By Charles Lam
In a word, old town Orange is quaint. In more words, it seems like a place that shouldn’t exist anymore. Down the street from Chapman University, old town Orange is defined by a mix of antique stores, college bars and bougie restaurants around a roundabout. It’s a culinary hot spot, in part due to Haven Gastropub, a medium-sized restaurant located in the Jensen building at the south end of the old town area.
The brainchild of executive chef and managing partner Greg Daniels (who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Pasadena), Haven is a comfortable place, designed to be the definitive “gastropub.” The walls are an eye-pleasing combination of brick and wood, subtle enough to fade into the background yet present enough to make the room feel warm. They lend a sense of authenticity to the restaurant, a pedigree and esteemed reputation that does not actually exist.
Haven is loud but well-designed. The cacophony of conversation, football and indie pop is easily ignored. The seat design, comfortable wooden tables and leather chairs aid in conversation.
Even how they serve water is meticulously detailed, with each table having its own threaded-lipped heavy glass bottle.
Unfortunately, their menu planning is not as impressive.
While the atmosphere of the restaurant is wonderful and the beer list is top notch, the food is inconsistent. Some dishes are perfect, while others seem thrown together and are embarrassingly sloppy.
The french fries might be the best in Orange County on a good day. Fried hard and cut thin, Haven’s fries are a deep golden brown and are delicious. They’re delicately crispy; when you pick them up you can feel the outer layer of potato crack slightly in your grip. Tossed in parsley, oregano, sea salt and thyme and paired with slightly curried ketchup, they are the definition of perfectly done simple food. Cooked perfectly and seasoned well, they’ll leave you shocked and amazed.
The same is true about the mac and cheese. Classic American style with no fancy truffle oil or lobster, the pasta is cooked perfectly. The sauce is silky and neither too thin or thick. The Parmesan crust introduces an element of savoriness an addictive crunch. Better mac and cheese might not exist.
The seafood is also good. The jumbo prawns wrapped in bacon are the perfect texture, slightly tough but not chewy. They’re served on the cheddar cheese grits that is not at all gritty.
If the restaurant were just fries, prawns and mac and cheese, I would be in heaven. But there are other not-so-great things on the menu.
The crab roll is depressing. On its own, the crab is wonderfully fresh and lemony, with a nice crunch introduced by bits of celery. On the brioche roll, however, it becomes a mess, soaking the bread to the point of dissolving, and being unable to hold its own against the richness of the bun.
The dessert menu is the biggest letdown. The rocky road pritfoles cream puffs sound amazing on paper. Cream puffs full of rocky road ice cream served on top of vanilla whipped cream and chocolate reduction. In practice, the marshmallow bits are too small, the chocolate is nearly nonexistent and the cream puffs were dry and crumbly. They ruined any chance the rest of the menu could have had, leaving both a literal and metaphorical bad taste in my mouth.
Haven is dangerous. The restaurant is beautiful, the beer list bountiful. The food can be some of the best food you’ve ever eaten, but unfortunately, it can also be some of the most disappointing.