On one wall of MacLaomainn’s Scottish Pub in Chester, a sword pierces a bolt of Black Watch plaid fabric. A guide to Scotland’s clans, posted at a nearby table, informs diners this particular tartan belongs to the Lamont clan. One of the dozens of subbranches of the storied family goes by the name MacLaomainn. Another is known as Brown.
Alan Brown, kin to the MacLaomainns, never had any great plans to leave Paisley, a large town just west of Glasgow. That is, until the car salesman joined Yahoo’s dating site. There he met Deb MacPhee, a Bellows Falls native and member of the MacFie clan, whose red and green tartan also gets space on the wall of the restaurant. The couple opened MacLaomainn’s together on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, a month after they wed in the same spot. The pub is attached to the home they now share and above a community space at which Brown plans to offer a variety of classes.
Though this is Brown’s first restaurant experience, he says he long dreamed of owning a pub. He just “always thought it would be closer to Glasgow.”
One would never guess MacLaomainn’s is the work of a first-time restaurateur. The space, which seats 44 — plus 32 on the deck — looks as lived in as the venerable watering holes Brown used to frequent in Paisley. The walls are crowded with Brown’s treasures from back home: maps of Scotland, portraits of Scottish heroes and a figure of Johnny Walker presiding over the bar. A half mask that Brown bought to commemorate his first in-person date with Deb — dinner at Sardi’s in New York City, followed by The Phantom of the Opera — is displayed near a taxidermied bear holding a beer bottle.
The night Seven Days visits MacLaomainn’s, nearly every seat is full. Waitresses speed from the cramped kitchen bearing tureens overflowing with creamy stews topped with puff pastry.
The native Scottish contingent is represented at one table by the McGraths, a couple who left Scotland for Vermont 45 years ago. A country-dance class is going on downstairs, but, once it wraps up, more Scots congregate around a portrait of poet Robert Burns.
Clearly, this fairly new restaurant has become an international hub. On a given night, Brown says, “You’ll hear a mix of all languages” at MacLaomainn’s. He claims to get semiregular guests from as far away as Albany, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., who drive across state lines for a taste of haggis.
That’s right: One of the most popular dishes at MacLaomainn’s is Scotland’s most feared. Sure, the ingredients of ground-sausage-like haggis may remind some diners of the contents of ancient Egyptian canopic jars. But many chefs say we should all eat more food that’s organic — made from organs, that is. The mix in the haggis at MacLaomainn’s includes mutton, sheep’s liver and heart, chewy barley, and smooth oats.
Until January 25, 2010 — Robert Burns’ 251st birthday — it was illegal in the United States to serve haggis boiled the traditional way, in a sheep’s stomach. Though the ban has been lifted now that mad-cow hysteria has receded, Brown says it’s more cost effective to serve his haggis loose. However, this Robert Burns Day, in celebration of both the poet’s birthday and his “Address to a Haggis,” MacLaomainn’s will serve a full 8-pound traditional presentation to guests brave enough to try the real deal.
The $8.75 haggis available on the regular menu is surprisingly smooth, with the barley providing a pleasantly pearly texture. The metallic taste that dominates many offal dishes is barely present. Instead, the loose platter of meat, which resembles a sloppy Joe in composition, tastes of lamb and herbs. Overall, the dish seems to fall somewhere between Middle Eastern kefta and Mom’s meatloaf.
The savory meat is served with a pair of mashes — turnips and potatoes — known in Scotland as “neeps and tatties.” The potatoes are wonderfully creamy and buttery, while the bright orange neeps provide a peppery sharpness that balances the rounded meat and potato flavors. For diners to whom that sounds appealing, minus the organ-meat element, MacLaomainn’s offers a vegetarian haggis made from puréed vegetables and parsley.
Many of the recipes Brown’s two Vermont chefs prepare each night are his own or his mother’s. One dish, the $10.95 steak pie, comes from “my mother’s mother’s mother’s recipe,” Brown says. The generations of testing have paid off: The pie is almost unbearably delicious. Chunks of beef are braised into utter submission in a sauce that strikes an ideal balance of red-wine tanginess and pure, sexy, buttery creaminess. Add a triangle of puff pastry, and tatties and a colorful mix of peas and carrots on the side, and Brown’s great-grandma would be proud.
She’d probably revel in her descendant’s Scotch egg, too. A frequent special addition to the menu, the dish is MacLaomainn’s sole representative of Scotland’s rich history of over-the-top fried foods. Though the Scotch egg was actually invented in England in 1738, it’s become as Scottish as fried pizza or fried Mars Bars — which, unfortunately, have not yet found places on the menu at MacLaomainn’s.
The single egg is presented cut in two to display its anatomy. It’s nearly baseball sized, hard boiled yet tender and swathed in a thick layer of what tastes like breakfast sausage. The whole kit and kaboodle has been coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Breakfast for dinner can’t get much better. Eat the egg with a salad on the side, and you may be able to convince yourself it’s good for you.
Though a nutritionist might not agree on that score, much of the food at MacLaomainn’s is fresh. Brown says he uses regional suppliers when he can. Gut-busting Tattie Barkers are made from North Country Smokehouse hot dogs covered in mashed potatoes and local cheddar. Meats, veggies and herbs are purchased at local farmers markets.
Some ingredients have to come straight from Scotland, however. One of them, vaguely known as “mixed spice,” is a combination of cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. Brown, who uses it in many dishes, says he can’t replicate the ideal proportions himself or find the packaged mixture in the States. When it comes to faithfully rendering his family recipes, though, he trusts his chefs, saying that, at worst, the dishes are “very, very, very close to as they should be.”
The tasty mix of traditions also enlivens MacLaomainn’s drink offerings. A tour of the tap reveals both Scottish ales and artisan Vermont brews. Twisted Thistle IPA from Belhaven Brewery in Dunbar, Scotland, sits between Trout River Brewing Company’s signature fish-head tap and the antler-shaped handle of Trapp’s Golden Helles lager.
Brown says his favorite drink at MacLaomainn’s is Dark Island Ale from Orkney Brewery. The almost chocolaty beverage is as dark as the name implies. A foreboding picture of the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar on the bottle adds to its rugged feel — which matches up nicely with Brown’s roaring burr. Scottish ales made of unconventional ingredients are plentiful at MacLaomainn’s. Brown recommends Alba Scots Pine Ale, and a selection of gruits, an ancient herb-based concoction from his homeland.
Though Brown stocks a few whiskeys, he is careful to keep them in a strict price range. “We don’t want Scotches that would cost $20 or $30 a shot,” he explains. “We don’t want them sitting there and to have people saying, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’” The bathroom gives diners a clue to the whiskeys that are stocked: Chivas Regal and Glenlivet mirrors line the walls.
When the Proclaimers’ geek rock anthem “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” plays for the second time, it’s time for dessert. Though not everything is made on site at MacLaomainn’s (dressings, for example, are of the Hidden Valley variety), the sweets most certainly are.
We can’t order cranachan, a combination of crisp and trifle composed of fruit, whipped cream, whiskey and honey with a toasted-oat crust — it’s only served on Robert Burns Day. Though it’s not specifically Scottish, bread pudding, so golden it practically glows, must suffice.
Not that it’s much of a sacrifice. While many restaurants’ bread puddings are uneven, dry in places and soggy in others, this one is uniformly moist and studded with apricots, cranberries and raisins. A bath of caramel sauce and a few dabs of whipped cream complete the picture.
Brown, who advertises his business as “Scottish hospitality in the hills of Vermont,” seems to have pulled it off — MacLaomainn’s transports Vermonters to that pub he used to imagine opening near Glasgow. On a practical level, the former car salesman says his new business isn’t so different from his old one. “You have to find your clientele and mold things to suit them,” he says. “Keep your prices at a level where you can get them back and back again.”
One way Brown has molded MacLaomainn’s to its customers is by keeping late hours. The pub is open until 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends, making it a rarity in small-town Chester.
Ultimately, though, it’s a savory taste of Scotland in Vermont, haggis and all, which brings folks “back and back again.” Staffers’ shirts order guests to “Haste ye back” — and many do.