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It’s one of the ironies of fine dining that the very people who are working their asses off preparing and serving your meal are not themselves usually eating so well. If they’re eating at all that night, it’s likely to be a sandwich or a burger on the way in, or a plate of something simple on the way home, sitting at a bar with their adrenalized colleagues.
The Flying Scotsman, a 6-month-old restaurant and bar best accessed from an alley behind Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill, seems tailor-made for such restaurant lifers. The brainchild of kitchen veterans from Johnny’s Half Shell, Cashion’s Eat Place, Politiki, and Tunnicliff’s Tavern, it’s what results when a bunch of kitchen veterans sit around and bullshit about the kind of place they’d really like to open—and then, on a whim or a dare, do it: Open late, good burgers and fries, the kind of place you can find a dish of braised lamb shank if you want it. Lots of brews on tap, a menu that’s all-organic, and—oh, yeah: It’s gotta be Scottish, dude. Definitely Scottish.
And you know what? It works. The expense-account crowd at Charlie Palmer can look forward to a sumptuous spread at dinner, but they’re probably not going to have half as much fun as the help will after hours in the rocking, tartan-carpeted pub out back. Every day of the week has its own special promotion, the upstairs bar boasts a pool table and what the employees refer to as “game crack”—interactive trivia and the like that makes for raucous good fun—and the likable, unconventional staff generally does a pretty good job of convincing you that you’ve already missed a lot of the party. Downstairs, a game room awaits completion.
It’s nice to know, though, that the commitment to providing a carefree good time is matched by a commitment to serving up good food and drink. Boozehounds, especially, will be thrilled to learn that not only does the Flying Scotsman offer more than a dozen beers and ales on tap, it’s got a special menu devoted to single-malt scotches and blends, complete with pithy descriptions, such as this one, for Ardbeg, an Islay: “…big bodied and pungent, with solid peat character and underlay of rich lemongrass, with a hint of sweetness and iodine…”
The kitchen, helmed by Johnny’s Half Shell vet Walter Reyes, is equally good at minding the details. The burgers are ground from Angus beef, that’s Maytag blue cheese on the field-greens salad, the chef makes smart use of local farmers and markets, and every dish is made to order.
The Scotsman serves up a good burger, and Parmesan-encrusted salmon is not only better than it has to be, but also better than most comparably priced salmon entrees in the city. But the best reason for seeking out the Flying Scotsman is to indulge in its traditional Scottish pub food, both snacks and main courses.
“Organic” and “pub grub” are neither natural nor even often compatible bedfellows—what does it matter how fresh and natural the ingredients are when you’re eating bridies, for crying out loud, deep-fried purses of dough stuffed with ground beef and peas?—but give the Flying Scotsman credit for trying. It looks, wherever possible, to update the traditional and the leaden; it does so most memorably with the Scotch eggs. The classic artery-clogger—hard-boiled eggs encased in aggressively seasoned ground pork, then plunged into the fryer—is sliced into rounds and fanned out on the plate around a mound of lightly vinegared field greens, as if it were a delicate, summery appetizer.
But this is lusty, prepare-for-the-hunt food, and you’re likely to stagger from your table as much from what you’ve been eating as what you’ve been drinking. A cottage pie is just the sort of savory, reassuring dish you fantasize about after a hard, grueling day on your feet: a dark, Cab- and Guinness-fortified stew of tiny, tender morsels of beef topped by a generous piping of creamy mashed potatoes. Hearty as it is—my friend couldn’t finish it, pushing himself away from the table in surrender—it’s a mere morsel compared with the lamb shank, which arrives at the table looking like a prop from Tom Jones. The meat, sweet and tender from its slow Guinness braising, literally falls from the monstrous, jutting bone. What makes this a great dish, though, as opposed to simply a beautifully prepared piece of meat, is the canny inclusion of baby organic carrots, sweet and crunchy, and a mound of buttered egg noodles for soaking up all that beer-fortified gravy.
The big surprise here is that the fish and chips—though still a worthy accompaniment to any of the beers—is not the flaky, crunchy classic you might expect, given the kitchen’s success with more ambitious fare. The other disappointment is the haggis—or, rather, the lack thereof. Couldn’t they have managed to create at least some occasional space on the menu for this steaming primeval Scottish classic of oatmeal-stuffed sheep’s innards, if only for its conversation-piece value?
But then, the Flying Scotsman is more riff than replica. Case in point: the Banoffee pie, which vies with the chunky, dark chocolate mousse for best dessert. It’s a sweet reimagining of the savory cottage pie: bananas and toffee, baked in the same oblong vessel, topped with so much foamy, Bailey’s-spiked whipped cream that, several bites into it, you still haven’t struck the gooey, sticky bottom.
Banoffee, I remember thinking, licking off the last of the cream from my spoon. Is it some traditional Scottish treat I’ve never heard of? The name was evocative of the highlands, of windswept plains dotted with castles.
My waitress laughed. “It’s Ba-NOF-fee, not BAN-o-fee,” she corrected. “As in banana and toffee?”
She threw back her head in laughter and retreated into the bar, where my gaffe would be shared with all the happy raucous drinkers, who really needed no encouragement at all.
The Flying Scotsman, 233 2nd St. NW, (202) 783-3848. —Todd Kliman
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