I'm not sure I've ever been more excited for a place to open than I was for Green Russell. I'm a fan of the cocktail movement, even with all of its occasionally snob-tastic and overpriced nuances, and a sexy cocktail den, with pre-Prohibition libations and aloof, attractive bartenders spilling facts about Fernet, seemed like just what this town needed. And when Green Russell's doors — specifically, the swinging pie-shop door that fronts the place — opened last November, I was awestruck by what Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno and award-winning bar manager Adam Hodak had created in this subterranean spot in Larimer Square. Exposed brick walls backed intimate nooks and crannies filled with clusters of armchairs; plush red swivel bar chairs fronted the bar, and a greenhouse full of herbs destined for future cocktails cast a green light behind the bar. Throughout the space, there was an air of hushed, sultry secrecy — even though Green Russell was never much of a secret.
But my excitement quickly dissipated, because the bar has all kinds of problems. Seats too far apart (and attached to the floor), making conversation with your companion a little more difficult than it needs to be. Crystals of ice pelting you in the face when a bartender hammers a chunk free for a cocktail. And some bartenders who do worse.
At Green Russell, each tender provides service for one part of the bar. If you're lucky enough to be sitting in a capable mixologist's section, your cocktails will be tailored to your liking, and likely excellent (and you might get all those facts about Fernet, too). But the pseudo-speakeasy lost some strong members of the original staff (perhaps because of the bad light and lack of mats behind the bar; I can't imagine that it's a comfortable spot to work), and their replacements were less savvy, so you're not always going to be lucky. The last time I was in, on a very slow night last week, my assigned bartender took fifteen minutes to make my drink, made it badly, then talked in circles about why the cocktail tasted the way it did without fixing it — and, as part of her lecture, sampled the bitters with her fingers, straight from the bottle. It was probably a blessing that our second order was lost in the ether, after a bar back promised to pass along the message and forgot.
1422 Larimer Street
If the bar were more consistent, I might be able to ignore the problems with the food — or better yet, ignore the food altogether, since this is a place designed for drinking. That intention was reflected in the original board of bar snacks, which were half-assed in execution and expensive. Most offensive was the $12, soggy French bread pizza with crusted-on sauce and congealed cheese, not unlike the kind I used to pull out of the microwave when I was a middle-schooler without a clue.
Turns out that Frank Bonanno was frustrated with that early menu, too, and wanted it to move in a different direction. So three weeks ago he brought in Sean Kelly, the chef who'd partnered with Larimer Associates at LoHi Steak Bar and Ernie's Bar & Pizza, to redesign the list and bring Bonanno-level quality and consistency to a kitchen where Bonanno himself doesn't have time to cook every night. And already they've 86'ed the pizzas — but Kelly still has his work cut out for him.
On the recommendation of that clueless bartender, I tried the new chilled lobster cocktail, chunks of shellfish mixed with bright grapefruit wedges and a slice or two of avocado, doused in creamy dressing and served in a phyllo pastry bowl that got soggy before we could finish it. It was reminiscent of shrimp cocktail — but I would rather have had shrimp cocktail, because then I wouldn't have mourned the egregious abuse of the lobster, which had been overcooked to the point that it more closely resembled octopus. And I also wouldn't have had to pay $16 for it. The warm cheese popovers also left me cold: Four deflated little muffins came topped with a thin layer of cheese that hadn't been heated long enough to melt away the evidence of the shreds.
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I liked the flavor combination of honeyed barbecue rabbit, mustard cabbage slaw and Texas toast, which was kind of like a sloppy joe. But why drown the gamey taste of rabbit in sauce? Why not just use chicken, which has a similar texture? If it's so you can charge me $14 for bunny on four toast points, that's just irritating. And while the pigs in a blanket — glistening, house-cured pork belly encapsulated in flaky, buttery pastry crust — were tasty, at four two-bite morsels for $12, they were overpriced, too.
The check, which arrived on a shiny silver platter, totaled $77 — before tip — for two marginal cocktails and four average snacks.
No secret that there's nothing sexy about that.