[ review ]
Winter is coming. That's what Andrew and Kristin Wood fretted about in the fall, when lease negotiations for the stately space they'd fallen in love with the previous July — the planned home for their debut restaurant, Russet — dragged on. And people were getting tired of waiting.
Charcuterie nerds river to river were salivating for Andrew to strike out on his own, after he'd spent two-and-a-half years as Terence Feury's sous chef and cured-meat vizier at Fork. Meanwhile, pastry chef Kristin had cultivated her own following, doing the bijoux desserts for James until it closed. The time's been ripe for this quiet culinary power couple for quite a while, and yet, all around town, much younger chefs have beaten them to it, abdicating the warm, salaried lifestyle of their mentors' kitchens and taking the long road to the unforgiving island of chef/owner.
The Woods waited. They traveled. They cultivated personal relationships with farmers. They had a son, Gus, who's 4 now. ("Four and three quarters, as he likes to remind us," says Kristin.) They toured more than 100 spaces, many of which became new restaurants (Nomad Pizza, Llama Tooth) while Andrew and Kristin continued their quest. But when the former Ernesto's 1521 Café turned up in the Woods' space?-hunt, "We knew as soon as we stepped inside."
Fluted columns, moulded archways, high ceilings. The architectural pluses abounded, but the place needed work: a new floor, new paint. They also added recessed lighting and a crystal-beaded chandelier that glitters above the salvaged-wood tables built by the guys at Green Meadow Farm, one of the Woods' purveyors.
Nobody wants to open a restaurant in February, a dining dead zone even in premiere-frenzied Philadelphia, but that's exactly what the Woods did. Quietly, Russet hosted its first service on Valentine's Day, a chef-reviled holiday in a chef-reviled month, and they packed the 52-seat dining room.
Nearly two months later, the rabid enthusiasm has waned a bit, and I found Russet settling into an easy, agreeable pace late one Saturday brunch. Sun poured through the front windows like honey, steam rose from mugs of Counter Culture in lazy curls, and my server, the most genuinely enthusiastic one I've met, wore a smile as comfy as sweatpants. The vibe was as warm as breakfast at grandma's — if grandma happened to own a Rittenhouse mansion and bake heavenly muffins bejeweled with dried cherries.
I plucked the tart cherries from Kristin's wares while awaiting butter and jam — I had to ask for both — and a crunchy-cornered buckwheat crêpe folded around caramelized onions, bacon, apple, cheddar and egg into an inelegant trapezoid. Cleaner plating also would have benefited the ciccioli, spreadable pork rilletes here plopped on a tuft of oiled arugula like food-court tuna fish. Scratch that: At least food-court tuna fish arrives in a neat scoop.
Once smeared on a brioche baton, however, all was forgiven. The herb-flecked ciccioli began melting on contact with the warm bread, each stroke of the butter knife revealing succulent, preserved pork scraps like precious fossils. One bite, and you get the hubbub about Wood's charcuterie skills — which are also on display in his biscuits with housemade cotechino gravy. Laced with allspice, cinnamon, clove and cayenne, this beautifully spiced sausage is such a natural for breakfast, it's hard to believe someone hadn't thought of it before.
Ciccioli, cotechino ... you wouldn't be off for wondering if Russet was more Italian than American. I think Wood is at his finest when cooking within this school; he's no stranger to it, having done time at Quince in San Fran and Terra in the Napa Valley. At Russet, his gutsy pastas knocked me out. Greened with wild nettle folded right into the dough, the toothy chitarra was the season incarnate, balling with punchy spring-garlic bagna cauda and a pop of lemon zest. Rolled like secret little messages, tender garganelli mingled with Francescina, a rustic meat stew whose tomato-lashed scraps of pork belly clung to the pasta's corduroy ridges. Wood's are the best noodles I've had since Kristin's old boss Jim Burke shut his doors.
Anointed with syrupy 25-year-old balsamic, the sunny-side-up farm-egg starter was less successful. The overcooked yolk cried a few golden droplets, not nearly enough to sauce the accompanying arugula salad and bits of pitina, a killer smoked-meat "meatball" cured like sausage. The bacon-wrapped heritage turkey "involtino" was essentially turkey meatloaf, albeit probably the juiciest, best-seasoned turkey meatloaf on earth, but over rainbow chard and sunchokes it still became one-note after I'd put away two of three huge slices. Halibut en cartoccio was the exact opposite. In its parchment package with maitakes and spring garlic, the normally rich, meaty fish turned demure and delicate, a haze of tarragon-scented steam wrapped around it like a shawl. It was simple and beautiful and quite the cut of fish, worth every bit of its $30 price tag.
You'd think it might be hard to say the same of an $8 ice cream, but Kristin scoops her silky salted-caramel sundae big and tops it with rare greenhouse-grown Lancaster County bananas suspended in rum syrup. I liked the apple mille-feuille less, the roasted Pink Ladies lost in the tumult of butterscotch custard and Calvados cream, but Kristin's take on diner coconut-custard pie was a tropical reverie flavored with lime and pineapple. Worth the wait? I'd say so.
Russet | 1521 Spruce St., 215-546-1521, russetphilly.com. Dinner served Tue.-Sun., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; brunch served Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Appetizers, $7-$14; entrées, $18-$30; desserts, $8-$9. BYOB.