The Haven

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I hardly ever go to Jamaica Plain. Prior to my Tres Gatos visit a couple of weeks ago, I think I’d been there maybe two or three times in my entire life. And that’s too bad, because I’m always hearing what an interesting place it is, with its own vibe and some very cool bars and restaurants.

The problem is that JP is a pain in the ass to get to. The center of town is just far enough away from the Orange Line to make me think I should drive if I’m going there; yet it’s just far enough out of the way that driving there feels like a nuisance. As a result, the neighborhood feels somewhat isolated. The only people I know who regularly hang out in JP are those who live there. When you consider the accessibility of, say, Davis Square or anywhere in Cambridge, it’s no surprise that those areas draw locals and people from all over Boston in equal shares. When I walk into a JP bar, I get the feeling that everyone inside has been there a thousand times. The patrons and the staff all seem to know or at least recognize each other. Not that it’s unwelcoming or anything; far from it. JP just feels like its own little world, disconnected from the more familiar regions of the city.

But I think that isolation contributes to a distinct culture and a palpable sense of community in Jamaica Plain. JP is known for its diversity, artists, and musicians, and its businesses seem like a natural extension of its culture. When I stopped into a JP bar that allowed dogs, for instance, I clearly got the sense that, well, that’s just the way it works here. The neighborhood exudes a sense of personality and character that you simply cannot manufacture.

Again, I’m no authority on this, so feel free to take my theory with a grain of salt. But there’s no doubt that Jamaica Plain is known for its quirkiness. When I told my friend Jen about Tres Gatos, selling tapas, books, and music all under one roof, she said “Oh, of course, that’s very JP.” So I suppose it figures that in Boston, a city of countless Irish pubs and plenty of English-style bars, JP would be home to the city’s only Scottish pub – the Haven.

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If you didn’t know the Haven was a Scottish bar before you went, you’d figure it out as soon as you walked in. The kilt-wearing host with the Scottish accent would probably tip you off, but beyond that, there are nods to the mother country everywhere – Scottish flags, pictures of Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands, a framed photo of Sean Connery as James Bond on the bar, and an old Rod Stewart album cover on the wall (not sure how loudly I’d be boasting about that one, laddies). All that was missing was a set of bagpipes, though I get the feeling that if I asked, the manager would disappear into the back and emerge blowing “Scotland the Brave.”

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All in all, I get the impression that the people behind the Haven are proud of their heritage, but possess a good-natured irreverence.

The décor evokes images of a Scottish farmhouse. Cozy and rustic, it feels comfortably well worn, with old-looking hardwood floors, walls of wood and exposed brick, and chandeliers fashioned out of elk antlers. There’s a small bar with eight stools, along with two long tables in the bar area, one with benches. The main dining space has about 10 wooden tables, all with old-school chairs reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria. The place is very dark, and candles on the table provide an intimate ambience in an otherwise lively atmosphere.

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But the Haven’s celebration of Scottish culture doesn’t stop at the décor. The menu is highlighted by Scottish cuisine and boasts an incredible array of excellent Scottish craft beer.

I was here at about 7 p.m. on a recent Friday night with my sister Kelly, our cousin Adam, and his girlfriend Danielle (both of whom reside in Jamaica Plain). The bar area was starting to fill up, but we were seated right away. At our table we found a plate of traditional oatcakes with butter waiting for us. I’d say they were like a hybrid of a cracker and an oatmeal cookie and made for a good snack while we pondered our first round.

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Kelly and Danielle opened the proceedings with cocktails. Danielle ordered the Olympian, a sweet and fruity concoction with a heavy kick. Served in a Mason jar, the Olympian is made with Citron vodka, lemon juice, pomegranate liqueur, and Irn Bru – an orange-colored soft drink often referred to as “Scotland’s other national drink” (Scottish whisky, of course, being the first). I assume the name is an ironic nod to Scotland’s lack of an Olympic team, which is apparently a sore subject.

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Kelly went with the Braveheart, a bold mix of honey bourbon, whisky barrel bitters, and fresh lemon juice. As the drink menu said, “We’re claiming the title back from that Aussie psycho.” (Remember when Mel Gibson was awesome? Sigh…) The lemon interacting with honey made for a sweet, sharp cocktail.

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The mixed drinks were all well and good, but when a bar specializes in Scottish beer, that’s what I’m there for.

I’d venture that, as beer goes, Belhaven Scottish Ale is Scotland’s most famous export. That said, it’s not the easiest beer to find on draft around here. And that’s a sin, because it’s a well-balanced, easy-drinking brew, served on nitro, with a rich caramel color.

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I knew I could count on finding Belhaven here, but I didn’t realize that Belhaven came in multiple varieties, including an IPA and a stout. Just one of the great things about drinking in a Scottish bar, I suppose. Adam wisely chose Belhaven Stout for his first beer, and it was phenomenal. Smoky and creamy, with a mild and unexpected sweetness.

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Another good thing about drinking at the Haven is that you find out how many other great Scottish beers there are. (You also find out splendidly high in alcohol content they are, but that’s another matter.) And thus my next choice was the rotating tap – McNeil’s Scotch Ale, a reddish beer with a fruity malt flavor.

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The Haven also offers a broad selection of bottled beers, divided into three sections: “Around the Isle,” “Historic Ale Series,” and “Connoisseurs’ Choice.”

Kelly and I delved into the bottle selection, and it was in the “Around the Isle” category that I found my beer of the night. No offense to Belhaven, but Innis & Gunn’s Rum Cask just floored me with its texture and flavor. The beer is aged in rum casks, giving it an unmistakable rum essence. The result was a sweet, rich, smoky beer, dark copper in color, and all too drinkable.

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Cider fan Kelly went with Thistly Cross farmhouse Scottish cider. She’s been banging the Downeast drum since we had it at Meadhall, but Thistly Cross didn’t disappoint. It reminded us of sparkling cider – sweet, but crisp.

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Danielle stuck with cocktails and got the Maggie May, which also arrived in a Mason jar. It was an interesting mix of pineapple- and lavender-infused gin with grapefruit, honey, and ginger ale. The gin and ginger ale could have made for a harsh combination, but the pineapple and honey flavors smoothed it out, and the lavender gave it a distinct floral aroma.

Adam opted for another Belhaven variety, this time their Twisted Thistle IPA. The beer was crisp and hoppy with an aftertaste I wouldn’t typically attribute to an IPA.

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Even if all the Haven did was specialize in Scottish craft beer, it would be a bar worth visiting. But they also offer a menu packed with Scottish favorites. White pudding with sassitch and mash, anyone?

If Scottish cuisine isn’t your speed, no worries. Kelly went with the Haven burger, topped with bacon-onion marmalade, which was incredible. Adam got the bacon potato salad, which was just as good as it sounds (really, how could you go wrong with that?).

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Danielle and I stayed true to the theme with a few traditional Scottish favorites. She got vegetable bridies, which are kind of like vegetable-stuffed pastries. Bridies are traditionally served at Scottish weddings; the bride (hence the name) eats one first, for good luck. Inside are spring onions, potatoes, and cheese, cooked in a croissant-like exterior. These babies were light, tasty, and surprisingly filling.

I made a meal out of two appetizers, and the first was the undisputed hit of the night – Scotch deviled eggs. The Haven’s version of a Scotch egg is a deviled egg encased in sausage and deep fried. I’m not sure I can adequately do justice to the brilliance of the idea or the excellence of its execution.

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My love of deviled eggs is fairly well chronicled throughout this blog. I’d heard of Scotch eggs before and was always intrigued – and the Haven’s more than exceeded my expectations. The exterior was crispy, the meat was tender, and the deviled egg filling was perfectly spiced. If I’m ever in the unfortunate position of being asked what I’d like for my last meal, I will direct my inquisitor to the Haven and tell him to grab me a dozen (which, ironically, would probably kill me).

So by 8 p.m. or so, the Haven was in full swing. We were all having a grand old time, loving the Scotch eggs, sampling liberally from the drink menu, and laughin’ our arses off.

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And then came the haggis.

Haggis is the most traditional of Scottish meals, so it only makes sense that the Haven would serve it. Yet it probably competes with tripe for the title of World’s Most Reviled Meat Dish. The Haven’s menu describes it as “Haggis and Neeps – house-made lamb haggis, truffle honey mashed rutabaga, Drambuie butter, haggis neeps, and tatties.” Hmmm…lots of talk about “haggis” but no real explanation as to what it is. But! There’s a glossary on the menu that elaborates: “Haggis – the national dish of Scotland – minced lamb offal with oats, onion, and spices.”

How benign it sounds. Appetizing, even. Note how subtly they slip “offal” in there, presumably hoping you’ll either miss it or don’t know what it means. Anyway, haggis is some combination of a lamb’s heart, liver, and lungs, seasoned with the aforementioned spices, encased in the animal’s stomach lining, and simmered for a few hours.

Only a true Scot would read that and say “Mmmmmm!”

I’m only a quarter Scottish, but I’m fully devoted to entertaining you with my exploits, so I went in knowing I had a date with the haggis. (My determination did not exactly inspire my fellow barhoppers; as Danielle said to me prior to our visit, “I just looked it up and almost threw up reading the description.”) Plus, I’d tried tripe just a week or so earlier, and that wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Bring on the haggis!!

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Eating the haggis gave me a lot to think about. Like, how I’d laughed off Danielle’s disgust just hours earlier; how deeply envious I was as I looked across the table at Kelly’s burger; and whether Adam was going to finish his beer.

The haggis was, as I told our waitress…interesting. Everyone tried it, Danielle included, but Adam described it most succinctly – if you converted “new car smell” into a flavor, this is it. (New car smell in a car is pleasant; I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.)

I don’t mean to be hard on the Haven – given how amazing the rest of their food is, I can only assume that, as haggis goes, this particular recipe is superior. The meat wasn’t even that bad, but whatever “flavor” the casing contributed…no thanks. I’ll call haggis an acquired taste. One I probably won’t be acquiring.

They passed around a dessert menu after that, the centerpiece of which was a deep-fried Mars bar served with maple whipped cream. As sweet an addition as it would have been to this post, we were all waaaay past full, and if I’d eaten any more food, I’d have split my pants and needed to borrow a kilt. Although if you wear a kilt on “kilt night,” you apparently get a free Mars bar dessert.

As if anyone would need more incentive to wear a kilt.

Last Call

I don’t know what I find more surprising – the fact that there’s a Scottish bar in Boston, or the fact that there’s only one. I’d venture to guess that, after Dunkin Donuts, there is no institution more prevalent in the Boston area than the Irish pub. Yet only one Scottish bar. Why is that? Scotland’s drinking culture is similar to that of its neighbors, and its beers are no less impressive. Then again, even if there were more Scottish bars around, I doubt any would exceed the charm of the Haven.

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And I don’t know whether there’s such a thing about Scottish hospitality, but the service I’ve had here has been fantastic. From the waitress who took good care of us to the bartender, Will, who was only too happy to talk about the bar, the beers, and anything else, I got the sense that these are friendly people who have an equal fondness for their bar and Scottish culture.

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The prices aren’t too bad. Most of the beers were $6 of $7, which is pretty standard, especially considering that nearly all of them are imports. The cocktails were very reasonable at $8 a pop. Kelly’s burger was a wee bit high at $14, but it was a pretty top-notch burger. The rest of us stuck to appetizers and side dishes, which ranged from about $5 to $9.

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The Haven happily celebrates all things Scottish. In addition to the food and drink, they regularly devote a night to showing James Bond movies (only Sean Connery, I presume), sponsor kilt nights, have live music, and show soccer football games on TV. It's a casual, unique, animated bar that seems right at home in Jamaica Plain.Address: 2 Perkins Street, Jamaica Plain

Website:http://thehavenjp.com/