle, as if the kitchen ran out of punctuation over the weekend. A server explains that Laughing Bird is a brand of sustainably farmed warm-water shrimp. Ah-ha. And salt-and-pepper shrimp is a style of Hong Kong seafood — this would be that with a little more pepper and a little less salt, though the spicy mayonnaise is nice and you get a salad of field greens.

Besides the raw bar and appetizers, Russell House has small plates, which are like tapas or bar bites. This can get confusing when the same dish, like “Dirty Caesar Salad” — did he come before or after Tiberius? (It’s a Harvard Square joke.) — is offered in multiple sizes. It’s $5 for a “Short Dirty Caesar” (Edward G. Robinson?), but $8 as a “Dirty Caesar” (Caligula, I suppose) appetizer. Neither is distinctive, though there might be anchovies in the dressing and pepper in the croutons. For veggies, the best option might the small plate of “cast-iron roasted vegetables” ($5), sautéed greens that are actually prepared in a mini steel wok with some wild mushrooms mixed in.

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