What’s a restaurant critic to do when bound and gagged by stars? And I don’t mean a troublesome encounter with Brad and Angelina.
The question at hand is how to differentiate between casual excellence and fine-dining attention to detail. When an eatery is at the highest level of food, drink and service in the region, yet eschews Michelin-star fussiness to follow the small plate trend, where do you land? If the eats deliver constant surprise like, say, Rooster & the Till (my CL four-and-a-half-star BOTB favorite) but the wine and spirits up the game to world-class levels, does that inevitably mean a five-star rating?
This is what runs through my mind as I nosh and sip my way through the gauntlet at South Tampa’s Haven, bouncing like a pinball from the bar that dispenses gin and tonic on tap to the inventive combos that arrive rat-a-tat-tat at our table, to the tempura-gelee-dehydration that turns bananas Foster on its head. It’s a whirlwind of excellence, but not the same three-star Michelin experience as Alinea in Chicago or New York City’s Eleven Madison Park.
I loved SideBern’s, the predecessor to Haven. It was my Bay area go-to for splendid fare with superb wine pairings — a bargain, if guilty pleasure, at $150 a pop with tax and tip. But restaurateur David Laxer and executive chef Chad Johnson, a James Beard nominee, saw the nationwide trend away from degustations toward small plates. And Haven’s more relaxed, but no less excellent, service fits the Gulf Coast vibe. Indeed, the staff exudes the kind of skill that only comes with experience married to proper training. The service is impeccable; the servers know the cuisine, cocktails and wines inside out. After a mere two weeks, the restaurant’s already a well-oiled machine that functions seamlessly.
Haven is aspirational, upping its game especially on the cocktail and whiskey front, as noted director of spirits Dean Hurst takes us all to the dark side. The 42-foot bar is a 25-seat playground for dark spirits. There’s a mind-blowing selection of craft bourbon and single malts. Forget Scotland. Let’s see what great distillers are doing in India and Taiwan. Or perhaps you crave an Old Fashioned with house-made syrup that’s aged behind the bar in a diminutive one-gallon barrel, ready to be mixed with the Bern’s solera bourbon created by a (trendy word alert) local, handmade, artisan microdistiller in Winter Park.
Want to check out Japanese whiskey? Five are available in either 1- or 2-ounce pours. How about single-barrel bourbon? There are 17 options. What more could you ask? With 182 whiskies on the drinks menu, even an obsessive spirits nerd could spend months bellying up to the bar.
Not to be outdone, wine director Gregory Mayer has assembled a 2,500-bottle cellar with 550 selections. More importantly for most of us, he’s got 39 wines by the glass. And if you’ve always lusted for a taste of that $250 bottle that’s outside your budget, Haven makes it possible to sample four high-end wonders in 2.5-ounce pours at a tenth of the bottle price.
What enabled this change is a new space-age gadget called a Coravin. It uses a hollow medical grade needle to extract wine from the bottle without removing the cork. As the wine slowly fills a small beaker that resembles a carafe for Smurfs, argon gas fills the bottle to assure the remaining wine remains pristine for a month or more. For the first time, restaurants can offer upscale wines in small pours without risking their investment. Trust me, when Mayer brings his Coravin to your table, it’s as if Mr. Spock has beamed up with a Star Trek wine device.
And then there’s the food. What makes the dishes rise, under the keen eye of chef de cuisine Courtney Orwig, is that you don’t see it coming. There are surprising taste treats at every turn.
From the list of “Snacks & Munchies” we opt for a cluster of cheese fritters, perfect brown orbs looking like big aggies from an old-school game of marbles. They come with a creamy ranch dressing flavored with exotic fenugreek and dill that provides slickness to complement the savory crispness.
Our charcuterie selection is a magnificent terrine, alternating luscious foie gras and delicate beef tongue paired with membrillo (sweet Spanish quince paste) and soft slices of poached pear. This one is not to be missed. Ignore your fear when you read “tongue,” and incorporate a bit of sweetness from the quince and pear into each intoxicating bite.
The current cheese menu offers 59 items from the building’s cheese cave at $5 a pop, so the Cheese Monger Plate, featuring 18 chef selections for a mere $47, is equivalent to a fire sale, and on my radar for my next visit. We settle for two ripe delights, truffle tremor (California goat’s milk) and Époisses, Burgundy’s entry in the stinky cheese sweepstakes. This is the place if you wish to “behold the power of cheese.”
The SideBern's-to-Haven transition
Of Haven Tampa, CL food critic Jon Palmer Claridge writes, "From the ashes of SideBern's rises a five-star phoenix." Watch a time-lapse video by CL's Chip Weiner below, which documents the South Tampa building's transformation.http://cltampa.com/potlikker/archives/2015/03/30/restaurant-review-haven-rises-like-a-phoenix#.VRq9ZEvZWDU
Posted by Creative Loafing Tampa on Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Whole roasted cauliflower from the “Roots & Leaves” section of the menu is topped with a shallot-ginger-ham combo that flavors a goat’s milk beurre noisette, darkening the dairy to the color of roasted hazelnuts. It’s a big hit at my table, but can’t make me forget Rooster & the Till’s florets with pickled golden raisins. It’s the one taste that, for me, doesn’t soar. Good, but no cigar.
The “Fins, Scales, & Shells” group makes for difficult decisions. There are many seductions and not enough room in our bellies. We save the baby octopus for next time and opt for soft, mild black drum coated in garlic crumbs with pine nuts, hints of brightness from preserved lemon and a smoky hollandaise. In addition, we order the surprising monkfish bourguignon, which swaps beef for the meaty fish in a sauce of mushroom, root vegetables and bacon lardons with red wine emulsion. Both preparations are divine.
“Hooves & Feathers” leads the day with strips of sous vide pork belly (what I ever so fondly call pig foie gras) lacquered with pomegranate molasses, a touch of soy and covered in broccoli sprouts to add complementary texture and the false notion that what you’re eating is remotely healthy. Pigeon in the style of bacon is another inspired treatment. The smoky game bird pieces, with diminutive bones, mix it up with savory “smothered corn” and light black-truffle vinaigrette. There’s earthiness, smoke and flavor to burn.
Slices of perfect-in-pink skirt steak swim in green-olive marmalade with malbec chimichurri. Crisp, golden crostini are the perfect vehicle as you lovingly explore the beef marrow bone with a tiny spoon for every morsel of meltingly soft decadence. It’s lusciously spreadable — think prime rib-flavored butter. Topping the crunchy bread, oozing marrow with a thin slice of juicy beef is simply transcendent.
Finally, it’s time for “Sugar Rush.” Dirt pie follows what seems to be a recent trend of layering textures and flavors in a mason jar à la trifle. Valrhona chocolate mousse and coffee soil are stacked with cardamom. What is that squiggle peeking from the “soil?” Surprise! It’s a gummy worm, which spent its off hours marinating in single-malt Scotch. No wonder it’s just lying there. Luckily for us, the gummy reeks of dark spirits, at least until it ends up down our gullets as we attack like hungry fish taking the bait.
The restaurant spins three classic French triple crème cheeses — Brillat-Savarin, Explorateur and Délice de Bourgogne — into berry-filled macarons. These sweet meringue-based confections juxtapose the savory cheese with a trifecta of red and dark berry fillings that upend your macaron expectations.
But the biggest surprise of all is a scrumptious modernist deconstruction, bananas Foster pudding. Swirling drifts of salted caramel pudding are dotted with puffs of rum gelee and small cubes of dehydrated banana bread. All of this is topped with crispy golden tempura-battered sweet banana slices. It is sublime.
So where does that leave us?
The designation of a Michelin star confers world-class status, but the company also has tiers. In my experience, there is wonderful food across the Tampa Bay region, though restaurants usually fall just short of the fully transporting evening that you might find in other foodie capitals. I’m on record as putting William Dean Chocolates and Pizzeria Gregario in that hallowed group. However, I find that our top tier of fine-dining plateaus at CL is four-and-a-half stars. Thus, in trying to place Haven in the culinary sphere of Tampa Bay, with five stars to sprinkle, it’s useful to look through the Michelin filter.
I see food that surprises and delights; seamless, attentive, knowledgeable service; and thrilling wine and spirits. Sitting at my table, I can imagine that I am in Paris at a restaurant Michelin granted with a single star and, hence, world-class status. Frankly, I came in a bit skeptical that the new spot could top SideBern’s. I understood the business decision, but how could this possibly elevate our culinary universe? I leave believing that when you consider every element, Haven is the area’s most satisfying, sophisticated dining experience wrapped in a regionally appropriate-casual bow.
From the ashes of SideBern’s rises a five-star phoenix.