By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
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We are in the Swiss Alps — or maybe the Himalayas. The snow-capped mountain range is dazzlingly white against an impossibly blue sky, and snowflakes drift downward to the rhythm of the Tom Tom Club. The Tom Tom Club? Don't ask questions; just go with the flow.
Cocktails, placed on our table by a young waitress in a skin-tight microskirt, emanate smoke. It's an effect you might see in an old monster movie. Welcome to Haven Gastro-Lounge, situated on the west end of Lincoln Road.
One such cocktail is the popular "pop drop": Tito's Handmade Vodka with lime juice, cucumber purée, and Aperol accompanied by a liquid-nitrogen-frozen popsicle of vodka, basil juice, cane sugar, and lime. Patrón Silver tequila is the base for another nitro-smoker, this one tinted with pineapple, cracked pepper, and sparkling blood orange "caviar." "Blanca" sangria is dominated by flavors of honeydew and white Rioja wine, with too-quiet whispers of Meyer lemon and guanabana. There are no vaporous clouds surfacing from the tasty if unexceptional sangria. Then again, it is $9, as opposed to $17 for the others (smoke doesn't come cheap). Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada, and a dozen or so dignified imports (Stella Artois to Shiner Bock to Sapporo) compose the beer list; each goes for $7.
After only a few tasting sips of each drink, I look up and the mountains have turned to a sea with waters sailing by as quickly as the Depeche Mode soundtrack, which is rolling along like the sexy staff that delivers a smattering of small plates to our small, low table. I'm pretty sure the streaming image whirling about us on the wraparound LCD walls is the Mediterranean. A thousand or so ice-cube lights running in rows on a black ceiling subtly switch hues. The Siberian white-onyx bar changes color too, and if you sit long enough, Haven fills to the brim with an electric late-night South Beach crowd. The room stays plugged in daily till 5 in the morning.
Dining here is a totally immersive experience. It is subversive as well, in the way it re-imagines the gastro-pub genre for the digital age. The place even has a technology director (Ricardo Agudelo, who orchestrates the media projections and VJs alongside a DJ for audio-visual cohesiveness). The music comes through loud and clear via a top-of-the-line sound system, but acoustics allow for audible conversation — at least prior to midnight. After that hour, eatery turns to lounge and all bets for a peaceful meal are off the table.
A four-seat chef's counter is worth reserving — lots of action happens behind the open line, including occasional blasts of liquid nitrogen and the glowing scorch of a blowtorch. Seemingly as many cooks busily cavort in the kitchen as diners buzz about the place; in fact, there are a dozen lounge tables that seat 52 indoors, plus room for 14 more at the bar, and another 18 seats outdoors — which is where you might consider dining if all of this sounds like a tad too much. Wondering how profits can be made with such a large labor force? See above for $17 cocktails.
Like the ambiance, the cuisine pulsates too. Haven flashes a bright young chef in Todd Erickson, whose gastronomic smarts make this place more than just a kick-ass 21st-century psychedelic lounge. Erickson was formerly sous chef at Zuma and before that had been named "Best Chef Under 27" by our sister paper, the Dallas Observer (he is now 31). Erickson's menu of globally inspired small plates satisfies via innovative, delicately crafted flavor pairings (molecular fireworks are reserved for drinks and desserts). There are six categories of what might be called haute bar snacks: Crudo ($4 to $14), Green ($8 to $10), Roll ($9 to $12), Crisp ($7 to $12), Skewer ($8 to $10), and Slider ($7 to $11).
A quintet of sushi rolls exhibits brash tastes and a strong dash of creativity. Eel is draped in soy-caramel barbecue glaze and cut with green apple and cucumber. Hamachi is partnered with poblano pepper, pickled red onion, garlic, and citrus vinaigrette. The ubiquitous California roll, here dubbed the Santa Monica, replaces surimi crab with lumps of the real deal. In the early running for signature roll is the "crackle-pop" — spicy tuna and daikon wrapped in soft sushi rice mined with kernels of crisped rice and oozing yuzu aioli spiked with shichimi (a Japanese chili pepper spice mix).
More raw seafood — namely a quartet of sashimi selections — tops the crudo section of the menu. Jumbo prawn cocktail with aji amarillo and fresh horseradish is also offered, as is ceviche stacked with moist lobster morsels and U-10 wild-caught scallops in a sweet-and-tart pool of passion fruit/coconut/key lime juice vivid with vanilla oil. A bowl of dandelion greens flecked with orange sections, Medjool dates, and pistachios refreshes by way of a rousing sherry vinaigrette. A more cutting-edge combo mixes watercress, radish, red onion, watermelon, and feta cheese in cachaça vinaigrette.
Some of the best bangs for the buck are brokered among the Crisps (plural of the menu category, not a street gang). A paper cone overflows with cleanly fried nuggets of rock shrimp crunchily coated in coconut-flaked panko crumbs; an accompanying wasabi/sour-peach marmalade speckled with pink peppercorns provides a hot/sweet treat of a dip. Generously portioned tater tots arrive as lightly fried cylinders capped with melting Maytag blue cheese and balsamic "ketchup" that tastes mostly of the sweetly reduced vinegar — a fetching sweet/salty contrast, even if it does overpower the mellow potatoes.
The sliders are sloppy to eat, and the toppings tend to blur into a blend of dully defined flavors. For instance, a thin, tender "lamburger" comes lavished with "lavender-coriander honey, apple-fennel slaw, and ouzo mustard." The taste is predominantly that of lamb and sweet, mayonnaise-y slaw. Not bad, mind you — just not as good as it sounds. The vegetarian slider is a delicious mush of black beans, barley, and tomato-chili marmalade. A beef slider boasts more traditional and cleanly delineated garnishes: Nueske's bacon, guacamole, tomato, and Vermont cheddar. Also on the bill are little patties culled from crab, blackened fish, and duck.
A skewer of grilled, skinned chicken thighs, dry-rubbed overnight in jerk spices, comes bookended with red pepper squares and served atop thin wheels of cucumber and pineapple slices marinated in spiced rice vinegar — all drizzled with Scotch bonnet-infused honey. Alas, the poultry proved undercooked; an apology preceded a replacement order served with another apology. The staff here is unerringly polite and coolly professional in its own rock 'n' roll way.
The chicken, when cooked, is delectable, and so is a kebab of juicy Swedish meatballs interspersed with softly roasted cremini mushrooms. Meatballs are culled from beef, pork, and brioche bread crumbs and sauced with veal demi-glace and white truffle oil. Organic microcilantro sprouts accompany the meatballs, as do dabs of sweet/sour lingonberry gastrique.
"Nitro ice cream," for two, changes flavors on a seminightly basis. Erickson makes the custard bases in the morning and then blasts them per order into ice cream via liquid nitrogen. The result: maple-bacon, the flavor du jour, presented in a surprisingly ordinary ice-cream parfait glass but with a less-common cloud of fog swirling around it. The texture is extra-creamy and dense, the maple flavor mellow but enlivened with strips of chewy, sugar-cinnamon-and-nutmeg-dusted bacon. Additional toppings change nightly; Captain Crunch is a popular one.
Our main quibble: Teeny tables used for dining here are almost as low as a typical coffee table. After a certain amount of time spent leaning forward and back for each bite of food and sip of cocktail, it can feel as though you're reaching your limit on an ab machine at the gym.
While we finish off the ice cream, kinetic paisley-like patterns spread like cartoon shadows on the walls. The images change at a leisurely, never dizzying, pace. Still, Haven is not for everyone. I wouldn't take my dad or cranky, old acquaintances here. But for people seeking scintillating snacks and drinks in a stimulating environment, Haven should be heaven. Or maybe the Himalayas.