BY CHERYL ANGELINA KOEHLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STACY VENTURA
Think of a word that means “dog,” “pork pie,” and “refillable beer jug.”
The answer can be found in Oakland’s quiet Glenview neighborhood. Look at the sign above the archway into the Mediterranean-style turret on the southeast corner of Glenfield Avenue and Park Boulevard. I have to say that when that odd coat of arms first appeared there last October, I was a bit puzzled as to what to expect inside.
First there’s this strange bobble-head bulldog guarding the bar. Then the strikingly similar visage of Winston Churchill peers forth from the mossy-green deeps. A Victorian-styled dining room. More portraits: Frederick Law Olmsted, John Muir, Joaquin Miller, Mark Twain … various dogs. A church pew. Dark wood and leather. Pork pies baking in the wood oven. Antique barware, flatware, teacups. Pickled and potted fish. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Local craft beers on tap.
Proprietor Seamus Mulhall, his sweet Irish accent softened by decades living in California, comes up to explain that they are doing a traditional English country menu at the Growlers’ Arms. His wife and co-proprietor Shelly Mulhall (a half-Brit) wanders by and fills in some detail about how she and Seamus began envisioning this new restaurant while they were both working front of house at Gary Danko. (If you’ve never been, GD is an upscale San Francisco financial district restaurant known for its spectacular service. Seamus worked there from the day it opened in 1999 until September of 2014.)
So, what kind of menu would they want to offer at their new place?
“Not more Italian, French, or Californian,” Seamus recounts with a note of cool ennui as he describes their decision to buck the trend and turn instead toward their own heritage. “We want to offer a little piece of the past,” Seamus says often.
I ask if this could be called a “gastropub,” realizing I’m not entirely sure what that term means.
“Yes, but of the Heston Blumenthal type, serving pies, sausages, and roasts,” Seamus replies.
I learn that he’s referring to the celebrity chef of the Fat Duck, whose three-star Michelin restaurant is located west of London. Nextdoor is a 15th-century pub, the Hind’s Head, which Blumenthal acquired in 2004 and transformed into a one-star Michelin eatery. The Hind’s Head’s website describes the menu as featuring “traditional seasonal cuisine and historic British dishes.”
Seamus gives me a quick rundown on how star chefs like Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White, spurred along by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, author/broadcaster of the River Cottage series, have been bringing about a revival in traditional British cuisine. He also explains that a few decades back, all a hungry body might expect to find at a British pub was a pickled egg and maybe some pork rinds.
The term “gastropub” first appeared in 1991 when new owners at the Eagle, another old London pub, started offering Spanish-style tapas. Since that time, there have been various attempts by the members of the British press to abolish the term, but it’s persisted as a quick way for watering hole proprietors (on both sides of the pond) to signal that they are paying conscious attention to their food offerings. Style at American gastropubs continues to trend Mediterranean, but in the British Isles the word has become a likely indicator that there’s a chef in the house participating in that nation’s revival of its traditional cuisine.
The Mulhalls’ interest in emulating Blumenthal was not an idle endeavor of perusing cookbooks or just dragging recipes out of Mum. What they did in May 2014 while preparing to open the Growlers’ Arms was rather more ambitious:
“We went to England with the Venturas,” says Shelly, referring to their then-soon-to-be executive chef, Brian Ventura—who Shelly knew from San Francisco’s Southern-Italian-focused A-16 restaurant, where he was chef and she worked front of house for a few years—and Brian’s wife Stacy Ventura. (A frequent contributor to Edible East Bay, Stacy shot the photographs for this article. She also tends a tiny urban farm at the couple’s home in San Rafael.)
“It was just the four of us,” continues Shelly. “We toured the English countryside visiting Michelin-starred gastropubs. They were all one-star except the Hand and Flowers, which is the only two-star gastropub in the country.”
Brian and Stacy stayed on for another three weeks to tour Ireland, enjoying the offer of the Mulhall family residence as home base.
“English food was totally new to me,” says Brian, who hails from Bakersfield, California. And while this is a chef well versed in whole-animal cookery (and butchery), the trip allowed Brian to see what happens with a small country inn’s kitchen and menu when the chef has just bagged a deer. Brian was also amused to see that nearly every inn was named “The [Something’s] Arms.” He came back with valuable insight into how farm-to-table works in a land with ancient agrarian-based food traditions.
Shelly and Seamus, in spite of their front-of-house professions, are themselves inspired cooks. They bring a few of their own recipes to the menu and prepare them for patrons each week. Seamus especially likes working at a makeshift baker’s table in front of the wood-fired oven in the open bar area. The oven, an asset that came with the space, is kept stoked through the week with almond wood. (Brian says almond burns better than walnut, the latter of which he describes as ashy, but not as good as smooth-burning oak, which he considers too precious to harvest). All manner of menu items are cooked in this oven, but perhaps its most notable use is with the bread program, the purview of pastry chef Andrew Chaney (CIA-Napa–trained and another Gary Danko alumnus).
Moving back to the Bay Area after a baking gig in NYC, Andrew got excited about what the Mulhalls were up to, at first offering to help out and then going full time when sous-chef Miranda Eckerfield left on maternity leave. “Since then he’s been in charge of baking the bread, making the pastry for the savory and sweet pies, and really elevating our dessert program,” says Shelly.
The daily-made bread comes to a diner’s table at no extra charge. It’s baked first thing in the morning, since that’s when the oven has cooled from the previous evening’s 700 or so degrees to around 350º. The oven is left to cool on Mondays when the restaurant is closed, so Andrew resumes on Tuesday by baking rolls, which are easier to tend as the staff is busy creating the unique “Tasty Tuesday” menu. That’s when the staff veers off script from the traditional fare so they can enjoy some creative license.
Just as at any reputable Bay Area restaurant these days, chefs at the Growlers’ Arms draw inspiration from the spectacular seasonal bounty of the California landscape. And, as also has become more expected with the rise of the DIY movement, all condiments here, such as ketchup, tartar sauce, and horseradish, are made in house. “Everything but the butter,” says Shelly.
As of this writing, I have returned to the Growlers’ Arms three times for dinner, in part because I needed more details to fully answer the riddle of this story, but also because I appreciate Brian’s way of bringing out clear and straightforward flavors with fresh greens and herbs, like mustard, tarragon, and anise hyssop. I’ve found that merely thinking about the food makes me hungry.
I also like the feeling of being there. As Shelly shows me the cocktail menu, I see another key to the restaurant’s particular character: “We do a mix of what we call ‘Old Friends,’ which are classic cocktails, and ‘New Friends,’ which are Linda’s new creations,” she says with a nod to bar manager Linda Hare-Touye (another Gary Danko alumna), who makes custom syrups, shrubs, and infusions for their cocktails. It’s the word “friends” that reverberates, since it echoes the palpable ambience the Mulhalls have cultivated among their staff, and one that seems to spill through the hall. In the short time the restaurant has been open, many neighbors have become regulars, and everyone seems to be acquainted with and enjoying the company of everyone else gathering there, whether they are in for the evening or passing through to pick up a Picnic Pork Pie.
The Mulhalls are certainly hoping the Gary Danko set will make Growlers’ a destination, but for now, one can still hope to find a place to park in this sleepy neighborhood and a seat near the oven. I’m quite certain that even if those become in short supply, there still will be plenty of scrumptious pies and and other satisfying dishes to devour, and you’ll certainly enjoy a warm welcome from the Mulhalls and their staff.
But do watch out for the growler.
Heirloom and Cherry Tomato Salad with Creamy Anise Hyssop and Lovage Dressing
Chef Brian Ventura’s inspiration for this summer salad comes directly from his experience touring the Irish countryside: “I can see the farmer making his cheese and growing the herbs and tomatoes in his garden, taking fresh buttermilk to make the dressing. At least that’s what I would do if ever I’m blessed enough to have a real farm.”
Brian buys the anise hyssop and lovage from White Crane Springs Ranch at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Both are wonderful plants to grow in a home garden, and it’s not too hard to find starts or seeds at your local nursery.
2 handfuls frilly red mustard greens
3 large heirloom tomatoes (choose a mix of colors and flavors)
½ basket cherry tomatoes
1 bunch lovage
1 bunch anise hyssop (leaves plus flowers)
¼ pound Coolea Cheddar
Maldon sea salt
For the dressing:
½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¾ tablespoon lemon juice
¾ cup aioli
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
1 tablespoon chopped anise hyssop leaves
1 tablespoon chopped lovage leaves
Maldon sea salt
To prepare the dressing, combine the vinegars and lemon juice in a bowl. Whisk in aioli, Dijon, buttermilk, and crème fraîche. Finish with the herbs and salt to taste.
In a large bowl, salt and dress the mustard greens with some of the dressing, then arrange on a large serving plate. Cut the large tomatoes into bite-size wedges and the cherry tomatoes in half. Toss them in the bowl with additional dressing, salt, and 3 to 4 torn lovage and anise hyssop leaves. Once those are topping the mustard greens, shave some Coolea Cheddar over the top, and finish with some small anise hyssop flower petals.
Bubble & Squeak with Smoked Trout Pâté, Cherry Tomatoes, and Crème Fraîche
For the patties:
4 cups mashed potatoes
¼ cup chopped leeks
Flour for dusting
For the pâté:
1 pound smoked trout
1½ tablespoons horseradish
¼ bunch chervil, chopped
¼ bunch chives, chopped
¼ bunch tarragon, chopped
⅛ bunch parsley, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of ¼ lemon
½ tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoons aioli
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Crème fraîche for garnish
Chopped chives for garnish
Mix the mashed potatoes, leeks, and eggs in a large bowl. Salt to taste. Cover a half sheet pan in plastic and dust with flour. Shape the mashed potato mixture into 2-inch patties and dust in the flour.
For the pâté, shred the smoked trout and fold in the horseradish, chervil, chives, tarragon, parsley, lemon zest and juice, mustard, aioli, and crème fraîche.
Fry the patties in olive oil until golden brown on the top and bottom. Serve topped with a spoonful each of trout paté, cherry tomatoes, crème fraîche, and chives.
Lamb Sausage with Green Beans, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mustard Greens in Champagne-Shallot Vinaigrette
You’re very likely to find this sausage dish (or versions using rabbit or goat meat) on the Growlers’ menu.
1 pound lean lamb meat
⅜ pound pork back fat
2½ teaspoons salt
4 cloves garlic
¼ bunch of thyme
¼ bunch of parsley
1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
3–4 feet 24mm sheep casings
Meat grinder with 10mm die
10-inch bamboo skewers
Cherry tomatoes, halved
Red frill mustard greens
Mix all the sausage ingredients (except sheep casings) in a large bowl. (It’s important to keep the ingredients and equipment cold so that the meat doesn’t over emulsify in the next step.) Put the 10mm die on your grinder and begin feeding the meat/fat mixture through.
Prepare (clean) the casings by running water through them until you get one continuous tube. Also, soak the skewers.
Fill the canister of your sausage stuffer with the ground lamb mixture and lock into position. Spray the plastic tube with cooking spray and feed the casing onto it. Now crank the plunger down and fill the sheep casings slowly, making sure not to overfill and puncture the casing. Fill each sausage to between 12 and 15 inches long, then cut, twist the ends, coil the sausage, and skewer the coil so it stays wound in a disc shape.
To serve the sausages, grill the coils until they begin to get firm. For a summer dish at Growlers’ Arms we might serve them with blanched green beans sautéed in butter that are folded together with halved cherry tomatoes and placed on mustard greens that have been tossed in a vinegar and oil.
Clontarf Fish Pie
Clontarf is the suburb on the north side of Dublin where Seamus Mulhall grew up. “In the ’60s and ’70s, everything was tied to the Catholic Church,” he says. “All the schools were named after saints. Prayers were the first thing the teachers said before any lessons were taught, so the church had a big say in everything we did. It was a blasphemy to eat meat on a Friday so we all had fish, as a sort of penance. My mother would take the bus out to ‘Howth,’ a quaint fishing village on the north side of Dublin, to buy fresh fish so she could make fish pie. It became something that we all looked forward to on Fridays: Even our schoolmates would hang out just so they could have some of my mum’s fish pie. So now at the restaurant we do a fish pie on Fridays. It is becoming a sort of tradition: We see the same people on Friday nights. Thank you, Saint Francis.”
Makes 1 large or 10 small pies
For the sauce:
4 cups fish stock
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and finely ground white pepper
For the filling:
8 ounces peas
4 medium potatoes, diced into thumb-size pieces
1 tablespoon butter
4–5 medium carrots, peeled and diced
10 ounces sole, cut in 2-inch pieces
8 ounces halibut, cut in 2-inch pieces
8 ounces scallops, cut in 2-inch pieces
6 large prawns, cut in 2-inch pieces (original 4 each)
2 sprigs tarragon
For the pies:
4 pounds puff pastry (Seamus likes the prepared dough from La Farine Bakery, which is sold in 2-pound blocks.)
Egg wash (Make by whisking together 1 egg with 2 teaspoons water.)
10 6-ounce ceramic ramekins (or 1 large ceramic soufflé dish)
To make the roux, start by bringing the fish stock to a simmer in a heavy pot. Meanwhile, melt the stick of butter in a large skillet and sweat the onions, being careful not to brown them. Add flour and reduce the heat. Stir with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes and then slowly stir in the wine, a cup at a time. The roux will thin out as you add liquid, but it thickens as it cooks. Start adding the fish stock a cup at a time, stirring with a whisk. Add heavy cream a cup at a time until all liquid is in the pot. The roux should be the consistency of a thin custard. Season with salt and white pepper. Set aside.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then blanch the peas, strain them out, and set aside in a medium size bowl. Simmer the diced potatoes in the same water until soft, then strain them out and add to the blanched peas. Melt the tablespoon of butter in a smaller pot, add some of the water you used for the potatoes and a pinch of salt, then simmer the diced carrots until soft. Strain and then combine with the peas and potatoes, and divide half of this mixture among the ramekins (or place in the soufflé dish).
Now sear all the fish to golden brown, break it up into bite-size bits and distribute over the vegetables in the ramekins or soufflé dish. Top with the rest of the potatoes, carrots, and peas, and then pour the creamy fish sauce over everything. Do not fill to the top. Sprinkle some torn tarragon leaves over top.
Roll out puff pastry to ⅛ inch thick. Using a bowl as a guide, cut a circle from the pastry that’s about an inch bigger than the diameter of the ceramic dish, then stretch pastry over top (trying to keep it from touching the fish mixture), pulling it a half inch down the sides of the dish all around and pressing pastry with your finger onto the sides of the dish. Brush with egg wash. Refrigerate for about a half hour while you preheat oven to 350º. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the pastry is golden.
2–3 large Fuji apples
Dried currants, rehydrated in gin or water overnight
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 ounces butter
3½ ounces cold water
For almond filling:
¼ cup ground almonds or almond flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Egg wash (Make by whisking together 1 egg with 2 teaspoons water.)
Start the currants rehydrating in the gin or water the night before.
To make the dough: Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and break up into the flour mixture until coarse. Add water and mix into a ball. Let refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling out.
Combine filling ingredients. The roll out the dough to a 10-inch circle, place on a sheet pan, and spread almond filling evenly over the dough leaving 1 inch around the outside uncovered. Spread half of the currants over the filling. Peel and thinly slice the apples and arrange the slices over the almond filling. Scatter remaining currants over top. Fold the edges of the dough onto the apples pressing lightly to hold in the juices from the apples.
To finish, brush the edges of the crust with egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake at 400° for 20 to 30 minutes or until the crust is cooked on the bottom.