1521 Spruce Street
(215) 546-1521
Center City BYOB

Russet can initially be described as the Rousseaus’ ideal culinary concoction of a Center City restaurant.  I allude to Jean-Jacques’ 18th century “noble savage” with timid, peaceful and mellow aura; and Henri’s 19th century “Dream” of innocence, naiveté and verdant charm.  Chef Andrew and his wife Pastry Chef Kristin Wood purvey meals which mirror the flavor of the philosopher’s and artist’s respective repertoires.  To do so, they have managed to acquire and provide local seasonal produce originating with strong friendships and ties to noted Lancaster County farmers. Andrew had been the acclaimed sous-chef to Feury at Fork, and Kristin had posited her pastries at James.  After months of tortuous tribulations waiting for the proper place to refurbish as their own, the Wood’s found a former mansion’s double-windowed first floor space (formerly Ernesto’s Café), which is now, because of these two brainstorming, barnstorming Chefs’ peaceful, mellow, verdant menus, the finest “Farm to Table” BYOB in the city.

TablesMaroon and white high walls enclose wood-grained tables on your left, barren but for plates, silverware and a tiny glass candle, and, on your right, intricately clothed banquettes.  All chairs have cushioned seats, the same color maroon as on the walls.  Pleasant little pictures and photographs hang around, and plants in vases abound, as do high lights (some just bulbs).  A chandelier culminates at the far end of the area.

Within minutes, sesame-seed crusted rolls and butter arrive in a basket with a wait-person anxious to open your bottles of wine.  A first taste of the creamery butter on the warm wheat bran bread portends a brilliantly farm-fresh flash.

Appetizers are not to be missed.  Begin with; 1)“warm pig’s head terrine, $8"; 2) “salami toscano, $10”; 3) “carrot sformato, $9"; or 4) “beet ravioli. $11".  Many order from the appetizers’ side of the small brown menu, for all courses.

Pigs head1.) The “pig’s head” is truly a softly blended paté within the parameter of pork parts about which you’re afraid to define precisely.  The terrine is topped by way of a glowing sunny-side-up egg, meandering pickled ramps, brioche and a swath of rhubarb mostardo.  The underlying pig’s portion is meant only to act as scrapple for its coverlet companions.  The brioche’s flakey dough flatters all other ingredients. The ramps are so much more earthy-extravagant than a gherkin, and ten times more tantalizingly garlicky. Sweet swallows of jelled rhubarb congeal in your mouth with the shebang of its companions.  Your mouth murmurs for you to put on overalls and till the north forty.

2.) Salami Toscano is eaten as if it were served at a grape pickers’ picnic in Tuscany, where chili oil is used with abandon. Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like Muscatel after burning up your tongue in a pyre of sweltering salami.  Too hot for me, and I was graciously asked if it could be replaced with carrot sformato.

3.) A brick of golden rustic carrot orange appears bound by 25 year old balsamic and a bunch of headdress watercress.  The pungent Nasturtium melds with the balsamic to caress the carrot mélange on all its rectangular sides, so that when a forkful touches your lips, you pucker before you insert between them.  These carrots seem to have been picked within the hour, and finessed into a superb root vegetable flan.

Carrot sformatoBeet Ravioli

4.)The best of all is beet ravioli.  Imagine a ravioli skin infused with just-squeezed real ruby beet juice, and then packed with hazelnuts and ricotta to be sprinkled with parmigiano-reggiano cheeses.  The reddened ravioli are silken, glistening, deeply flavorful mixtures of freshest farm ingredients.  I’ve not devoured better in Provençal, Nice or Rome. Groans will travel abroad from your appreciative larynx.

“2nd” on the menu are Entrées including “lancaster bison rib chop, $37.” I did not order it because I had seen its huge formation on another diner’s plate, and it resembled a haunch of boldly sauced carcass.  “It tastes like venison,” said our waitperson, seeing me eye it.  I thought it best not to shuffle off to buffalo, but I could be wrong.

HalibutAlaskan Halibut ($29) is served “en cartaccio”: baked and served in a bag.  If you don’t order this, you’ve missed the boat.  I cannot describe the movie-star-teeth-white fillets of fish that pounce from the bag they ride in on.  All I can say is that the bag itself has been cut into an eight-pointed star and peeled away to expose the hiding halibut.  The fish is lying on wet green spinach, slightly emerald scallions, a powdery Japanese maitake mushroom and brazen evergreen fir shoots.

This halibut spurts butter as you pierce it.  It flakes upon the slightest motion of your knife as if it were smoked sable.  Each layer is thick and moist, melting in anxiety in mid-air before you can garner its flesh.  Your eyes glaze over and your head spins as you press tongue to cheek, attempting to stop a premature swallow.

Try just about everything served with ramps, rhubarb, finn potatoes, zucchini, garlic mustards, baby broccoli, garden radishes, baby chard and asparagus.  All are parlayed on your platter from Pennsylvania farmers on the date of delivery.

The sound decibels at Russet make for thankless attempts at conversation.  Best to go in two’s and sit close to each other.  You’ll be exclaiming about the quality of your repast


Copyright 2012 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back