by Sam Gugino
The term “home cooking” usually denotes the satisfying comfort food mom used to make. But unless your mom was Julia Child, she didn’t cook with the complexity and sophistication of chef Andrew Wood and his wife, pastry chef Kristin Wood, owners of Russet in Center City.
Take the silky, meltingly delicious duck prosciutto Andrew makes. Duck’s fattiness and sweet flavor make it a natural alternative to pork, the traditional meat used in prosciutto. But I’d bet Andrew’s prosciutto (accented nicely by wafers of Granny Smith apple and chili oil) would best many a pork prosciutto in a blind tasting.
Kristin’s desserts follow a similar upscale homemade path, like the rich chocolate budino that’s more cake than pudding. Those port-poached cherries on the side didn’t come from Chile. They are last summer’s local cherries Kristin put up, just the way she did with other fruits of the season.
The Woods’ homemade philosophy naturally dovetails with their mania about sustainability. That usually means dealing with local producers, who, for the most part are kinder and gentler to the land and their animals.
Rillettes, the slow-cooked meat spread, is a specialty here, given that Andrew buys whole animals and thus, needs dishes to accommodate the meaty odds and ends. Here Andrew combines heritage-bred pork (like the current Tamworth-Berkshire cross from Lancaster County) with Muscovy duck from Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pa. The toothsome result is delightfully refreshed by a piquant tangelo mostarda, Italy’s answer to chutney.
Andrew also buys whole grass-fed Angus from the Happy Valley Meat Company in Western Pennsylvania. The braised beef shoulder (essentially a chuck roast) is another example of how efficiently Wood uses everything in the animal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better winter dish than this one, which is accompanied by chard, tomato fondue (from summer San Marzano tomatoes canned in-house) and house-made polenta from intensely flavored Floriani red corn.
Elsewhere on the menu, the deep, tawny-colored heirloom pumpkin soup was thick and velvety with a roasted flavor. The double smoked bacon and pepita vinaigrette topping gave the dish an almost Asian note. Though I wish it were hotter, the soup was an addictive starter that had everyone at the table swooping down into the bowl with shards of the excellent maple whole wheat bread, one of a half dozen Kristin makes.
Even carnivores would appreciate the hearty and thoroughly flavorful root vegetable gratin that came to the table with as much authority as a meat entree. It was underscored by roasted shiitake mushrooms, Tuscan kale and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
If you’re thinking of eschewing dessert because you’re stuffed, the feathery organic citrus sorbet with orange zest meringue will surely change you mind. And if, like me, you are nonplussed by most panna cottas, Kristin’s creamy and rich version (topped with crispy tangerine supremes) will make you reconsider. For bigger appetites, try the ginger cake with cider sabayon, caramel apples and ginger snap.
If all these ingredients and preparations have your head spinning, fear not. The quietly efficient wait staff – none of that “Who gets the soup?” nonsense here – will gently take you by the hand and explain.
The dining room at Russet is whimsically decorated with antiques, thrift-store finds and family pictures. Though hard surfaces make things a bit noisy when seats are filled, just imagine you are at moms for Sunday dinner.
Russet, 1521 Spruce St., 215-546-1521, russetphilly.com. Dinner, Tuesday-Sunday. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday.
Though it has Italian flourishes, I see Russet’s food as American, which is why I brought along two Oregon Pinot Noirs. Like a good welterweight boxer, Pinot Noir can handle itself with lighter and heavier challengers on the menu. And, our beloved State Store system has a good selection. Erath Oregon, 2014 (Code: 6593, $19.99) is light, lean and crisp, a good match for lighter meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables. The darker, deeper Torii Mor Willamette Valley 2012 Code: 42787, $22.99) was a better companion to meats, though it was also just fine with the vegetable gratin. Other Oregon Pinots include: Ponzi Tavola Willamette Valley 2013 (Code: 42282, $24.99) and Cardwell Hill Cellars Willamette Valley Estate 2011 (Code: 38655, $24.99).
For white wine lovers, Oregon has another logical choice, Pinot Gris, which has more substance than its cousin, Pinot Grigio. Examples, also plentiful in Pennsylvania, include A-Z Oregon, 2014 (Code: 8634, $16); Montinore Estate Willamette Valley, 2014, Code: 47142, $13.99), and Elk Cove Willamette Valley 2014, Code: 42661, $18.99)
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator. Magazine columnist.