So tell me about your skink soup,” I heard myself say to the London-born waiter, who was gamely sporting a tartan tie. All around me at the Highlands, a self-consciously styled “Scottish gastropub” in the West Village, I imagined, bemused New Yorkers were asking the same question. And why not? At theme destinations like this, everyone’s happy to play the role of tourist for an hour or two. The wallpaper in the snug little dining room (which not so long ago housed an experimental restaurant called P*ong) was patterned with giant pink grouse, like in the bridal suite of a not very grand Scottish bed-and-breakfast. A stag’s head was nailed to the barroom wall. And here and there, youthful, shiny-cheeked pub crawlers were perched on stools, swirling glasses of the prodigious (and prodigiously priced) house selection of blended whiskeys and single malts with evocative, tongue-twisting names like Pittyvaich and Auchentoshan.
Skink soup, it turns out, is a glutinous, semi-palatable fish chowder (the dish was originally made with beef shanks, or “skinks” in old Scottish), and you’ll find a better version of it down the street at the Spotted Pig, where it’s more sensibly called smoked-haddock chowder. But the restaurant’s Scottish-American chef, William Hickox (formerly of Public), does a decent job of taking other classics from the threadbare Anglo- Scottish culinary repertoire and giving them a not-unpleasant gourmet spin. There’s a fanciful Scottish-themed risotto among the appetizers (made with barley and a scattering of white raisins) and very good sausage rolls (ground lamb wrapped in a flaky pastry crust). The salmon is sustainable, of course (it’s flown in from Loch Duart, on the northwest coast of Scotland), and house-cured. And you can get about a pound of New Zealand cockles flavored, in not especially Scottish style, with shallots and a splash of Pinot Gris.
The entrées tended to be slightly ham-fisted, like something you might find in the more ambitious establishments around, say, Pittyvaich. The beef Wellington ($28) was overcooked and oversalted, and the $20 suckling pig consisted of three meager, crackly skinned pieces of pork. For pig lovers, the dish to get is the pork “faggot,” which, as our garrulous waiter told us, is a kind of pork sausage (“loin, belly, and other leavings,” he said cheerfully) wrapped in caul fat and served over a savory onion marmalade and applesauce. Haggis, that famously gnarly Scottish delicacy, comes in for similar gourmet treatment (it’s shaped in sausage form and perched on a wheel of buttery mashed turnips and “tatties”), and if you don’t feel like eating all that meat, there’s an uncannily beefy-tasting shepherd’s pie filled with a mélange of diced artisanal mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake) and sautéed kale.
But the real reason to visit this antic, aggressively themed gastropub (even the busboys wear tartan ties) are the whiskeys. The comprehensive list runs to eleven pages, covers all the geographical points on the great whiskey compass (from the northern islands to Speyside to the bogs of Islay), and includes flowery tasting notes on all the whiskeys. Who knew that a sip of smoky Bruichladdich ’01 ($16, from Islay) tasted faintly of “mint and peanuts” (it actually sort of does) or that a glass of the toffee-colored Gordan & MacPhail Mortlach from Speyside ($22) emits an aroma of “mulled fruit” and “oatmeal”? If you feel like a little something sweet after your haggis, I suggest the rice-pudding brûlée. Otherwise, make like you’re in some hard-bitten pub in Glasgow or the Isle of Skye and call for another round of drinks.
Drink is also the primary reason to visit the new wine bar–restaurant Bar Henry, which opened a few months ago in the narrow subterranean space on West Houston Street that once housed the Zinc Bar. Certainly no one’s there for the décor, which combines the fustiness of an old Edwardian dining car (white-linen tabletops set with rows of glass goblets, chairs covered in red velvet, etc.) with the snug, Stygian aesthetic of an underground bunker. The food isn’t great, either. Among the smaller dishes, there are decent deviled eggs, a competent seviche, and if you enjoy a soft corn taco stuffed with short ribs with your glass of Côtes du Rhône, there’s actually a pretty good one of those (the buttery tarte Tatin is pretty good, too). But most of the things my dining companions and I sampled from the entrées list ranged from the dreary ($36 for three bloody lamb chops) to the predictable (dry-aged steak, roast chicken, a Hamburger Henry topped with onions and too much blue cheese).
Among the city’s persnickety community of wine geeks, however, Bar Henry has quickly gained a reputation as a quirky and interesting place to drink. Most wine programs in town are pitched either to impressionable amateurs or trophy-hungry high rollers. But John Slover, who used to work at the downtown wine mecca Cru, has compiled an accessible, fairly priced list designed to please the judicious consumer in the middle. His Reserve list features old vintages (an ’83 Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde for $199, a ’93 Il Poggione Brunello for $156) that would cost 50 percent more at standard restaurants, assuming you could find them at all. The slightly less elite wines on the Market list are all available as half-pours, which means if you’re willing to spend a little cash ($60 for a half bottle of ’04 Premier Cru Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny from Burgundy, $63 for a delicious ’96 Château Sociando-Mallet from Bordeaux), then it’s possible to drink like the captain of a modest hedge fund, at least for an hour or two.