First Taste: Randy Evans' farm-find restaurant Haven is worth the effort
I'm constantly surprised at how many people still ask me where Haven is. First of all, it's only a stone's throw from two major inner loop arteries: Highway 59 and Kirby Drive, though to the uninitiated it is hidden from view behind the Taco Cabana and a mediocre sushi spot.
Second of all, if you haven't been to Haven yet, you surely need to go.
What makes Haven unique among restaurants of its style and caliber is its versatility. And I'm not referring to the seasonally-changing menus based on co-owner/executive chef Randy Evans' finds from local farmers, though that's exciting too. I mean Evans has designed a slender but functional menu that makes Haven a solid destination for lunch, dinner, or drinks.
For lunch we started with the shrimp corn dogs, served with tabasco mash remoulade and a shot of meyer lemonade to emphasize the sense of whimsy inherent in the dish.
Each skewer went though a flavor balance spectrum: The first bite heavy on shrimp, the second extra spicy from where the dog was soaking up the tabasco sauce, and the third more about the corn batter. Aside from having to work around the wooden spear as I tried to finish the dog, it was a flawless start.
I ordered the pork belly torta pastor sandwich with salsa verde and pickled vegetables. It came beautifully presented. While I'm not personally a fan of pickled veggies, I'm glad to see some mainstream recognition of salsa verde as the perfect burger condiment (though it could have been spicier, especially after the Tabasco sauce on the corn dogs), and the pork was seared beautifully. The poached egg sandwich with bacon and cheese on toast is as close to perfection as a sandwich comes, though both had the delicious flaw of being so large and thick that they were hard to physically consume for us delicate lady-folk.
On a separate trip for dinner, we used a brief wait for a table as an excuse to try out the cocktail menu. There are several Prohibition-era cocktails, as is the current rage — sazerac, vesper, etc. — but we tried the herb-infused concoctions. The First Growth, with gin, pineapple, St. Germain and sage, has a fresh, springy taste that's hard to pinpoint except to say that 'First Growth" is an excellent name.
The Haven Airmail of lavender-infused rum with lime, honey and topped with champagne was intriguing and complex, with a heavy emphasis on the warm, bitter lavender flavor. Haven's cocktails are as interesting and well-made as anywhere in the city, but their strong flavor profiles do not make them a good choice to pair with a meal.
The bar area feels architecturally like an afterthought, they'd be worth a special trip.
Dinner started with an appetizer of head cheese. I'm a head cheese novice, so I can't really compare it against other versions, but I thought it was tasty and unique.
After hearing raves about Haven's soups, I ordered a bowl, despite my doubts about the flavor that night. It was cauliflower, and it tasted like ... cauliflower. Finely pureed, but ultimately somewhat boring. I longed for a heavy dose of cream, but I imagine that winter squash or carrot with cumin would have been more up my alley, flavor-wise.
When it came to the entrees, we were blown away. My shrimp served in a stew of crescenza grits, crimini mushrooms, bacon and caramelized onion was delicious, especially when all the ingredients came together in proper proportion on my fork, even though under a close scrutiny some of the components — namely, the chewy bacon — might have been somewhat flawed. My friend ordered the trout and inhaled it before I could ask for a proper bite, but she swears that it was not only the best trout she'd ever tried, but one of her favorite seafood dishes ever. We polished the meal off with a just-sweet-enough chocolate tart.
Overall, while Haven certainly has a few flaws, it's a hard place not to like. Randy Evans's emphasis on local, fresh ingredients — they even italicize all components sourced in the past 24 hours on the menu — translates best in dishes where flavors, simply presented, can shine.
Like the restaurant itself, when you know what you're looking for, they are easy to find.