At Highlands, Some Like It Scot
Highlands is suited to winter. On a recent bitterly cold Friday night, the new Scottish restaurant's windows, which look out on a quiet stretch of West 10th Street, were fogged up from the Scotch-laden breath of the crowd inside. Stepping into the boozy warmth, group after group were greeted by a young man in a flannel tartan shirt, who informed each party that the wait for a table was lengthy. And so the bar was crammed with people shedding coats and grabbing the whiskey list under the unblinking stare of a stag mounted to the wall, his antlers wreathed in Christmas lights.
Some were drinking their Scotch neat, or in one of a handful of cocktails that utilize the spirit and its brown cousins, including a warming mug of rye, applejack, bitters, maple syrup, and boiling water. The bartender, a woman with severe black bangs and expansive tattoos, was running ragged, pouring out doses of the golden liquor and patiently explaining that, no, she didn't have Bud Light, would you like a pilsner instead? It's a lively, pleasant enough place to wait for one of the restaurant's 60 seats to open up. If the proportion of button-down-shirt testosterone is a bit high, well, what do you expect for a Scotch bar?
Brian McGrory and Mary Wan—Glaswegians and alums of design firm AvroKO—own Highlands with Donal Brophy. The place feels just so. Old-fashioned bulbs with glowing filaments hang above the bar, and the wooden chairs are upholstered with more Scottish tartan. The menu offers nine appetizers ($4 to $14) and five mains ($18 to $25), fashioning itself as a gastropub—simple proteins, seasonal vegetables, the cheeky mix of high and low.
You won't find Scotch eggs or deep-fried Mars bars, but the lamb sausage roll comes closest to that aesthetic. It looks like a pig-in-a-blanket on steroids, a loose mix of dark sausage inside a flaky pastry coat that tastes like a Pillsbury croissant. Dip the hulking thing into the side of spicy harissa mayo. Plenty of drinkers at the bar order these, and are probably glad about it.
Other appetizers are restrained by contrast—as if McGrory is trying to counter the stereotype that a Scot will fry anything not nailed down. Highlands has little in common with those gastropubs that serve what Robert Sietsema has dubbed "transgressional cuisine," peddling a menu fat with pig's trotters and marrow bones. On the contrary: At Highlands, the best appetizer of the bunch is the house-cured salmon from Loch Duart—silken, barely salty, and dill-scented. Put it on a pumpernickel crostini with a giant caper and a smear of crème fraîche. Squash soup—such a simple thing, yet so good I thought of it for days afterward—is an attractive orange purée spiked with a bit of curry powder, and harboring wisps of finnan haddie, the smoked haddock so meaty I at first mistook it for prosciutto.
The meat plate—an array of dark rounds of boar salami, thick-cut fat-striated ham, and chicken-liver pâté—provides a satisfying sharable snack, if expensive at $14. Citrus-cured sardines are cheaper at $10, but are more of a rip-off, the plate amounting to two small, silvery fish and a green salad that's overwhelmed by truffle oil.
The five main dishes offered during my visits were a mixed bag, though skewing positive. The only real dud in the bunch is the guinea hen, a sad little bird with gummy skin. But the dish's side, leeks and prunes cooked down to a savory-sweet mush, is delicious.
Matters improve quite a bit with the lamb shank, a huge, purplish specimen that's been braised in Malbec wine until tender and sticky. On the side are irresistibly crisp roasted potatoes and a pile of very fine Brussels sprouts. Baked hake, an unmemorable white fish, is served on a very nice cake of bubble and squeak, the traditional way to use potato and cabbage leftovers: mash them together and fry them up into a patty. In a rare break with the seasonal-produce paradigm, slices of fried zucchini come on the side.
The wild-mushroom shepherd's pie provides a serviceable vegetarian dish, although not quite good enough to order whether you're a vegetarian or not. Though the pie, in its ceramic crock, has the proper mashed-potato topping, it somehow manages to be a bit too austere—as if it needs a sprinkle of cheese or a lashing of cream. Under the potato crust, find a dark and meaty mix of wild mushrooms. The ragout includes familiar shiitakes, along with beech mushrooms—the small brown caps that grow in tight colonies and are often known as shimeji—and cauliflower mushrooms, a spongy, parasitic fungus that looks like a brain, or a head of cauliflower.
But, really, you're here for the haggis, aren't you? "This is the most edible haggis I've ever had," exclaimed a friend from the U.K. one night, as he swallowed a forkful of the oatmeal-lamb porridge. The haggis comes from Andrew Hamilton of Scottish Wild Harvest, who has put considerable time and energy into producing a proper haggis for the U.S. market. Normally, haggis is made from lamb's liver, lungs, and heart, mixed with oatmeal and herbs, stuffed in a sheep's stomach, then boiled. But since lamb lungs can't be exported from the U.K. because of the U.S.'s concerns about mad cow disease, Hamilton had to come up with a way to mimic their texture, finally hitting upon the solution of boiling beef liver and grating it, to give the dish a dry fluffiness.
So the haggis served at Highlands is very friendly and approachable, made from beef liver, lamb heart, lamb meat, and oatmeal. Mashed golden rutabagas and potatoes come on the side. The haggis is genuinely delicious: sweet and nutty, a savory flavor bomb, with the faintest, welcome hint of that metallic liver taste. My British friend was stunned. "It's almost like you're defaming haggis by making one that's not gross enough," he said. Truly, it is a great chieftain of the pudding race.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road
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