If you've never tried haggis, the Scottish delicacy that is notorious for its unapologetic use of a sheep's various "nasty bits," The Growlers' Arms offers a good entry point. At this British-style gastropub in Oakland's Glenview neighborhood, a sheep's minced innards aren't simmered and served inside the animal's own stomach, as is traditional. Instead, chef Brian Ventura cooks lamb liver and heart, as well as the soft meat picked from a slow-simmered lamb's head, into a kind of loose scramble. He then spreads that mixture — with all of its nubby, organ-y goodness — over slices of toast and tops it off with a fried egg.
As far as haggis goes, the dish — listed on the menu as Not Your Grandfather's Haggis — is pretty darn sexy. It's a dish that speaks to the kind of restaurant that owners Shelley and Seamus Mulhall have sought to create — a "gastropub" in the original sense, not as most restaurant-goers in the Bay Area use the term, to mean any bar that serves fancy food. During the 1990s, a growing number of pub owners in Great Britain began to place more importance on their food offerings. Chefs started to serve better versions of Yorkshire pudding and bangers and mash — and even to expand their repertoires beyond the traditional canon.
The Mulhalls hired Ventura — whose most recent gig was cooking Italian food at A16 — and brought him on a whirlwind tour of prominent English countryside pubs, many of them Michelin-starred. Inspired by that experience, at The Growlers' Arms, Ventura butchers whole animals, changes his menu daily, and sources the vast majority of his ingredients from organic, sustainable sources.
And yet, despite the greatness of that haggis, I found the cooking to be uneven — especially for a restaurant that boasts some of the highest prices in Oakland.
Take the traditional English-style fish plate, which features an assortment of house-made fish products: smoked fish, pickled fish, fish eggs, and so forth. I loved the smokiness of the meaty white sturgeon, and I was intrigued by a cod-roe-topped cracker that tasted like a reverse-engineered Triscuit. And yet: It was hard to stomach the $18 price tag for a miniscule portion.
Meanwhile, the oxtail and leek pudding ($28) was a "pudding" in one of the confusing British senses, which is to say it was more of a meat pie (the distinction being that the crust is steamed before baking). This was impressive-looking, stuffed chock-full of shredded oxtail and short rib meat — which turned out to be disappointingly stringy and dry. Only the stout sauce — a kind of gravy — made it palatable.
The Lancashire hot pot ($28) turned out to be a regional variant on shepherd's pie — meat on the bottom, a layer of crispy scalloped potatoes on top and mashed potatoes on the bottom, sandwiching curiously bland braised goat. A "bonus" goat chop on the side looked great, in a Flintstones kind of way, but it too turned out to be underseasoned and, worse, made up mostly of chewy, unrendered fat.
For a pub, the beer selection at The Growlers' Arms isn't particularly interesting or extensive, with only four brews on tap. Nor was I overly impressed with dessert — the coyly-named "spotted Richard" (can't we call a dick a dick?). This was a fairly traditional version — something like an oversized currant scone, which was vastly improved when we drenched it in crème anglaise. The only embellishments were some slices of booze-soaked persimmon, which we mostly left uneaten.
Still, there is greatness to be found if you know what to order. Start with a couple rounds of the excellent (and complimentary) bread, which is baked in the wood-fire oven and cut into thick slices. The aforementioned haggis is a must-order, too, if you aren't squeamish about organ meat.
Both of the salads I tried were outstanding, though these come straight out of the California cuisine playbook. A warm potato salad was topped with duck cracklings, a six-minute egg (with a creamy, spoonable yolk), and just enough crunchy pickled elements to keep things interesting. And the crab salad we ordered was an elegant classic: generous chunks of Marin Headlands Dungeness crabmeat — the sweetest I've had so far this season — tossed with assorted chicories and citrus fruit.
Of the entrées I tried, the duck confit with broccolini, beans, and bacon was far and away the best. This involved a wonderful combination of crispy skin, soft, fatty flesh, and a mélange of soupy beans. (For whatever reason the dishes I enjoyed the most tended to be the ones that seemed the least British — even though I like British pub fare.)
Atmosphere-wise, the restaurant has the feel of a well-heeled aristocrat's library — leather banquettes, the mantle above the fireplace lined with old books and the bust of some great man, an old-fashioned dining cart. A recurring dog motif ("growler" is British slang for a dog) keeps things from feeling too stodgy — lots of sketches of well-to-do nineteenth-century folks with their pets. And during my visits, the clientele mostly looked to be predominantly well-to-do folks in their sixties and seventies — perhaps a product of the neighborhood, the style of cuisine, and, more to the point, the prices.
It's all too easy to run up a bill of $100 for a party of two, even if no one drinks. For that kind of coin, I'd rather eat at Box and Bells or Duende, or, hell, splurge a bit more and treat myself to Chez Panisse.
All that said, would you believe that my favorite dish at The Growlers' Arms was a $10 "picnic" pork pie, served as a to-go item only? Ventura explained that, in England, many countryside pubs will offer similar pies — a compact lunch that a miner or other laborer can eat cold, with a bit of mustard to liven it up. But if you're eating it at home for breakfast, as I did, I highly recommend heating it up in the oven until the crust crisps and the coarse ground pork filling inside is bubbly and hot. Take a bite and there's a surfeit of meaty juices, with streaks of soft pumpkin flesh adding a hint of sweetness.
If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd pick one up every week. And if the pub served a few other dishes at that price point, I could see myself becoming a regular.