Last week, a friend and I were having a discussion about experiencing great food while we happily consumed fish tacos. After sharing a tale with me about how this particular chocolatier in New York City has permanently cast other chocolates in a lesser light, he confessed that his love for this cocoa-infused art led him to realize that he would gladly experience the best type of food the world has to offer, then spend the rest of his days in anger over the fact that the globe cannot offer anything better. Even though that may sound a little barbaric, it is not unheard of, considering that Alexander the Great was said to have wept when he conquered the final remnant of the known world because there was nothing left to defeat. Now, I don’t share the same mindset of my friend or the famed ancient general, but if I did, I believe a lifetime of anger toward other gourmet hamburgers would be headed my way because of the glory I experienced at the new Haven Gastropub in Old Town Orange. Flat out, it was the best upscale burger I have ever had. Period. Bar none. But I’ll delve deeper into my unashamed love for this special sandwich in a little bit, for there is so much more to love about this Orange Circle area tenant that transcends well beyond this blissful item.
For one thing, they don’t mess around with their beers. Anyone who genuinely cares about the popular drink will embrace this place, because Haven’s resident adult beverage guru Will Dee has an impressively deep passion for great and unique beer, wine, and spirits. Asking for a Coors, Miller, or Budweiser product here will only get you looks of disdain (which you would deserve by asking for such an inferior product at a gastropub, anyway). In fact, the only beers that I recognized on the menu were Guinness and Arrogant Bastard Ale. Armed with such naivety, I started my evening off by indulging in their beer flight; a quartet of brews that would normally be of my own choosing, except I let our server pick them for me. Each selection was dangerously fantastic in its own way, from the slightly sour tang of the Bruery Hottenroth Raspberry Berliner Weiss to the rich, smoky denseness of the Bruery Autumn Maple beer, the latter of which felt like breakfast in a beer stein. The impossibly smooth vodka martini I also managed to enjoy through the course of the meal further proved Haven’s mettle when it comes to potent potables.
While the drinks brilliantly showcase the knowledge behind Haven, their food shines the spotlight on the deft culinary skill that radiates from Executive Chef Greg Daniels’ kitchen. For starters, my wife and I absolutely had to try their homemade potato chips – the word “pub” is in the restaurant’s proper name, after all – and the craftsmanship that would set the tone for the rest of the evening was deliciously evident with the first crunchy, rosemary-infused bite. The process in which this delightful snack is made – yes, beer is involved – creates a more subdued chip flavor, which allows the herbs that season them to have an extra decadent pop. Additionally, the plate of fritto misto we indulged in were full of surprises, as items you would expect to find behind the light and tasty batter, such as fish, were tempered with unusual items like lemon slices. On paper, the latter item looked a little freaky, but it worked within the confines of the batter, especially when we were able to slip some fish into our bites.
Beer played quite the prominent part in our next round of vittles, as we had a heaping bowl of their arrogant mussels, named as such because they come soaked in a broth made from Arrogant Bastard Ale. The famously bitter beer tempers the natural flavor of the black mussels so they are not as briny, giving their taste a uniquely mild tone. This creation pairs very handsomely with the herbs and tomatoes that are liberally doused on the mollusks. The French Onion soup we concurrently experienced also had a mild flavor to its base, which allowed the added flavor and gooeyness of the gruyere cheese to shine.
For now, Haven’s menu is a bit on the small side. However, Daniels has plans to roll out expansions to it in due time. On this night, my wife happened to catch one of these debuts in the form of bacon-wrapped prawns placed atop of a lovely mound of cheese grits. The freshness of the sizeable prawns was undeniably evident, and the bacon that coated the shellfish acted as a flavor enhancer as opposed to a mask. However, the star of the dish were the grits; insanely creamy, perfectly cheesy, and faintly spicy. They could sell bowls of the stuff by itself and they would fly out of the kitchen. The dish’s salsa accompaniment was a little too slight, but that was a minor quibble considering that this was its first night on the menu.
This, of course, leads me to my burger: A massive hunk of perfectly cooked beef topped with pickled red onions, roasted red peppers, wild arugula, and St. Agur blue cheese (which just so happens to be one of the finest blues on the planet). There was a couple times where it felt like I was sinking into a piece of steak clinging close to a bone, where my mouth was filled with meaty, fatty goodness. Honestly, those bites were the likes of which I’d never experienced before in a burger, which is saying quite a lot considering how much of a burger freak I am. Even the grain of the meat, evident after I devoured half of the burger, was reminiscent of steak. Overall, each bite had a fascinating story to tell: The creaminess of the blue cheese; the understated sweetness of the onions; the feistiness of the arugula. When combined, these tales combined to convey a gourmet burger experience of Shakespearian proportions. Again, it was the best burger of its kind that I have ever had.
Thankfully, I was allowed enough respite from my epic burger to prepare myself for the Irish Car Bomb for dessert. One look of the treat’s components is all we needed to know this was the only moniker you could bestow it with, since it consists of an Irish cream infused flourless chocolate cake, Guinness ice cream, and Jameson caramel sauce. Each different libation is prominent when the parts are tasted separately; yet when they are mixed, they all blend together seamlessly, much like the drink of the same name. The nice thing about this dessert, though, is that the alcohol does not interfere with the chocolate or the caramel going on in the dessert, thus creating a textbook study in final course decadence.
As I had said, the menu at Haven is currently a bit sparse, and we found out that it had actually grown from its opening weekend (which brazenly coincided with this year’s International Street Fair). However, we had the good fortune to speak with Daniels at length during the course of our dinner, and he has some pretty extraordinary plans to build the cuisine served here. Throughout our conversation – all of which was conducted in normal speaking voices, a rarity for a gastropub – it was obvious that Daniels is a devout student of the kitchen who has a fiercely innovative streak within him. Based on the vision he has for Haven, I am convinced that Daniels is a chef to absolutely pay attention to, and I am positively amped to see what he does in the next few months.
In the meantime, I’ll be just as content to go back to Haven and order me up another burger.