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First Look at Haven

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It can't be easy for Randy Evans right now. Once the executive chef at Brennan's -- one of Houston's most perenially popular restaurants -- and now the man behind what is easily the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year, Evans is carrying a weighty set of expectations upon his toqued head. And with hopes that high, and from so many of Houston's dining enthusiasts, it's easy to collapse under the pressure of all those expectations.

Working the dining room at Haven last night, though, Evans looked at ease as he moved between tables, greeting old regulars from Brennan's and new fans who've been following his restaurant build-out on Facebook or who've met the chef at any number of local farmers' markets, where he's been on a one-man slow-food mission for years. Then again, it could have been another tow-headed man in a chef's jacket -- our initial impression of Haven was that it was almost too dark to see three feet in front of you (something that shows in our ill-fated photos from the night). Sitting around a six-top, we commisserated with our friends that it might have been nice to see them...if we could actually see them. We could make out finely planed wood paneling and deep, crisp green colors amongst the candlelight, but all this talk of Haven's lovely dining space might be better appreciated during the day.

The dining room is like a cavern, but manages not to be too noisy. In fact, we did appreciate the fact that -- unlike some other restaurants in town -- we could actually carry on a pleasant conversation without having to shout. But despite the large size of the dining room, the tables are all but touching, making things excessively difficult for our waitress and her helpers, who squeezed desperately between chairs all night long, reaching repeatedly over our heads and apologizing profusely for having to hand us things instead of set them in front of us. If it was uncomfortable for us, it was doubly so for our poor waitress, who was otherwise splendid.

We started out with a round of cocktails from the menu, which resembles a pared down version of Anvil Bar & Refuge's massive list. This seems to be de rigeur these days...order a cocktail instead of a glass of wine, sniff at it idly and pass it around the table, sipping off your companions' Airmails and Vespers, contrasting the citrus-infused vodka with the rosemary-infused gin and so on and so forth. We've oddly and suddenly become a city obsessed with cocktails, even in a restaurant known first and foremost for its food. We're guilty of it, too, going so far as to purchase a vanilla infusion kit over Christmas and discussing what to pair our cardamom-infused vodka with (mango juice seemed to be the preferred liquid of choice). What happened?

While not entirely comfortable with this realization, we enjoyed our cocktails down to the last ice cube. The Vespers, with its viscous mixture of gin, vodka and Lillet Blanc that clung heavily to the glass, was a straight kick in the head, while the Kirby Collins was a refreshing combination of citrus and house-made Texas riesling liqueur with rosemary-infused Texas vodka. The cocktails were the highlight of our meal. That's not necessarily a good thing.

As we perused the menu, Ruthie Johnson (fellow Eating Our Words blogger) ominously and off-handedly mentioned, "You know, I always feel weird when the sides and appetizers look better than the main courses." And she was right. While the mains were intriguing, it was the sides that really drew us in -- bacon spaetzle, slow-cooked crescenza grits, roasted root vegetables, stewed cream peas and fried green tomatoes captured our attention and wouldn't let it go. This was our mistake.

Appetizers (or enticements, as they're called at Haven) were ordered for the whole table. The corndog shrimp seemed to be the biggest hit, with soft batter around fat, plump Gulf shrimp and a tangy tabasco mash remoulade on the side. The bone marrow service came convienently -- if unaesthetically (seriously, it looked entirely unappetizing) -- already scooped from the bone and was delicious. But the pork belly had no flavor and no texture other than mush. Meanwhile, the oysters were served in an attractive cast-iron skillet under a thick mixture of spinach and lardons, but the portion size was very skimpy and ultimately the taste was underwhelming.

Salads were better -- our companion to the left greatly enjoyed her torn greens salad with fried green tomato croutons -- but the winter squash bisque with goat cheese tasted of bland baby food. The bisque lacked any roasted flavor that we expected with squash and had the consistency of puree, not bisque, and begged for salt. And it wasn't the only dish that lacked salt, either.

The slow-cooked grits weren't cooked nearly long enough (or slowly enough, apparently). They were both runny and gritty, signs of serious undercooking, and again needed salt. The fried green tomatoes were simply more of the croutons that had been in the torn green salad and tasted entirely of cornmeal -- no juicy, tart tomato came through at all. The roasted root vegetables were also undercooked, but the lucsious cream peas and meaty, toothsome bacon spaetzle came through in the end.

For the mains, everyone agreed that the Akaushi steak and the free-range chicken -- both recommended for the night by our waitress -- were outstanding. The chicken was supremely juicy and tender, while the Akaushi steak took on almost a creamy consistency in the mouth, cooked to a perfect medium rare. The desserts fell short again, though, as the pound cake had a lovely, toasty texture but was flat-tasting due to -- once again -- a lack of salt.

Last week, Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle and several others visited Haven over the course of a few days. They all had the same (very public) complaint: too much salt. It appears that Haven has swung the pendulum entirely in the other direction, and for that we urge them to find a happy medium. Saltiness is not a difficult thing to gauge. Turning the lights up in the dining room -- people like to see their food, especially when they're paying $31 for an entree and $13.50 for an appetizer of corndogs, and especially when it's good -- would also be a good bet. Dining in the dark hasn't quite caught on as a concept here yet.

Other minor quibbles include compulsory valet -- which enrages us to the point of apoplexy, especially when a restaurant has a large parking lot with ample space -- and an overly pricey menu at points. We wanted to try the farm egg with caramelized endive and garlic veloute, but simply couldn't stomach the idea of paying $19 for it. And while we completely understand that the local, seasonal and organic produce that Evans and sous chef Kevin Naderi are working with can be pricey, pushing that much cost onto the consumer can be dicey in times like this.

We left the restaurant feeling entirely underwhelmed, a feeling that none of us had expected. There were bright points, to be sure, but it wasn't anywhere close to being the best meal we've had in Houston, or even one of the better ones, especially not for the money. Is it our fault for having such high expectations? For ordering more sides than mains? For not bringing flashlights to dinner? Perhaps. But Haven has a lot to live up to whether we (or they) like it or not.

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