I went to The Russell House Tavern tonight for the first time. I’m glad I had a chance to go. It has been on my list for a while. The fact that they have two bars was a selling point, because it suggested a higher probability of bar seating. I liked the layout of the menu. The small plates are clearly someone’s nose-to-tail/farm-to-table playground and represented MUCH more sophisticated ambitions than the rest of items. Based on some reviews I skimmed, the small plates are as exceptional as one would hope based on the descriptions. Unfortunately, I did not have any of the small plates tonight and was underwhelmed by the items I did order. So I am left with the impression that the chip-in soft poached egg and beef heart ravioli get all of chef’s attention and the rest of menu suffers for it.
The most disappointing element of the evening was the crust on the pizza. I believe that a “thin crust pizza” should trend more toward cracker than toward standard pizza crust. If I wanted a standard pizza crust I would have gone to a place that makes nothing but pies and makes them with brilliance. Russell House Tavern makes pizza crust that is merely passable and it is just standard pizza dough rolled into a smaller thinner round, nothing cracker about it. It got distinctly gummy as it grew cold which happened because they brought my salad and the pizza at the same time rather than in sequence. The salad was almost pitiful -for some reason it made me think the garde manger must be very sad- and I suspect the dressing was commercial and not house-made. RHT is not alone in failing the salad course. This is a mishit at many restaurants and I will save my screed about salad dressing for another day.
On the other hand, Russell House Tavern has an impressive whiskey list; the bartender who was busy (but when I had his attention was engaged) did not try to up-sell me on my pour; and the milk chocolate cheesecake was very good: It was light. The presentation creative (if de rigueur). The flavors were reliable and traditional but they were still very good (though the sauce did not read salted caramel to me…).
I won’t pass any summary judgment on RHT (or any restaurant) based on a single experience. And I am curious about how well they execute those daring small plates, so I certainly have a reason to go back. But based on this evening, it would not make my top 5 for Harvard Square and the scene there did not have a hook that will make me crave it. I suspect it is their target audience that is holding the menu back, but if they can make a few items worth going out of my way for, I will.