How is a Scottish gastropub different from the Irish kind we know so well in Boston? Is it like Trainspotting versus The Commitments? Well, sort of. Scottish ales are stronger and a little smokier than their Irish counterparts, although the Scots also have “session beers” — a now popular coinage — for when you are having more than one. (Due to limited licensure, that other specialty drink of Scotland is not available here under any spelling.)
One thing the Haven team got right immediately was the quality of light. By moving into the empty Hyde Square space of the lamented Zon’s, they got north-facing windows, which means that on any cloudy day the unlit bar is as dreary as Scottish weather. At night, low light and candles assure the same effect.
If you miss all the other signifiers, the breadbasket should clang some bells about kilts, bagpipes, and thistles, as it consists of home-made oatcakes — soft, chewy pancakes that are excellent with butter. Haven also puts out some house-made lightly pickled vegetables, another signifier — this time of Boston gastropubbery. If you just can’t wait, there is an appetizer version of haggis and neeps ($8; $16/entrée). (We’ll get to the haggis jokes at the entrée level.) Less controversial starter choices might include a seasonal bridie (currently $8, tomato), which is a turnover wrapped in wonderful flaky pastry. The dislocated Lowland Scots, who came to the American colonies and eventually were known as Scotch-Irish, do not get enough credit for their influence on Southern United States pie crust. In Scotland, as in early America, pies (and bridies) are as likely to be savory as sweet, and the tomato version, with cherry tomatoes, mild cheese, and some thyme, is a fine appetizer or bar bite. Simple salad ($7) reads like a lot of bistro dishes, with raisins and nuts, but the Edinburgh sweet tooth has the nuts candied, the raisins cunningly plumped up, and the balance with vinaigrette dressing tipped to the sweet side.
A “house smoked salmon fish plate” ($12) is listed as an appetizer, but could end your dinner plans on the spot. The centerpiece is a nice chunk of hot-smoked (rather mildly) salmon, served cold with more oatcakes and garnishes of crème frâiche (lighter than sour cream), a bean-and-onion salad, and a couple of “Finnan haddie croquettes,” fried golf balls of potato and smoked fish, with a house-made tartar sauce.
But, after a hard day of farm work (or golf) upon the heath, we have big appetites, so on to the haggis special ($18), which in addition to neeps has mashed potatoes and includes a draught Belhaven ale ($6). Haggis is classically a kind of sausage made from sheep stomach filled with oatmeal and spare sheep parts. If we were celebrating the birth of sweet Robbie Burns, it would be accompanied to the table by a piper. At the Haven, it comes without fanfare, and has been modified to be mostly liver and oatmeal in the stomach. I found it a very nice, mild variation on boudin, without the goaty sharpness I expected from experience with lamb kidneys (likely omitted here). The neeps (literally turnips) here are braised cubes of kohlrabi, a very tasty alternative, and less windy that my own attempts at cooking kohlrabi. (Recipe please!) The mashed potatoes have a bit of skin and are very good.
Almost as good as the mashed minted peas served with fish supper ($14), which is the Scottish name for fish and chips. Mashed minted peas are made here from fresh peas, not overcooked, and thus are rather lumpy but have real pea flavor as well as fresh mint aromatics. Nothing wrong with the fish — a large fillet of haddock in beer batter — and quite a lot to like in the chips, inch-square French fries with real potato taste. Ask for vinegar and you get the British Isles standard, Heinz malt vinegar.
Major appetites can tuck into more of that great pastry atop beef and ale pie ($17). The cooks sprinkle caraway seeds into the pie crust, a lovely effect. Underneath is two dinners worth of stewed beef strips, kale, yellow potato slices, and fried onions. The medium is slightly starchy but not dangerously so, as in so many American pot pies. (Although the history of chicken pot pie in America runs through the Pennsylvania Dutch, their Scotch-Irish neighbors played a part there, too.)
Although there is a very decent list of wines by the glass, this cuisine was designed for beer, and the range of Scottish ales on draught or in bottles is surprisingly broad. Scottish Session beer ($7/bottle) is a lovely golden color but with as much flavor dissolved in four-percent alcohol as most products of the Samuel Adams brewery. Belhaven ($6/draught) is only a shade darker, and that becomes deceptive, as this pint is loaded with malt, hops, and a hint of smoke. Twisted Thistle IPA ($7/20-ounce bottle) is a simpler, but plenty bitter (although that disappears with food). One can get a very respectable cuppa tea, and excellent coffee and decaf.
The Scottish sweet tooth is notorious, and well served here with a Treacle Tart ($7) that is a thick cake, almost like pound cake, covered and soaked with irresistible caramel sauce. Blueberry cranachan ($7) is more what we would call a crisp, and it is very good. So is a dish of shortbread ($7), which is the real, crumbly, butter-rich shortbreads, and a chocolate dipping sauce.
There are a few TV sets — the Haven rushed its opening to get the World Cup crowd. Most other sports references are on the bathroom wall art, a collage of Scottish newspapers and old magazine pages. Gaelic football references abound. Our server lacked the accent, but was suitably enthusiastic about the food and ales.
Robert Nadeau can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org