Nose to tail at Russell House

“Any part of the piggy
Is quite all right with me
Ham from Westphalia, ham from Parma
Ham as lean as the Dalai Lama
Ham from Virginia, ham from York,
Trotters Sausages, hot roast pork.
Crackling crisp for my teeth to grind on
Bacon with or without the rind on
Though humanitarian
I’m not a vegetarian.
I’m neither crank nor prude nor prig
And though it may sound infra dig
Any part of the darling pig
Is perfectly fine with me.”
-Noel Coward

We could have sang this last night at Russell House Tavern, as Chef Michael Scelfo served up a special six course nose to tail menu. Trotters, cheeks, tongues… you name it and it was on the plate. And it was tasty.

I was introduced to Russell House by colleagues almost as soon as I started working in Harvard Square. The menu, full of charcuterie and interesting pig cuts, immediately struck a chord with this lover of hearts and minds, while the eclectic cocktails and friendly staff made it an attractive, and convenient, after-work stop. I love that it’s the kind of place that’s appropriate for almost any occasion whether meeting a friend for a power lunch or killing an hour between work and an event. I’m there pretty often.

When Scelfo told me about his idea for a nose to tail dinner, I was intrigued. I want to learn more about nose to tail eating, but let’s face it, looking at a pair of kidneys on your counter is sort of intimidating. Better to let a pro feed and inspire me.

The pig, a Berkshire and Tamworth cross that weighed about 170 pounds, was raised just 35 miles away at Brambly Farms in Norfolk. Scelfo is a huge supporter of locally sourced food, and went out to the farm a few weeks ago to meet his pig. When it arrived at Russell House last week, my colleague Justin and I had a chance to stop by and watch it get broken down. But I still wasn’t prepared for the transformation of animal to meal. When the dishes started coming out last night, I could hardly believe these daintily plated bites hailed from the animal I’d seen whole just a few days before.

Scelfo told us at the beginning that the entire animal, minus the blood, had been utilized (getting pork blood past the food police is apparently rather hard). He also mentioned that in lieu of butter in this meal, he’d used rendered pork fat.

We started with an amuse trio: fennel, trotter and prune pie; tongue, heart and green garlic sausage; and ear, tail and liver terrine. Then it was on to a head and cheek croquette. Occasionally, I worry that offal is going to be gristly and gross. That’s probably why I don’t cook it myself. But Scelfo proved me wrong with these delectable bits. The trotter pie was amazing, with a light flaky crust, and the croquettes were a smooth and flavorful alternative the many pasty chicken croquettes I’ve had in my time. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the terrine, I couldn’t declare it bad… cold, jellied meat just isn’t my thing. Still, I wrote on my menu, “Don’t think about what’s in it, it’s easier that way.”

In my mind, the porkiness peaked with the second and third courses: a pork fat ravioli with shoulder and skin sugo and then pork belly three ways. The ravioli was my favorite thing of the night. Stuffed with pork fat and skin, they were delicate and full of flavor. I could have eaten a whole plate of them topped with just a splash of olive oil, though the sugo (a braised sauce) was also very tasty.

Scelfo apologized when he gave us the pork belly, saying he wouldn’t be offended if we didn’t eat it all. “It’s a lot, but there’s a lot of belly on a pig,” he said. To mix it up, he gave us a few preparations: a very tender sous vide, a crispy smoked belly (my favorite) and a confit. His fears were unfounded… almost everyone cleaned their plate.

The last two savory courses were what I’d consider to be more traditional pork preparations: a brined tenderloin, and a sausage stuffed loin. The tenderloin came with a pork fat biscuit, which might be the best biscuit I’ve ever had. Sweet, crispy and undeniably porky, it was everything a biscuit should be. Topped with smoked tomato jam and some tenderloin, it made a heck of a sandwich. Likewise, the loin was delicious, but my favorite part of that course was the grape and ramp crostada that came with it. I’m a huge ramp fan, and loved this presentation which offset the sour sweetness of grapes, with the savory bite of the ramps.

The whole meal was paired with cocktails from Heaven Hill Distilleries. I’m not a huge fan of amber liquors, but it was fun to try a few new things and learn more about whiskey, rye and bourbon. We started with a Harvard Yard, Russell House’s version of a Manhattan, and then had a Longfellow, which was named for a pig, not a poet. Made with whiskey and yellow chartreuse, it was a play on the Negroni minus the gin. As there were five cocktails, and Farnum Hill cider served over the course of the meal, I was careful not to overdo it too soon. (By definition, this whole meal was overdoing it…)

The finale, and in my opinion most imaginative course, was dessert. Ginger and smoked pork shoulder bread pudding with smoked maple syrup and vanilla bean ice cream.

Our end of the table raved about this. I think Justin actually squealed. After it was served, he sat there for a moment, just inhaling it’s sweet and smoky aroma.

It tasted even better than it smelled. Pork is one of the few meats that pairs well with sweets, and I wish chefs would utilize it more. You couldn’t even detect the actual presence of meat in the bread pudding- there were no chunks so to speak. Instead, it’s essence permeated every bite, adding a savoriness that made it impossible to stop eating. I could have eaten many, may more of these.

Michelin Guide editor François Minot once said “Anybody can make you enjoy the first bite of a dish, but only a real chef can make you enjoy the last.” It was a relevant thought last night, when after seven pig courses, I wasn’t sick of it. Rather, I marveled that pork could be so versatile: savory, sweet, smooth, crisp, tender.

I left Russell House drunk on booze and pork, yet I didn’t feel as if I’d pigged out at all.

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9 thoughts on “Nose to tail at Russell House

  1. Wow, that’s a lot of pig. Although I’m not a porcine fan, I love the sound of the savory bread pudding. It sounds like you had a meal full of memories.

  2. This is amazing! And super impressive! Everything looks sooo good 🙂 I still need to try Russell House! Can’t believe I haven’t been there yet after hearing so many wonderful things.

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