Plaid and whiskey. The main loves of two seemingly disparate tribes—Scots and hipsters. So what better place for them to converge than at Mary Queen of Scots, a new Lower East restaurant whose banquettes and lampshades are decked out in tartan glory, and where the liquor comes neat in crystal tumblers.
Subtlety wasn’t a decorating instruction—portraits of the doomed queen cast their shadows from the brick walls. But would the crowd at this dimly lit Victorian-Gothic restaurant know that Mary was sentenced to death for conspiring against her cousin Elizabeth I? Doubtful—the restaurant caters to the cool, young folk (also swaddled in plaid) who drink more than they eat. But they’re no worse off for it, since the food bores more than it delights.
Mary ruled both Scotland and France (as a queen consort), and the menu supposedly straddles both lands. Is carbonara a well-known Franco-Scottish staple? Hardly, but the silky strands of pasta ($9) cradling a raw egg yolk and lots of garlic confit would be a worthy addition to these countries’ culinary repertories. It’s a more judicious use of the odiferous bulb than the wild mushroom toast ($10), which should be renamed mushroom-flagellated-by-garlic toast. Beet salad ($12), bright and sweet, pairs the root vegetable with a dollop of brûléed yogurt instead of goat cheese, like at everywhere else—a nice change, though this rendition still tastes pretty similar to salads forked down before.
Entrées tread in even safer waters. Of course you’ll encounter pork belly ($20), the most overplayed cut of meat. The swine’s crackling skin guards the intertwining layers of fat and flesh served atop a pool of glistening beluga lentils. It’s good, exuding far more flavor than the $18 arugula and salmon salad that epitomizes spa cuisine, or the mushy $22 skate wing that recalls Friday supper at the abbey. Bouchot mussels ($18) get the classic white-wine dousing, but the dish’s highlight is unquestionably the fries. Starchy yet crunchy, they reach their full potato potential when dunked in the accompanying spicy curry sauce.
Don’t despair just yet, dear lads and lassies, because Mary Queen of Scots’ desserts (all $8) far surpass their savory counterparts. Pastry chef Heather Giacone’s peanut butter sandwiches thankfully do little to recall the dry, crustless lunchbox staple. Instead, peanutty cream oozes from three dense chocolate cookies perched atop a cascade of caramelized bananas. A sprinkle of chocolate crumble and a quenelle of honey ice cream complete the calorific confection. Chocolate stout tres leches cake, served with malt ice cream and chocolate-covered pretzels for a hint of salt amid the sugar, also makes for a fitting end to one’s meal. The cocoa-averse should select the just-gooey-enough cranberry upside-down cake, paired alongside a scoop of orange sherbet that tastes like the best Creamsicle imaginable—what better happy mash-up of autumnal tea-time pastry and sweet stickiness of summer camp?
For those who prefer a liquid pudding, the exceptionally fine Scotch list of about 75 bottles should surely suffice. Cocktails, too, like the peaty Auld Alliance ($12), do their part to lure the crowds. As at Highlands, Mary’s West Village pubby sister spot, a bustling singles scene erupts on the weekends. Here, the bar—oddly located in the back, underneath a glass ceiling—becomes thronged after 9 p.m., raising the decibel level to a roar.
Despite the hubbub and glitz and the refreshingly friendly and attentive service, the staying power of this establishment remains questionable, given the relatively uninspiring cuisine and fickle nature of trend-seekers. It wouldn’t be surprising if the restaurant mirrored the trajectory of its predecessor, Allen & Delancey, by thriving for several years before dropping into oblivion. But maybe that would be fitting. After all, the real-life Mary, Queen of Scots got the ax early on, too.