Harvard was built in 1636. As another transient moving through these classrooms and dorms – every spring, boxing my pathetic belongings and thinking towards a shrinking timeline – it’s easy to forget that the Square is transient as well.
After all, it seems that Spare Change man has been hawking his newspapers in front of Au Bon Pain forever, and ever, calling, “Young lady! Young lady! Won’t you have a heart?” And the Asian tourists spill eternal over the Yard, clutching their cameras like stunned mice and groping John Harvard’s storied foot. I remember freshman year, dodging and weaving through the tourists to breakfast, I’d feel superior to them. I lived here; I was real. But now, I think that I’m just as much a tourist as they are.
As an admitted high school senior, a freshman introduced me to the area. I remember one venue: Z Square, where the newly opened Russell House Tavern now stands. “This is where you take someone when you’re getting serious,” he explained, and it seemed like an institution to me. The unholy trinity of the Kong, ‘Noch’s, and Felipe’s seemed cast in stone. It was only years later that I found out Felipe’s had only been around for a few years, as had Z Square.
I’ve long stopped talking to that freshman after a mysterious tiff my first semester, and I never visited Z Square while it was open. So when I heard a new restaurant was opening, I was curious.
I’ve now visited Russell House Tavern three times in the past few weeks, more than any other restaurant. This has been purely by mistake. But I can see why I keep getting drawn back. They’re not perfect, but they are very good, and more ambitious than I would have expected, or need be.
Russell House is owned by the Grafton Group, which also runs Grafton Street, Redline, and Temple Bar, where chef Michael Scelfo still works.* Their promo blurb of “seasonally changing, classic American fare” did not excite me. But I eventually got dragged along anyway after a viewing of Top Chef Masters at Rialto, where I somehow sat at a table with Christine of Citysearch and Leighann F. of Yelp. (They’re friends!)
The space is heavy on dark wood, a kind of polished masculinity that’s not too old boy’s club. The dining room proper is downstairs – a sea of high tables and stools, a few padded banquets, a long U of a bar.
I wasn’t particularly hungry, but tried the fried poached farm egg, which was an oozy, bacon-laden, plate licking appetizer. It is a bit pricey considering a full pizza is only a few bucks more, but worth it in inspiration. It led me to attempt my own fried poached eggs, to little success. I also sampled a lamb tartare – a bit too raw/gamey for my tastes – and a cured and smoked lamb belly pizza, with fontina cheese and mushroom, although the intensity and saltiness of the lamb overpowered the rest. The chef clearly has a fondness for the bleating little creatures, and wasn’t afraid to show it.
I came back again, on a whim, on a busy Friday night to catch up with a friend. I had the crispy poached egg again, and savored every last crumb of the brioche and smudge of the aioli. Unfortunately, service was pretty slow – it seemed that they were short staffed – and my egg was already cooling down. I tweeted my dissatisfaction, and the chef tweeted back: “so sorry!! please let me make it up to u next timer ur in…”
Finally, about a week ago, I dropped by again after one of the worst meals in the past year at Shabu Ya. (Avoid at all costs.) My friends had ordered up chicken liver crostinis – richly satisfying bites, rounded out with a dab of prune-honey jam. The short rib wellington was fine, as was the caesar salad. The centerpiece ended up being a lamb shank, cooked to a melting, falling-off-the-bone tenderness, presented in a black lentil stew. I didn’t get to talk to Chef Scelfo, but the manager sent out a few desserts – a semolina cake (tasting akin to a more complex corn muffin), sorbet (a trio including a nice icy grapefruit), and carrot cake – served in a round pot, with gooey layers. The waiter, coincidentally, happened to read my blog.
Not everything is perfect, but I give the chef points for taking risks with the menu. And even when there were hiccups in service – a forgotten order, say – the staff immediately corrected it and removed the dish off the bill. The prices are about right, with pizzas $10-13, and entrees $10-28. This is not a restaurant that will change dining, but it’s one I could see becoming an institution. Then again, in Harvard Square, that doesn’t take so long.
*Correction appended: Chef Michael Scelfo still works at Temple Bar, in addition to Russell House Tavern.