When every other chef or owner of a soon-to-open restaurant starts tossing around “gastropub” to describe their venue, it’s a sure sign that use of this hybrid label is approaching a tipping point. It’s been almost three years since The Crow Bar and Kitchen introduced this concept of a beer-centric bar that serves high-quality food—well explored in other regions—to our O.C. dining scene. Since then, at least six have joined the fray, with more to follow.
From its frenzied opening last summer during the city’s International Street Fair, Haven in Old Towne Orange entered the ring as a serious contender. Snagging the prime Glassell Street site of short-lived Aldo’s Italian, Haven immediately lured crowds with a major makeover and trendy, beverage-savvy menu.
Many months later, the crowds haven’t thinned and I can see why. The renaissance of Old Towne is still light on urbane, chef-driven dining. Haven is on-trend in the boutique brew department, and for those blasé about beer, there’s decent wine and choice cocktails. But Haven’s real genius is chef Greg Daniel’s menu of polished pub grub; it widens the tavern’s appeal with fare for diners (or drinkers) of all breeds. From date-nighters, to business-lunchers, to tatted hotties, to a young pair having a sunset supper with their toddler—there’s something tasty for everyone.
After several recon missions, a pattern worth noting is that all of my best meals were at lunch, the most disappointing at dinner. Although the menu shifts slightly between the two mealtimes, and prices are similar, noise is an undeniable difference. Which is a shame since the natty space looks the part—walls of stacked stone, wood floors, long polished bar, and specials scrawled in chalk on a giant blackboard. But once you add acres of window glass and a robust sound system blasting indie rock, the roar can be insufferable. So lunch or very early dinner is best if you don’t care to shout across the table.
Sandwiches (designated “between bread” on the menu) and salads (regrettably labeled “ruffage”) are a small field of five, with only a few standouts. Bitter radicchio and curly frisée get oomph from creamy goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and a poached egg, all drizzled with truffle vinaigrette. It’s an edible lesson in balance. A sturdy, crusty roll is fine support for tangy, tender pulled-pork dressed with just enough chipotle aioli—it’s a well-built sandwich, nicely complemented by lively apple-cabbage slaw. The house burger is a champ, built on a custom patty of beef chuck, short rib, and pork fat. Daniels adds pickled red onions, roasted red peppers, arugula, and gooey St. Agur blue cheese, but in harmonious amounts that play magnificent background to the juicy meat and toasted bun. Unlike the burger, the short rib tacos appear only at lunch, a lamentable decision since the succulent duo of folded flour tortillas is fat with tender beef, cotija crumbles, and salsa borracho.
At least the two baked dishes are served all day—an impressive shepherd’s pie and a first-rate elbow mac ’n’ cheese that’s crunchy on top and cloaked in gruyere, parmesan, and a trace of black truffle. Of the several bar snacks, skinny fries freckled with fresh herbs are far better than the too thin, too salty, and too greasy house-fried potato chips that lack real potato flavor. Brussels sprouts with prosciutto are too lemony and make me long for the now-gone cauliflower roasted with almonds and golden raisins. I hope Daniels brings it back, but he has added rich beer-battered squash blossoms filled with a light lobster-chèvre mousse, with a swirl of balsamic reduction and parsley oil to cut through the fat.
It’s easy to see why so many orders of jumbo prawns leave the kitchen. Their natural sweetness is heightened by savory applewood-smoked bacon wraps. Cheddar cheese grits, served with roasted tomatoes, are the plate’s hearty starch. Less enchanting is the escolar, coated with dusky maroon cabernet powder that obliterates the white fish’s flavor.
The dry-aged pork chop has a dense flavor that works well with its achiote rub, zingy escabeche, and more of those delicate squash blossoms. At $24, it’s the priciest item, but it fiercely outshines the fried chicken on cornmeal waffles. A scrawny thigh and drumstick need more crunch and meat, but the waffles are super when not soaked through with maple syrup spiked with Bärenjäger, a powerful honey liqueur. This elixir would be better served on the side. Roasted Jidori chicken breast, while less novel, is more satisfying.
Desserts are a fun lot, even if they, too, are uneven. Brioche bread pudding, which can be deadly dull, is delightful, dense and dreamy, topped with salted caramel ice cream. House-made candied-bacon ice cream is a novelty that’s terrific if you don’t mind the adobe-hard texture of the stale, overbaked brownie that comes with it. I fell hard for the softly chewy espresso-chocolate-chip cookies that sandwich ice cream made with milk that pastry chef Tracy Marfice infuses with a sweet cigar, though I detect no tobacco flavor. True chocomaniacs should sniff out the Irish Car Bomb, a moist Guinness stout chocolate cake with Guinness ice cream, Irish Cream chocolate sauce, and caramel sauce made with Jameson whiskey. Don’t bother with the strawberry ale float unless you already like the fruity beer; it’s a bitter-creamy combo that’s not easy to love.
Though its fare is still settling in, Haven is easily finding admirers. The menu is populated with enough winners to carry it buoyantly into the next year. That gives Daniels and crew plenty of time to fine-tune, which could propel Haven to the pinnacle of Orange County gastropubs, even if that peak presages the tipping point.
Haven Burger, pulled-pork sandwich, short rib tacos (lunch only), mac ’n’ cheese, shepherd’s pie, jumbo prawns, pork chop, bread pudding.
Lunch, $6 to $22; dinner, $6 to $24; beers, $6 up to $55 for the Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek 2007 (750 ml).
Banquette seats on the back wall.
The roster includes The Bruery’s Saison Rue, and far-flung, tightly allocated gems such as BrewDog, Tokyo, and aged stout from Scotland.
No happy hour, but often open until 2 a.m.
Read My Lips
Dine early to avoid the din.
190 S. Glassell St.
Published September 2010
Gretchen Kurz is an Orange Coast contributing editor and the local editor of Orange County’s Zagat Survey / Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi