Mary Queen of Scots: One Mean Meal
Like tartan? plaid? sexy accents? Scotch? If any (or all) of the above get it done for you, Mary Queen of Scots may just be your new east side hangout. The sister restaurant of West Village favorite Highlands, ‘MQS’ is dark and sultry, a hotspot with gastropub fare and a long whiskey list for the haute hippies trolling around the Lower East Side.
Set in the long and narrow former Allen & Delancy space, MQS has completely revamped the place. Where A & D had a quirky bar up front, MQS puts its dining tables. The prime seats are the tartan-covered booths in the corridor between the back bar and the front room: festive, comfortable, spacious, and perfect for people-watching. The furniture appears to be antique store finds: mismatched chairs, ‘artfully distressed’ wooden furniture, plaid upholstery, burnished metal lamps. Down the corridor to the back is the bar, delightfully festive during the wintertime. Crowds of young and attractive hipster folk, decked out in scene-appropriate plaid shirts and corduroys, chat and laugh over hot toddies, whiskey neat, and vintage cocktails like the French 75. Nostalgic black-and-white photographs, ski lodge kitsch, and plenty of nods of Scottish ‘culture’ cover the wood-paneled walls. All in all, the mood is vivacious, youthful, boozy, and uber hip.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Mary Queen of Scots is the remarkable food delivered out of the kitchen. A tongue-in-cheek play on Scottish and French favorites, the menu is elegant and well-curated. Bar snacks are a fun and savory way to start the meal, with offerings ranging from tender veal cheek to oysters on the half shell to a decadent foie and chicken liver torchon. Appetizers are worthy of a gourmet restaurant: buttery boudin noir, rabbit cassoulet, a twist on the famous Waldorf salad. Notably, the seared diver scallops appetizer was mouthwatering: large juicy scallops, cooked perfectly with a beautiful caramelized crust, served simply with a well-seasoned root vegetable puree.
The main dishes are hearty and obviously French-inspired comfort food. Expect a classic roast chicken, moules frites, and a traditional flaky vegetable tart. Almost obligatory for any hot new restaurant, there is of course a burger. The MQS burger is high-flavor Piedmontese beef, blended with cheddar cheese, and served with salty crispy fries. Though not the best burger on the scene (check out Bill’s Burger in the Meatpacking District, the time-tested favorite at Minetta Tavern, or April Bloomfield’s rendition at The Spotted Pig), it’s well-cooked and truly satisfying with a whiskey. The flat iron steak, served thinly sliced with smashed potatoes and horseradish butter, was the star of the night. The quality of the beef was extraordinary; cooked to a tender medium-rare, the meat tasted beefy and juicy without much help from the kitchen. It just goes to show that you can get a fantastic steak in New York without overindulging at one of the city’s classic steakhouses.
Unfortunately, while each of the savory dishes we tried was really exceptional, the dessert fell flat. The options are homey, ranging from apple tart to an acorn-squash cheesecake. The salted espresso ganache, the most interesting-sounding item on the dessert menu with several ingredients, such as Laphroaig ice cream, that were completely foreign to me, was just short of terrible; it was bitter, tough, and poorly executed; the ganache was hard, the ice cream unidentifiable, and the caramel too salty to enjoy. Take my advice and if you’re still hungry after the entree, opt for one of the delectable bar snacks instead of dessert.
Mary Queen of Scots is pretty wonderful, even if you’re not a neighborhood regular or plaid-wearing, book-toting hipster with thick glasses and a nicely-mussed hairdo. It is warm and sultry, boisterous and yet still refined. The food is surprisingly well-prepared and tasty, good enough to please foodies, comforting enough for the gastropub-loving crowd. Though the haughty and disinterested service is a serious shortfall for those easily irritated by less-than-perfect table service, after a whiskey or two from the extensive menu, a slower and uninterrupted meal was a welcome luxury for me. Whether you’re looking for a quirky and fun date spot or a new watering hole for you and your friends, Mary Queen of Scots is a thrilling new addition to the already red hot Lower East Side dining (and boozing) scene.
Perfect For: holiday festivities, whiskey lovers, Scottish imports, people in plaid, hipsters seeking hipsters, a nouveau New York experience, nightcaps