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Dining Out

A tavern, just the way you want it

Salt and pepper shrimp at Russell House Tavern has the look and flavor of the popular popcorn shrimp. Salt and pepper shrimp at Russell House Tavern has the look and flavor of the popular popcorn shrimp. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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This past year, restaurateurs have thrown around the word “tavern’’ like confetti. One group described its new business as an “urban tavern.’’ Another declared it was opening a “modern tavern.’’ The coinages were oddly ambivalent. Either you want to conjure the image of a country squire quaffing ale in a past century, or you don’t.

In Harvard Square, no one has a problem with a tavern being simply a tavern. Historic? Charmingly fusty? Bring it. In vino veritas, after all. Russell House Tavern opened in April in the former Z Square space, claiming the T word without qualification. It just so happens, it actually is a modern tavern, or what you’d imagine such a thing to be.

Here, the denizens of the neighborhood — from students to wage slaves to couples on dates — gather for food, drink, and companionship. There is pizza and beer. There are inventive small plates and cocktails. There are oysters and steaks and bottles of wine. Nothing is overly expensive. The bilevel space is large, the game is on if you want it, the sparkling new bistro decor is stylish enough without being pretentious. There is a patio. It’s the old proverbial something for everyone.

The chef is Michael Scelfo, who also oversees the nearby Temple Bar. (Both establishments are owned by the Grafton Group, along with Grafton Street, Redline, and the Irish Village.) He’s crafted a concise menu of classics made appealingly current. A dish as hidebound as beef Wellington seems (almost) new again when it’s scaled down into a mini casserole, commingling pieces of meltingly tender short rib, mushrooms, apples, and thyme. It wears a crown of light, crisp puff pastry. Crab claws are served with ginger and harissa aioli. A Chip-In Farm egg is poached in an immersion circulator, dredged in panko, then fried, so it’s crisp and golden on the outside, runny and golden on the inside. It comes with pecorino aioli, toasted brioche, and house-made pancetta. Russell House Tavern’s own charcuterie is a leitmotif here, featured with a rotating support staff of condiments and incorporated into a variety of dishes.

On pizza in the form of cotechino sausage, it’s excellent. The pleasingly fatty meat is set off by tangy tomato sauce and ricotta, also made in house. The pie’s crust is thin and crisp and slightly charred. It’s some of the best pizza currently on offer in Harvard Square.

A charcuterie board features bubbe-worthy chicken liver pate, tiny slices of duck ham, and unfortunately bland pork rillettes that get a welcome assist from a dark, peppery prune jam.

Chorizo helps flavor a strange little creation called “chilled lobster pot.’’ Incorporating lobster, potato, and corn bread crumbs, it resembles a casserole — a dish that is not best served cold. Our server tells us we’re meant to stir the ingredients together, but they’re wedged into a tiny dish that makes this nearly impossible. We try, crumbs fly, we imagine how much more satisfying this would be hot and bubbling straight from the oven, no stirring necessary.

Salt and pepper shrimp is a more successful riff on seafood. It is not, however, salt and pepper shrimp. There are no shells, in my mind a key component of this Chinatown favorite. Looking forward to the chitinous crunch, we’re disappointed. Call this popcorn shrimp and nobody gets hurt. The batter is reminiscent of McNuggets, but the shrimp are fresh and sweet. Pepper lingers on the back of the tongue, and Tabasco aioli adds another layer of heat.

Scelfo’s menu is so mouthwateringly descriptive, it qualifies as food porn. But it sometimes makes promises it can’t keep. We order a Dirty Caesar for the “spicy anchovy croutons,’’ but they aren’t spicy and don’t taste much like anchovies. The salad itself is a fairly standard Caesar. Claiming it’s anything else is dirty indeed. Hearth-baked pasta with grilled ramps, sweet peas, and creamy fontina sounds both luxurious and homey; in practice, it’s dull macaroni and cheese, dry and tasteless.

The tempting Ozark heritage pork trio, however, is no tease. It features ridiculously good belly and even better shoulder, smoky and tender and juicy, coating the mouth in a slick of salt and fat. Slices of loin take rosy pork to a new level, so rare at the center they’re nearly raw. If the idea of underdone is a bit overdone here, the flavor of the pork is still wonderful. It’s pig that tastes like real pig, not just another white meat. It comes with grits too dense with cream, drowning out their delicate corn taste. A vinegary sauce is an aptly pungent counterpoint to all the richness.

Russell House Tavern’s burger is a juicy pleasure, on a griddled English muffin with cheddar, bacon, and onions. Fries are dark brown and very crispy. They’re also featured in steak frites, alongside a flat iron edged in herbs and spices. It’s served with garlic aioli and a red wine demi-glace.

Some entrees fall flat. A ginormous lamb shank comes on the bone with an equally ginormous pile of lentils — it’s enough protein to feed a village, but there are no layers to the flavors. It’s as subtle as it looks. Roast chicken tastes good but has rubbery skin.

For dessert, golden semolina yogurt cake tastes a lot like the grits, but sweet. It’s comforting, if not interesting. A trio of sorbets ranges from flavorless to downright odd. “This tastes like . . . shoelaces,’’ one guest says, sampling a purple scoop. Much better is a carrot cake bread pudding, warmly spiced, with walnuts and golden raisins offering punctuation.

Russell House Tavern has a solid beer list, with a dozen offerings on draught, plus cask ales, bottles of varying sizes, and cans. The wine list is a bit more extensive and includes the interesting option of pinot blanc and rose on tap, fresh and fruity and made by Westport Rivers. Most intriguing of all: Every selection, both wine and beer, is from the US.

The cocktail list features a mix of classics, as well as inventions like the refreshing Battle of Trafalgar, a summery mix of Pimm’s No. 1, St. Germain, Batavia arrack, lime, and honey simple syrup. Drinks are extremely well made, but it can take a while to get them.

Service is simultaneously one of Russell House Tavern’s weakest and strongest points. Servers are friendly, fun to talk to, and generally attentive. They also need more training. On one visit, a waiter tells us that flat iron steak is flank, and that duck ham is pork. But he also notices we don’t like the pasta and takes it off the bill. On another visit, a server asks for our order at two-minute intervals, then writes down half of it and disappears. We’re still waiting to order entrees when someone else comes by to ask if we want dessert. Numerous tiny details are forgotten throughout the course of a meal: a spoon for sauce, an inquiry about how we’d like our burger cooked (the mind-reading kitchen sends it out medium rare), the offer of coffee. These things add up.

But take your cue from the restaurant’s name. Russell House is a tavern, and at that it succeeds. For fine dining, you can always head elsewhere. For simpler fare and companionship, it’s just what Harvard Square needs.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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RUSSELL HOUSE TAVERN

14 JFK St., Cambridge. 617-500-3055. www.russell house.wordpress.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers and small plates $5-$12. Raw bar $1.25-$15. Pizza $11-$13. Entrees $10-$28. Desserts $8.

Hours Dinner daily 5-11 p.m. Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (Limited menu available 3-5 p.m. and 11 p.m.-midnight.) Brunch Sat 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Bar open Sun-Wed till 1 a.m., Thu-Sat till 2 a.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest Short rib Wellington, crispy soft-poached egg, cotechino sausage pizza, Ozark heritage pork trio.