A report by Leeanne Griffin for The Hartford Courant.
The Russell has a new Hartford address, but it’s still the same place for “eclectic tastes and soulful sounds.” The Caribbean restaurant and bar moved to 187 Allyn St. this fall, reopening Oct. 1 in the space that most recently housed The Press and before that, Black Bear Saloon and Coach’s.
In July the restaurant and bar announced plans for a “re-locate, re-set, re-launch” on its social media. The response was instantaneous, owner Hugh Russell said, and it made him feel confident that his loyal customer base would follow.
“People said The Russell is home, there’s no place like home. We’re looking forward to coming back,” he said. He opened the new restaurant softly, realizing with COVID-19 concerns that a large grand opening wasn’t feasible, but he said reservations have already been filling up.
Before the move, The Russell was a fixture on Pratt Street for 15 years, offering Jamaican and Caribbean fare and lively nightlife. In the summer of 2018, Hugh Russell added a “grab and go” quick-service operation, with salads, sandwiches, entrees like jerk chicken and oxtail, and snacks including beef patties, jerk wings and coco bread.
But COVID-19 changed his outlook, as the pandemic has done for so many restaurateurs. When Connecticut restaurants were ordered closed in March, Russell tried offering takeout for about a week, he said, but found it wasn’t worthwhile because so many downtown businesses had asked employees to work at home indefinitely.
Russell said his lease on Pratt Street was up and he heard the Allyn Street space was available. He was interested in the much larger restaurant — about three times the square footage of his Pratt Street operation — and the availability of nearby parking.
“With [COVID] restrictions, it was important for me to find a space where people could sit down and have dinner and still do the social distancing,” he said. He plans to keep his seating at 50% capacity, which allows him to seat 90 guests.
According to court records, Shelbourne Global Solutions, the landlord of the Pratt Street building, filed a complaint against The Russell in January, stating the tenant had defaulted on the lease. Shelbourne later withdrew its complaint in Hartford Superior Court on July 7.
On Allyn Street, the new restaurant has a full-service kitchen, and Russell has expanded the menu, offering new items like ackee and saltfish (Jamaica’s national dish) on crispy fried plantain chips; jerk calamari, jerk shrimp skewers, jerk fish tacos and a coconut curry shrimp bowl, with a hollowed-out pineapple serving as a receptacle and a base of vegetable fried rice with mango, pineapple, ginger and bell pepper. Pineapple jerk chicken with fried rice is also available in the same presentation.
Guests have their longtime favorites, Russell said, so he kept all the classics: jerk chicken, pork and salmon; a jerk chicken sandwich, oxtail, escovitch fish and curry goat. But there are more vegetarian and vegan options: a jerk veggie burger, brown stew veggies, vegetable chop suey and a vegan “one pot rasta pasta” with penne, assorted vegetables and coconut curry.
“It was also important for me to really keep the true flavor of the island and use fresh ingredients,” Russell said.
Salads and appetizers are $8 to $12. “Oven and pressed” items, including a sandwich, wrap, quesadilla and jerk chicken pizza, are $10 to $12. Entrees are $14 to $23. The Russell also offers a full bar, with Caribbean-influenced cocktails ($10) featuring various rums and tropical juices.
Russell plans to add Sunday brunch in the upcoming weeks, with authentic Jamaican breakfast dishes like ackee and saltfish, callaloo and banana porridge with more traditional American offerings like eggs and French toast.
Right now, Russell is focusing on the food and drink aspect of The Russell. “When you think of The Russell, you think of good food from the island, the authentic Caribbean experience,” he said. “That’s really, really important for us.”
He does hope to see its nightlife return, including live bands and an open mic night, whenever pandemic restrictions ease and diners are more comfortable going out.
“That’s what completes the experience,” he said. “That’s the only thing that’s missing right now.”
The Russell, at 187 Allyn St. in Hartford, is open Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 5 to midnight. 860-727-4014, therussellct.com.