First Bite: Russell House Tavern

With a sweet location and early buzz, this Harvard Square spot got a running start. If only the menu could catch up.



RUSSELL HOUSE TAVERN, which opened in April, is already pulling in big crowds at all hours. A gastropub-ish hangout in Harvard Square’s pub-heavy core, it has an upstairs bar where diners and drinkers snack on crab cakes and frites and knock back very good cocktails (try the Southside, a summer classic with gin, lemon, simple syrup, and mint). There’s also a patio for brunching, and a clubby downstairs dining room where the lack of windows is overcome by the clever use of wood panels, mirrors, and golden lighting.

The operation has the mark of an experienced management team, which makes sense, given that this is the group behind Temple Bar, Grafton Street, and other local spots. These places popularized the notion that bars could feature high-end food and décor without losing their casual appeal.

With so much in the tavern’s favor, I’m hoping for better things. But two meals there indicated that Russell House has a long way to go.

Chef Michael Scelfo is a proven talent, and his cooking revived Temple Bar. He loves combining local ingredients in fun flavor pairings, like roasted fennel jam served with biscuits and crab, or sumac-honey yogurt with a grilled chicken baguette.

Far too often, though, the flavors are muddled by a heavy reliance on grease and frying; a farm egg served with pancetta, pecorino aioli, and brioche, for example, would’ve been so much nicer if it had been left simply poached rather than flash-fried afterward. The wheat-berry salad that accompanied the arctic char was too unctuous. Dishes that should’ve offered a lighter contrast, such as a side of roasted vegetables, were swimming in oil.

Other plates were botched in the presentation. I won’t say much about the chicken liver crostini, except to note that the pile of muddy brown goop topped with a shiny brown goop – prune and honey jam – hardly looked appetizing. It’s too bad, because the flavor was great.

Many of the ideas are good. (Try the Serrano ham with Manchego and pickled pears.) But I get the impression that Scelfo wasn’t given quite enough time to polish them. And on nights when he’s working over at Temple Bar, his staff doesn’t seem ready to run the show without him. The good news is that if the crowds keep coming in, he should have time to get it right.

14 JFK St., Cambridge, 617-500-3055,