MacNiven’s invades Massachusetts Avenue with haggis, tatties and neeps It’s sad when a local institution runs its course. So when long-beloved Brother Juniper’s finally closed up shop and signs of life stirred behind the darkened storefront, promising a new tavern, downtown foodies were hoping this wasn’t just another pub serving up frozen food with a couple of brews on tap.
On the contrary, the owners of MacNiven’s, the new Scottish-American restaurant that has brought Massachusetts Avenue’s culinary district to completion at its southwest corner, seem to have thought of everything, down to the James Bond theme in the bathroom and the extensive beer menu featuring 119 beers from Scotland and the rest of the world. Named for the family of Stewart Robertson, co-owner of MacNiven’s with Troy Gregory, this place is no fly-by-night operation.
Inside, buttery yellow walls cut against exposed brick and industrial piping, and wooden ceiling fans stir the air wafting in from street-side panel walls. The original, even slightly scuffed, hardwood flooring is a nice reminder of Brother Juniper’s vintage charm. With all this wood, however, the cheering for a Pacers victory over Miami rose to a din not unlike that of Conseco Fieldhouse. But the joint is cozy enough, without too many modern nods, and brings a true air of authenticity that has already been packing in the crowds.
To top this off, our amiable waitress knew the menu like a pro — especially since the restaurant was hardly open a week — and was ready with tips and recommendations, such as the creamy Bellhaven Ale, the Scottish suds MacNiven’s uses in its batters and stews. “I like where you’re going,” she said, more than once, to our choices. We liked where she was going, too.
Despite the abundance of American dishes on the menu, including the tongue-in-cheek roast beef “Mac”Hatten, we went whole hog and ordered only authentic Scottish fare. We were delighted across the board. Scotch eggs ($5.95) can be leaden bombs more suitable for food fights than munching. Here, they were crunchy, juicy and not overly packed with a peppery bite of pork sausage encasing the egg. A nontraditional side of roasted red pepper aioli was spicy enough to ruffle your kilt.
Despite Bobby Burns’ rapturous ode, the mere idea of haggis ($5.95), a concoction of innards and oats traditionally cooked in a bladder, still turns most Americans’ stomachs. Here, however, it’s a delicious spiced spread with a good ratio of not-so-scary liver to oats. With whipped butter and pumpernickel rounds, we had quickly finished off the entire bowl.
A playful list of entrees brought the spirit of Scotland to the heartland. Vegetarian fun came in the form of cheezy beans on toast ($5.95), a typical British snack served platter-style here. Mince ’n’ tatties ($9.95) turned out to be a deconstructed shepherd’s pie with a nicely beefy dish of stewed beef with two whopping mounds of tubers on the side. The “neeps” were buttery, fluffy turnips, reminiscent of cauliflower, and the “tatties” translated as earthy mashed potatoes that weren’t overwhelmed with cream, butter or cheese.
Sausage rolls ($7.95) packed fat bangers into ultra-rich puffed pastry, making for a king’s treat or a coronary-clogging dinner. However you looked at them, they were right “gid” (that’s “good” to you Americans). A bowl of beans was equal parts saucy, spicy and sweet. Only a side of “chips” seemed a little unremarkable, though they were crisp manly wedges.
Just to show that they aren’t kidding about the Scottish thing, MacNiven’s serves up a trifle ($5.95) that’s spiked with single-malt Scotch (sorry kiddies!) and a base of retro, utterly homey strawberry Jell-o with what sure seemed like fruit cocktail inside. Yes, that’s the way they often do it across the pond. This proved a refreshing alternative to the chocolate-heavy endings at too many restaurants.
MacNiven’s is a charming, concept eatery that delivers its gimmick without too much pretense or harping for accuracy. It’s a pub, after all; it’s supposed to be fun. And it’s breathed a breath of fresh air into the downtown tavern scene. One wonders if honest-to-goodness Scottish grub will be the next big thing to capture culinary imaginations in the city. With its whole-grain breads and sprout sandwiches, Brother Junipers was once “new.” Here’s hoping that time won’t force the haggis and Scotch eggs off the menu in favor of buffalo wings and burgers.
So, as the Scottish say, quit yer greetin and get down to this wee place for loadsa’ gid brew and aw kinds of bevvy! In other words, come eat (and drink!) well on true Scottish fare at MacNiven’s!
MacNiven’s 339 Massachusetts Ave. 632-7268 Monday-Thursday, 11-11 Friday-Saturday, 11-midnight Food: 4 stars Atmosphere: 4 stars Service: 4 1/2 stars