Restaurant Reviews

Simple Plan

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.

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.

I was even happier to move to Haven's coffee service, which is its own kind of splendid production. Each drinker is offered a sleek, silver French press of his or her own, accompanied by a little metal container of cream, hammered in folds so as to resemble the milk carton you might remember from a school lunch.

To go with the coffee, we tried the coconut tres leches bread pudding and the Texas buttermilk and pecan pie. The former is an architectural tower of dessert, compact below with an ethereal meringue on top, all drenched in a caramel that manages to avoid sickly sweetness. The latter, a hybrid pie with a wicked-good crust, was served à la mode with Texas rum ice cream and two pieces of phenomenal pecan brittle.

Dinner at Haven has a different feel. What was a welcoming dining room by the light of day becomes too dark and "vacuous," according to my twentysomething dining companion, who was younger than the majority of patrons by at least a few decades. It was oddly disconcerting that, at dinner, we could no longer peek into the kitchen, making the space feel less personal and more generic.

Dinner was hit-and-miss. The house-made charcuterie plate, a veritable requirement at hip Houston restaurants these days, could teach some others a thing or two about how much is just enough. Exquisite lardo toasts, smoky tasso ham, a compacted pork trine with pine nuts, and grilled bread with perfect char set off two kinds of cheese (a gouda and the "drunken yodler," the rind of which is washed with Shiner bock) and a glistening little pool of blueberry compote.

Unfortunately, the novelty of pig's feet fritters did not compensate for their lackluster flavor. Garnishes were too meager to cut the dense meat compacted inside each fritter, which, to be fair, did feature crisp exteriors. I would have preferred a plate full of the boudin balls that came atop our dirty rice.

My shrimp and grits ran a little salty, though the grits themselves were perfectly cooked, and I did enjoy the small hunks of bacon that dotted the dish. A personal preference for a bit more spice with shrimp left a bit to be desired, but a quick switch of plates with my dining companion allowed me to swoon over his perfectly cooked Akaushi steak with its lovely demi-glace, leeks, mushrooms and potatoes. Very standard, but very well executed.

On all of my visits, Haven's kitchen suffered from inconsistency when it came to salt — sometimes too much, other times not enough — though the issue is less pronounced than when the restaurant first opened. The wine list features some reasonable, solid bottles, but it can't compete with what other restaurants of its ilk are offering. There are not enough options by the glass.

Still, I will return to Haven all summer long to see what Chef Evans crafts from hot-weather produce. And I'll be back in the more temperate fall to make good use of that well-appointed patio. Some restaurants are just plain charming, and Haven is one of them.

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Nishta Mehra