Like cupcakes, food trucks and, um, cupcake food trucks before them, local and sustainable farm-to-table restaurants are currently riding the crest of a food-trend wave that threatens to wash over us all. Whether the myriad Philly restaurants proudly boasting the names of their farmers and suppliers right on the menu are driven by PR or passion is a matter up for debate. But considering some of the truly God-awful factory-farmed food stories in the news of late—from pink slime in beef to feces and arsenic in chicken—it’s hard not to welcome these forward-thinking joints with arms (and mouths) wide open, no matter the intent.
Enter Russet, a BYOB owned by husband-and-wife team Andrew and Kristen Wood. Housed in a converted rowhome in Rittenhouse, it crafts a daily menu around a few choice local ingredients. The simple, rustic atmosphere inside exhibits a sleek, European flair that mirrors the restaurant’s purposely limited Italian and French-inspired menu, which is broken down into “1st,” “2nd” and “desserts.” It’s printed double-sided on a half sheet of un-laminated recycled paper, with, naturally, a list of suppliers (Green Meadow Farms, Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop) to put your weary mind at ease. Before you’ve even taken a bite, Russet has sung you a Siren Song of Sustainability.
About that first bite: a single plump scallop poached in butter with raw pea-tops and blood orange slices set atop portobello duxelle. The scallop is light, and the portobello duxelle is savory and earthy. Alternating bites of grassy pea-tops and bright, acidic blood orange freshen the plate. It’s a helluva start.
Hand-rolled garganelli pasta comes with spinach, a sunny-side-up egg and crispy, thick-cut guanciale— unsmoked Italian bacon made from pig jowl or cheek. After breaking the egg yolk to coat the pasta, the resulting taste is that of a deconstructed carbonara, but the spinach gets lost in all the gooey, creamy flavor.
The vicious-sounding stinging nettles are an ingredient that pops up on several dishes throughout the menu. The stinging nettle chitarra pasta is a lovely, vibrant green, brightened with lemon, spring garlic, and salty with anchovy and Parmigiano-Reggiano. At once tart, sweet and salty, it’s one flavor-packed pasta.
Stinging nettles also make an appearance on the American red snapper entree, alongside Jerusalem artichokes and tomato fondue. The tomato fondue adds a powerful sweet-acidity to each bite. The nettles are sauteed, but retain ample crunch. The Jerusalem artichokes are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem (discuss!), but actually the tubers of a kind of sunflower. In this dish, they’re roasted, and taste like a hybrid potato/parsnip.
Also from the “2nd” menu items, the beef daube provencale: no steak knife required here; your fork will easily pull the tender beef apart. Charred ramps add to the heartiness of the stew, although the crispy polenta that sat underneath it all became a bit soggy soaking it up. Beef fat wins again. It always does.
Kristin serves as Russet’s pastry chef, offering up several country-style desserts (like rhubarb-brown butter tart with honey ice cream and candied ginger) as well as ice creams and an artisanal cheese plate.
The heirloom apple mille-feuille with butterscotch custard, almond nougatine, calvados cream and cider syrup tastes like the best of a state fair, but the calvados cream, thick but not tooth-ache sweet, elevates the dessert to a more elegant standard. Another favorite, the bittersweet chocolate budino with poached sun dried cherries and black pepper creme fraiche—complex, it starts mild, gets sweet, turns tangy and finishes peppery—is a standard dense chocolate cake that pops with tart dried cherries.
“Farm-to-table,” “garden,” “local,” “sustainable,” “organic”: these have become buzzwords in the restaurant industry, one that seems to look more and more like a living, breathing Portlandia skit each time a new spot flicks on its Edison bulbs and plants an herb garden on its roof. But why be cynical? It may be a trend, but the food’s great—and that’s no fad.
1521 Spruce St. 215.546.1521. russetphilly.com
Cuisine: Italian and French-inspired, daily changing menu focused around local ingredients.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 5:30-10:30pm; Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10am-2pm.
Price range: $8-$34.
Atmosphere: Sparse, rustic with tarnished metal fixtures, black-and-white photos and pastoral scenes.
Food: Fresh and bright with innovative use of local ingredients.
Service: Attentive, albeit clumsy in the small, new space.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014