I've always heard that Scotland is a pretty magical place, and after my first, Thursday-night visit to the Scottish Arms -- a new restaurant in the southeast corner of the Central West End -- I knew why. An alarmingly yet invitingly darkened interior, replete with a genuine pressed-tin ceiling painted in the lush green tones of St. Andrews. A shaved-head, hoop-earringed waiter dressed in a full-on kilt with all the attendant regalia (the white knee socks, the little leather pouch dangling around his waist) who serves from the left and clears from the right, who knows the menu as if he'd been raised on it (although he's from America, mind you), and who actually says "Pardon my reach." A nine-page single-malt Scotch menu written up with more loving detail than 98 percent of this town's wine lists. Dishes with fanciful, Harry Potter-esque names like cock-a-leekie pie, the Ptarmigan, stovies and forfar bridies. Complimentary sips of expensive Scotch here and there, proffered happily and readily just because we were curious enough to ask, even though three-fourths of us knew next to nothing about Scotch. A ladies' restroom stocked with Olay Body Quench moisturizer and Aussie hair products. (My God, what's in the men's room -- straight razors and Sean Connery's sweat in an atomizer?)
My maiden meal at the Scottish Arms was one of those dinners where time stands still, where you can blow through four courses in five hours -- a night of revelry, discovery and camaraderie -- as if it were a minute. When things finally wrapped up, we talked about moving in upstairs so we'd never have to leave, or going out and doing something spectacular, mad and foolish, like getting tattoos of our family crests and then road-tripping down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Where Joe Restaurantgoer may see nothing but punch lines in the notion of "traditional and contemporary Scottish cuisine," native Scot and Scottish Arms owner Alistair Nisbet, along with executive chef Brian Kirkwood (late of the Schlafly Tap Room) sees unlimited potential, promise and pleasure. The Scottish Arms' wittily written menu makes no apologies for its kooky-sounding food. And yes, that includes the infamous haggis -- ground sheep organs, minced onion and oatmeal served in the form of three hamburger-size patties (but forgoing the traditional encasement in sheep's stomach lining). Haggis is also available as an appetizer, in the form of haggis fritters, their fried jackets providing an airy crunch, their insides far more doughy fritter than meaty haggis.
Many Scottish Arms appetizers bear the underwhelming look of bar food: brown-fried whatnots resting on scattered, uninspired beds of field greens, plated on big-lipped white dishes that dwarf their contents. But frying aspires to an art here. Each and every appetizer carried complex flavorings, from the cremini mushrooms stuffed with rice and ground beef (tiny in size but giant in taste) served with a thick, balsamic-doused dip to the aforementioned fritters to the kildrummy cozies: chopped sirloin and onions wrapped up in a fresh and crisp bread-crumb coating. Our table was so taken with all of these that we ate the field-green garnishes once the rest of the dish had disappeared. Perhaps most triumphant were the Scotch eggs, perfectly hard-cooked eggs sheathed in ovals of finely breaded sausage, which made them look like kiwis on the outside.
An entrée of rack of lamb, delivered to the table a lipstick-pink medium, wasn't served with a steak knife and didn't need to be. It was bone-sucking delicious, spiked liberally with rosemary picked from the back patio's potted herb garden, which put a little English (or, perhaps, Gaelic) on it. Like most of the main courses, it was sided with a choice of potatoes (baked, roasted, mashed or garlic mashed) and boiled red cabbage slapped with vinegar -- a rustic, bracing combination. The Ptarmigan, white- and dark-meat chicken wrapped in bacon, was at its best when the tame, dry white meat was left on the plate; in comparison, the dark meat was downright medieval in its lustiness.
Cock-a-leekie pie, ideal for lunch, means chicken pot pie crossed with French onion soup. It's got big chunks of white-meat chicken floating in a buttercup-yellow, creamy chicken broth, served in a huge coffee cup that runneth over with a flaky, popover-style baked crust. Anforrath smokies, a crazy starter dish, means thin slices of salted fish fillets, a pile of boiled red cabbage sprinkled with raisins, plus two slices of cranberry-studded pound cake. Scotland is off the chain.
Service can be uneven -- a discrepancy that seems to fall in line with those waiters who don the kilts versus those who simply dress in black shirts and pants. As a rule, the latter lack the technical finesse of the more seasoned, kilted servers and don't emote the same in-the-blood passion for the enterprise. (In retrospect, our server on my first visit deserves at least half the credit for making that dinner so memorable.) I was also disappointed to discover that the fish and chips, a U.K. gimme if ever there was one, are a hit-or-miss proposition at the Scottish Arms. On two different attempts, the fried cod sat in either a trace of oil or a whole pool of it, soggying up its crisp jacket and sinking it in one shot. A few blots with a paper towel, I reckon, would be all the fish would need to qualify as consistently outstanding, as the fish itself was just great. Likewise, the tartar sauce was runny on one try; on the other the chips, though obviously hand-cut, were tough.
At the tender age of not quite six months, the Scottish Arms is ambitiously expanding its offerings with weekend brunches and regularly scheduled Scotch tastings, hosted by some of the world's most renowned Scotch enthusiasts. Such ambition carries over in, of all things, the dessert menu, where there's crème brûlée, which is awful, and a fried Mars bar, which is out of this world. It's quirkiness like that that makes me want to experience Scotland firsthand -- but then again, I feel like I already have.