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On a recent lunch visit to the less-than-a-year-old Haven, I found myself delighted by the old-school country and folk music that looped through the light-flooded dining room: Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash. The soundtrack cut what could have easily been an uptight, ladies-who-lunch, Upper Kirby pretension.
"Who should I thank for the music?" I asked my server. He looked confused for a moment before his smile brightened and he replied, "Oh! Well, the Chef, of course. I'll pass along the message."
As with the soundtrack, so goes the rest of Haven — Chef Randy Evans is quite literally setting the tone for his newest venture, a "we're not taking ourselves too seriously" tone that's coupled with the easy thoughtfulness of Haven's service and menu.
2502 Algerian Way
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Crawfish tails, shrimp, shrimp boudin: $13
Whole okra, fried and grilled: $5
Baby arugula, peaches: $9
Texas cheddar burger: $12
Pulled pork, cilantro cider slaw: $13
Akaushi steak: $31
Allen Brothers fizz: $12
2502 Algerian Way, 713-581-6101.
It seems Chef Evans, formerly of Brennan's, is having fun in his new space. Haven serves cocktails in Mason jars with fat black straws. It winks at Houston's Vietnamese community with a lunchtime special of banh mi with house pâté and a daily side of summer vegetables dashed with fish sauce. There are Southern accents of "fried green tomato croutons" on a salad, and "redneck cheddar" is served on the boar chili.
The restaurant calls itself "a seasonal kitchen," and it serves herbs and vegetables from a garden plot out back. While it can get tiresome when restaurants crow about being "green" and "ethical," the commitment at Haven seems genuine. A clever system of italics highlights local menu items, and sources for meats, seafood, eggs and cheeses are listed at the bottom of the list, which changes daily.
It's exciting to think about the chef assessing the day's shipments and inventing your meal from the ground up, but the system can cause problems. On a Monday dinner visit, two of the listed menu items (heirloom tomatoes and soft-shell crab) were unavailable because local distributors had not yet brought in new product for the week.
We took our server's suggestion for an alternate appetizer that didn't appear on the bill. The dish — a play on dirty rice, with local shrimp, crawfish tails and andouille topped with a shrimp boudin ball — made me want to scrape the bowl.
A fresh Texas peach and arugula salad, dotted with candied pecans, was a home run. While the concept is hardly revelatory, the salad proved that there is tremendous value in a basic dish, perfectly executed. Slices of ripe peach sang against the bitterness of the arugula, all of it well dressed with a light vinaigrette. My only quibble was that the goat cheese "crostini" listed on the menu was practically nonexistent when the salad arrived, but I don't know that I missed it, given that our waiter had just arrived with a second helping of the house bread.
I am willing to defend to the death my conviction that Haven has the best bread service in Houston. Even when slightly oversalted, as was sadly the case on my very first visit, the chubby yeast rolls delight, as does their accompanying baby bowl of pale yellow butter.
It's easy to fill up on bread and cocktails alone here, as a friend and I made the mistake of doing one evening, pre-opera. Anvil's Bobby Heugel helped design Haven's drink menu, and I'm partial to his Allen Brothers Fizz, a bourbon-maple-lemon concoction. But two different dining companions on two different days fell hard for the Porch Swing, a summery Pimm's and cucumber slosh. Our only cocktail menu disappointment was the Moscow (Texas) Mule, which promised ginger beer and lime but tasted mostly like alcohol.
Unlike many other high-end Houston concept restaurants, Haven isn't a total pain for vegetarians. A curried cauliflower soup was meal-worthy, especially when paired with a side of cheese grits. A vegetable-loaded entrée also appears daily and changes regularly.
The friendly, generous waitstaff here seems eager to share the good food the kitchen has to offer, and to explain the restaurant's concept. "We don't like to mess with things too much," my lunchtime waiter explained. "The kitchen wants the ingredients to shine through." Yes, I was able to grasp that concept myself, but it's endearing to see employees so invested in their place of work.
Lunching at Haven is a delight — the bright, friendly dining room is bordered with windows that face out to the patio, where it is unfortunately too hot to dine at present. Inside, Chef Evans is serving the best of summer produce. Fresh okra came fried and grilled, with a Tabasco-laced sauce that left just the hint of a burn in the back of the throat. Credit the restraint of the grilled version, left whole and charred and dusted with what seemed to be a seasoning salt, for managing to outshine the clumsier but still tasty fried version.
Haven's hamburger, even when cooked past a request for red, or at least pink, was deliciously juicy, topped with cheese and an onion compote, and trimmed by a pile of tiny, house-made tater tots. Tater tots for the Ladies Who Lunch? Genius, especially as their whimsy is balanced with a smoky ketchup. Less exciting was my pulled pork sandwich, which could have used more sauce and a sturdier bun, but once I heaped the pitch-perfect coleslaw onto the sandwich itself, I was happy to finish it.