We’ll Always Have Guinness
Attentive service, an encyclopedic beer selection and a killer burger redeem the uneven debut of Haven Gastropub in Orange
The Orange Circle, long the dominion of doilies, fragile antiques and that once-a-year excuse for public beer-swilling and drunkenness called the International Street Fair, has been yearning for a watering hole like Haven Gastropub—a place designed to tap (pun intended) into the annual gathering’s core demographic: lovers of beer and merriment.
It made perfect sense, then, that they chose the grand-opening date to coincide with the first day of the fair.
The strategy worked. On a recent Friday night, a mere two weeks later, I was caught in a noisy microcosm of the Labor Day weekend Glassell Street scene, only indoors, squeezed into the square room and jostling its way toward the bar. As the night drew on, the cavernous acoustics of the place so amplified the cacophony that I think my eardrums would’ve suffered less trauma if I were trapped inside a racquetball court with a thousand squawking geese.
Those seated around the periphery had to share their personal space with those who waited for the same tables. But everyone got along. This is Orange, after all, a town with a built-in, Midwestern type of civility. Nice is also the prevailing quality of Haven’s front-of-the-house crew, who all seem young, fresh, idealistic and eager-to-please; this is especially true of the manager, an unflappably happy chap with an unbreakable smile.
When I pointed out that our fried-chicken drumettes were still raw in the middle, he was profusely apologetic. “Growing pains,” he said as he promised to make it up to us with dessert and a new plate of chicken on the house. After a beat, the meaty clubs came out, now a little burnt, and with most of the flavor concentrated in the caked-on, mahogany breading. The menu suggested a wine pairing, but beer did just fine to wash it down.
Beer is the cure-all here. Theirs is a list of craft ales, lagers and stouts so impenetrable, I didn’t bother trying to pronounce any of it as I ordered. Instead, I built a sampler of four small glasses simply by pointing to a few that the menu singled out as recommended pairings to the dishes I chose. There was a Blanche de Bruxelles for their fritto misto, a Unibroue Chambly Noire for the corned-beef sliders and an Arrogant Bastard for the Arrogant Mussels.
Guinness, of course, goes well with everything, including spicy soups and gourmet burgers. Oversized shrimp, squid, salmon and scallops are bathed in an elegant, tomatoless cioppino spicier than Thai soup. And the burger, served with rosemary-blasted fries, had a patty that accounted for most of its height. A nicely stinky St. Agur cheese, peppery arugula, roasted red peppers and some surprisingly well-executed pickled onions made for a decidedly grown-up burger that rivals that of the Counter or 25 Degrees.
The citrusy finish of Blanche de Bruxelles coupled nicely with the fritto misto, cleansing the palate to welcome more bites of fried food. And of the latter, there was plenty, spread out on an epic dish and consisting of fish chunks, octopus, carrots and green beans—all golden-battered and sprinkled with a flurry of peppered salt to finish. Slices of lemon were not immune to being cooked in the fryer, either. Since they’re indiscriminately cloaked under the same coating, your first encounter will be a surprise, but when your next chomp consists mostly of the bitter rind, you’ll be put off by the idea for good.
There were other miscalculations like this. The only salad—listed under a section misspelled “ruffage”—is a big plate of radicchio and frisee, two bitter leaves that converge to an overwhelming astringency, which couldn’t begin to be countered by the sweetness of the runny poached-egg yolk and tangy goat cheese they put on top. The Arrogant Mussels were perhaps too arrogant, as well as bitter because of the dark beer used as the base. And despite listing three premium cheeses and black truffles as ingredients, the mac and cheese tasted like paste.
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But perhaps the most disappointing dish of all was the corned-beef sliders, which weren’t stuffed with corned beef as much as they were cursed with rubbery, frilly fronds of fat that registered as underdone bacon in the mouth—impossible to chew and unpleasant to swallow. Inconsistency seemed to plague our house-made potato chips. Ours were overfried to a dark brown, while another table’s bowl seemed perfect.
As the restaurant matures, I expect these problems to get worked out. And there’s already proof of Haven’s potential. The short-rib entrée is the best of the house—a dish of ready-to-collapse, slowly braised beef surrounding a central column of bone thick as a caveman’s club and perched atop a heap of pureed carrot. And for dessert, the Irish Car Bomb—a brownie-like flourless chocolate cake topped with Guinness ice cream and Jameson caramel sauce—was terrific despite the insensitive name.
Because Haven is only the second restaurant in OC to call itself a gastropub, the definition of the term is scrawled out in cursive in the bathroom. It reads, “gastropub: noun Brit., a British term for a public house that specializes in serving high-quality food.” So lift up your glasses and hope that Haven fully lives up to it. In the meantime, another pint of Guinness, please!
Haven Gastropub, 190 S. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 221-0680; www.havengastropub.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Items, $5-$20. Full bar.