Just a stone's throw from the newsstands in the heart of Harvard Square, Russell House Tavern is a modern take on an old time watering hole: outdoor dining plus bars on two levels (main and basement) with plenty of wood, brass and mirrors. The menu is a more ambitious version of your typical pub, offering raw bar selections, a few different pizzas and small plates featuring unusual items like pig's head and lamb belly. It's also home to a pretty memorable burger.
My Saturday lunch visit with a few burger mavens in April was the first stop on a 3-joint Cambridge crawl, so I was only in it for their R House burger ($11). On a weeknight followup several months later, a friend and I dug a little deeper into the menu, but there was no way the burger wasn't going to be included.
The R House Burger daringly uses an English muffin instead of a bun. It's an interesting choice, because there's such a small window between not cooked enough (where the muffin has that out-of-the-fridge feel) and cooked too crisp (where brittle carbon debris starts flying on the plate). Either way, there's a good chance the muffin will break, sog up under the meat juices or get tugged such that the muffin and patty are no longer concentric, leading to the dreaded syndrome of not enough muffin for the remaining patty. Fortunately, the muffin was cooked okay both times, though the first sample leaned a little too close to underdone. Neither of the two tries had a buttery feel. Neither fell apart and neither fell victim to tuggage. More on the muffin later.
A glorious blend* of different beef cuts gave the burger a fragrance that could be smelled even when the plate was more than a foot away. The outer surface had a nice crust; the inside was very pink and very juicy. Flavor matched the aroma and then some, bringing on a strong beefiness that was funky in a good way, with as much pepper as salt in the liberally applied seasoning. It was hard to tell whether it was cooked by flame or griddle, as the the faintest hints of burned fat at the edges suggested the former and the glistening lubrication all around suggested the latter. Regardless of how it was done, this burger brought several layers of flavor.
*On my first visit, we inquired as to the beef blend players, and I vaguely recall brisket and/or shortrib combined with the more standard chuck and/or sirlon. I never wrote it down and my server the second time around didn't get the same level of detail from the kitchen. But whatever it is, it's a rich and complex middle ground between the ho-hum Angus and the more ambitious blends that can strike some as a little too gamey.
As a signature burger there are no choices, but the included cheddar, bacon and cooked onions—make that "charcoal onions" in this case—are my standard ones already, so no complaints. Well, maybe an observation: none of them grabbed my attention and none of them approached the best of its class, but all of them were executed flawlessly (cheese fully melted, bacon crisp, onions fully cooked and not bitter). And all worked in conjunction with the beef to provide a moist, flavorful, unified experience. One bite in and I said aloud, "No condiments required." Ketchup and a garlicky aioli were both available in small ramekins, but these were better saved for the fries.
Both visits loaded the plate with a mountain of fresh cut fries that were hot, dark, crisp and salted more liberally than the burger. They succeeded in both texture (the classic contrast of crisp outside, buttery inside) and flavor (the potato, the oil, the salt). I liked that there were plenty of smaller extra crispy bits thrown in there too.
Salt and Pepper Shrimp: A large bowl of breaded and heavily spiced shrimp looked too uniform to be homemade, but tasted homemade. Salting was aggressive and the pepper was both of the peppercorn and chile varieties, adding just enough spice to make things interesting without overdoing it. The crispy breading didn't hold up all that long, approaching soggy territory toward the end. A creamy dipping sauce was decent but typical.
Smoked Lamb Belly Toast: I feared blubbery hunks of lamb and got tiny tidbits of lamb (score that as a plus for quality and a minus for quantity) atop two biscotti-sized pieces of toast. The natural lamb and its accompanying smokiness were both potent, matched nicely with a creamy harissa that lent an almost floral herbal component. Chopped almonds added a little crunch and flavor contrast. Although not as lamb-focused as I'd hoped, it's a steal at $6 and a balanced appetizer that I'll probably go for every time while it's still on the menu.
Sausage Pizza: This pizza ($13) was much larger in diameter than its menu position and price led me to believe, but it was never a threat to be too filling due to its crust that was super thin, even at the edges. After the lamb belly success, I was expecting great things from the house made sausage here, but the tiny, sparsely laid sprinkles were a huge disappointment. The pie itself was okay, but be forewarned that there's a sour component and a cookie spice compontent (some combination or subset of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice).
The servers on both visits were outstanding, bringing a blend of good cheer, initiative, knowledge and efficiency that was only exceeded by the burger blend.
The Bottom Line
I like Russell House Tavern and I like its burger, which presents one of the best beef blends on the Boston burger landscape. The English muffin isn't a showstopper, but with an upgrade in that department my like could turn to love real fast. Even as constituted, RHT's burger makes my Boston top 10 easily, probably landing somewhere in my top 5. With a menu that features more goodies beside the burger, Russell House will be sure to get periodic visits to monitor progress.
Boston Burger blog review of the burger at Russell House Tavern
Yelp reviews of Russell House Tavern
Urbanspoon reviews of Russell House Tavern