The Growlers’ Arms Masters British Pub Cooking
Putting to rest stereotypes of bad British cooking.
Photos by Lori Eanes
The pork chop spoke to me, as pork chops often do. That was one reason I was dining at The Growlers’ Arms for an unprecedented fourth time before writing a review. Another was that the Park Boulevard place was starting to feel like my neighborhood hangout. The clincher was that I hadn’t yet eaten there with Robin. The first visit had been solo, after 9 p.m. on a weeknight, for a drink and a bite. The second was an early evening meeting with my friend Tim for another drink and a snack. And the third was a full Saturday night meal with Thien, who matches his cultivated palate with an insatiable appetite for new Oakland restaurants. The net result was a growing love affair with the space, the former Glenview business district home of Marzano, remodeled in the style of a British country pub; the libations, overseen by bar manager Linda Hare-Touye; the convivial proprietors, Seamus and Shelley Mulhall; and most of the grub, defined by upmarket, seasonal, presentation-conscious renditions of English, Scottish, and Irish classics.
When I pulled up to the bar that first night, Hare-Touye was tending. I asked for whatever rye cocktail she felt like making, and she delivered an elegantly composed Vieux-Carré (a New Orleans classic made with rye, vermouth, cognac, benedictine, and bitters, $11). It was perfect for a chilly November night, as was the warm potato salad ($9), a generous plate of roasted potatoes tossed with crisp bits of duck cracklings, capers, red onion, chives, and greens, and made even more comforting by the addition of half a “six-minute” egg.
On my rendezvous with Tim, Seamus gave me “the best seat in the house,” at a cocktail table tucked against a window in a corner at the passage between the bar and the second dining room—a seat that allows you to prop your elbow up on a railing while surveying the bar and its dining area. While Tim sipped a superb Sazerac ($11) and wolfed down his warm potato salad before ordering the shaved Brussels sprouts salad, a fluffy heap enlivened with arugula, citrus vinaigrette, and slices of apple and cheddar ($11), I made my first foray into the kinds of dishes that are going to make or break The Growlers’ Arms. Haggis—a savory pudding traditionally made with sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs), oatmeal, suet, and spices, and cooked in sheep’s stomach—is an emblem of Scottish pride and object of widespread revulsion. But the Growlers’ version ($14), served on grilled bread and topped with a fried egg, is like a cross between a rillettes and a pâté in mouth-pleasing texture, and the profusion of flavors—from lamb liver, head, and heart blended with carrot, celery, onion, fennel, black pepper, mace, scotch, garlic, thyme, parsley, marjoram, and braising liquid—should dispel any offal prejudices.
The first two visits gave ample opportunity to absorb the ambiance: the clubby new scheme of green walls and dark brown trim and wainscoting; the antique portraits above the prominent wood-fired oven; the closely spaced wood tables, comfy banquettes, and red velvet–upholstered stools; the Celtic fiddle tunes spinning softly in the background; the boisterous good cheer injected into the scene by the loquacious Irishman Seamus, tirelessly and gregariously working the front of the house with wife, Shelley.
The next two dinners were deeper dives into the menu for a better understanding of how the Mulhalls are realizing their aim of, in Shelley’s words, “an elegant English-style country restaurant and pub, not a pub first.” The high points included the English-style fish plate ($17), a wood plank bearing two slices of smoked sturgeon, a large dollop of trout pâté, and a ramekin of sinfully rich potted butter clams (plus accompanying crisps, chips, and tartar sauce); the oxtail and leek pudding ($29), which arrives looking like a fez of browned pastry and contains a tender mass of long-cooked meat, its juices blending dreamily with the stout in the “leave the pitcher” sauce; an early-in-the-season crab salad with satsumas and chicories ($13) that was even better than anticipated; the bread—brown and white from the wood oven, served with butter and Maldon English sea salt; and the chips ($6), deemed best-ever by Robin. Oh, and by the fourth visit, a house cocktail list was ready, and again the drinks, whether standards like the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Sidecar (both $11) or “New Friends” such as the Park Slope (gin, chartreuse, orange bitters, $12) kept us from the small, balanced selection of wines and beers.
Somewhat less successful were the bubble and squeak ($16), traditionally a fried mash of leftover potatoes and vegetables, which in this case came off like under-seasoned potato pancakes but benefited by the twirl of Devonshire cream–topped gravlax and smoked salmon; the colcannon ($6), an archetypal side of mashed potatoes and cabbage that was soothing but rather bland; and the classic dessert, Spotted Richard (aka Dick), ($8), which Thien compared to a soggy scone, although the clotted cream and quince puree and chips nearly saved the day.
The Growlers’ Arms walks a tightrope between its casual, rustic feel and its elevated intentions. You want to become a regular and drop in several times a week and get familiar with the smoked halibut omelet, oysters on the half shell, clams from the wood-fired oven, Lancashire hotpot, fish pie, or apple pie with Lancashire cheddar. But it will cost you. As I learned at many over-the-top spectacular meals in Ireland, and as the Mulhalls and their executive chef, Brian Ventura, confirmed when they checked out Michelin star pubs in the English countryside, the stereotypes of bad English and Irish cooking are outdated and dimwitted. Still, I longed for bangers and mash, and Robin wondered, why not some basic deep-fried fish with those amazing chips? Well, what Shelley calls “the best bangers I’ve ever had—we serve them with mash and onion gravy and call them a BANGER, because they’re massive,” will make regular appearances. Fish and chips will be on the bill for Sunday brunch and lunch.
And that $28 pork chop? It set a high bar for “massive,” nearly a pound on the bone, with a thick rind of fat and a pink interior made that much more tender and juicier by brining before roasting in the wood oven. Excuse me now; I think I hear it calling my name. Or is that the whiskey speakin’?
The Growlers’ Arms
English. 4214 Park Blvd., Oakland, 510-328-1315. Serves dinner. 5 p.m–10 p.m. Tue.–Sat. and 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Sun. www.TheGrowlersArms.com Credit Cards, Full Bar, Reservations, Wheelchair Accessible, $$$-$$$$