I never mind one bit getting dragged into a tasting at Haven. Few places I’ve been to in this country seem as well suited to my love affair with slightly sophisticated foods that come packaged with deep redneck flavors. It’s my New Orleans upbringing, I’m sure – in my hometown the most expensive restaurants try their best to cook food invented in homes and mastered in the least expensive restaurants. The appetizer sampler pictured above featured several of Haven’s greatest hits, from the unique spin on oysters Rockefeller to the devilishly good deviled egg to the quasi-tongue-in-cheek corndog shrimp.
As most folks in southeast Texas know by now, Haven is about nothing if not cooking with local and seasonal ingredients. Since strawberries have just started to come in, the path was clear for chef-partner Randy Evans and his gifted right-hand Kevin Naderi to serve this crisp salad with a strawberry vinaigrette to match. That toasted crouton was slathered with a soft Texas goat cheese, the perfect salty-pungent balance to the sweet-leaning everything else.
I’m very happy that the Carolina Low Country classic called shrimp and grits has anything but disappeared from the menu with the great social changes of the past thirty years. Some regional dishes have disappeared, but this one seems more popular in more parts of America than ever before. Of course, it helps to have wild-caught super-jumbo shrimp and grits stone-ground up around Waco. Who knew that Waco would become our nearest and dearest grits destination?
Despite my New Orleans roots, I’ve always been ambivalent about softshell crabs – and even more so about softshell anything else. But the chefs at Haven found the spoonful of “sugar” to help the softshell go down -first off, by frying it, then by surrounding it with light-springy Vietnamese flavors and lots of pickled vegetables.
Naturally, you couldn’t have a seafood tasting menu without actual fish – well, come to think of it, I’d be happy with nothing but shrimp. But at Haven, where they’d go that direction if I asked, they won’t if I don’t. This was an amazing pan-seared grouper with a few Matagorda oysters lying about (when it comes to oysters, Matagordas are apparently the new black), plus a creamy cabbage saute underneath that felt like delicate pasta.
We ended where we began at Haven, with a tasting from the greatest hits album. In this case, some terrific desserts. Think of all the desserts you ever loved – ice cream, bread pudding, rice pudding, icebox pie, creme brulee, toasted meringue – and just about any sweet finale you order at Haven will incorporate one or more components of it. No foams, no gels, no wisps of silly smoke, no colors not found in nature. Like everything else at Haven, these desserts are all about giving us what we love.