Russell House Tavern, 14 JFK Street 617 500 3055 www.russellhousecambridge.com
Russell House Tavern moved into Z Square's space in April of 2010. I have to admit, I wasn't sorry to see Z Square go, as it kept searching for an identity without ever succeeding.
The entrance to Russell House is through the outdoor patio to the right of the building, the same as Z Square used. Z Square did allow folks to walk in the front door to the upstairs cafe, which really was more of a takeout area; Russell House has the front door permanently shut, which makes for many puzzled diners trying the door and then reading the note saying the entrance is around the right side. It's too bad the owners can't figure out a better and more intuitive solution to the entrance.
Russell House Tavern is using the same "upstairs, downstairs" setup as Z Square did, with a small area by the street, including an outdoor patio, and then an enormous eating area downstairs in the basement. I think this an odd layout, as I find it nice to eat by the sidewalk with the natural light, but only a limited number of people can do so, and the majority of diners will have to eat downstairs.
Today I ate in the small area upstairs. It's really a bar area more than a lunch spot, I think, as most of the space is taken up by the bar and tall, long tables with bar stools that large groups or social smaller ones can sit at. Along one wall there are a few lower tables for "normal" diners. Sitting at a lower table was a bit disconcerting because the folks sitting at the high tables literally tower over you - it's like they're in a different universe, and they make you feel like Lilliputians.
The whole room has a nice color scheme - dark table tops with lots of wood and plenty of light coming in the windows. Very much like an English pub.
Our waiter was eager to please - pleasant, easy to get his attention, and quick - but not professional. There were a number of slip-ups on his part, including checking too quickly to see if we'd decided on our orders, not bringing us bread until we asked, not mentioning a key ingredient in a special entre, and not asking if we wanted dessert. That said, he remedied these situations as quickly and efficiently as he could, so he gets high marks for attentiveness - kind of damning with faint praise.
My guest and I ordered the soup to share - a smoked chicken/lentil soup, in broth, using non-breast chicken parts. It was delicious - the smoky taste of the chicken was unusual and really made the soup come alive. The server correctly billed it as healthy, and so the combination of tasty and healthy was a great start. After we asked, the bread was a nice complement to the soup, and came with a pesto-flavored olive oil.
For entres, I ordered the Hickory Smoked Pork Loin Sandwich, without cheese (I have to watch my cholesterol, doctor's orders). Little did I know that pork loin, in Russell House terms, means an odd combination of bacon and shaved slices of pork meat. Somehow I pictured pork loin being thick slabs of tender pork - essentially, the average of the two types of pork that actually arrived between the bread slices. Don't get me wrong, it was very tasty, but for a cholesterol-watching diner, bacon wasn't getting my doctor's approval. The "crispy onions" that came in the sandwich were thin slices of onion in batter and then fried - this time, my doctor was vigorously shaking his head "no." At least there were some apple slices! So the verdict was, tasty, but quite different from what I expected from the description.
The menu states you can order sides of either greens or french fries with sandwiches, but the server mentioned you could get some of each, which I went for. This turned out to the be right call, as the plate was full of both greens and fries - I can't imagine how much arrives if you order either individually. I ate all the fries, which of course made my doctor leave the restaurant in disgust - I had completely failed his low cholesterol diet. Both the fries and greens were very tasty.
My guest ordered the special macaroni and cheese, which the server mentioned came with chicken and sage. Unfortunately, the server didn't mention that it also came with gobs of onions, which unfortunately my guest abhors. I tried a bite, and I thought there was a taste of nutmeg as well - it was a pretty strong flavor, and it certainly didn't taste like sage. It was sweet - not really what I think one looks for in a mac and cheese dish.
To our server's credit, he acknowledged his mistake about the onions, and after checking with the kitchen learned that they changed the recipe a few days earlier, and he didn't know about it. He didn't charge us for the dish as a result. One has to wonder, however, about the breakdown in communication between the kitchen and the servers - onions are a pretty important addition to a dish.
So as for food quality, the kitchen got one dish out of three correct - the soup. The pork sandwich was very different than expected, and the mac and cheese was a surprise, and not really a good one either. So bravo for the soup, and yellow flags for the entres, as they indicated first that the chef's decisions were suspect (onions in mac 'n cheese? bacon described as smoked pork loin?), and secondly that there was poor communication from the kitchen to the rest of the house in terms of the menu descriptions and the wait staff's knowledge.
Finally, we were presented the bill without being asked if we wished for dessert (which we did). It seemed too much of a bother to tear up the bill and keep going, so we paid and left.
Prices are on the expensive side for lunch in the Square - $7-$11 for appetizers (other than a $4 cup of soup, which today was outstanding), and $9 to $15 for entres.
Summary: Russell House Tavern looks like a very nice bar upstairs, including seating at high tables that keep you in a festive mood. The downstairs and the few lower tables upstairs are for dining, and from a first stab, it appears your chances of success are pretty low. Make sure to grill your server for what exactly is coming! (And make sure to not invite your doctor if you're watching your cholesterol.) Given the price, I recommend Upstairs on the Square and Om down the street instead.