New In Town
|By Allan I. Ross|
This story was updated Oct. 22 to include Red Haven's new phone number.
It’s no wonder that red haven peaches are considered the standard by which all other peaches are judged. Sweet, juicy, full of flavor and the perfect balance of sink-your-teeth-in soft and hold-their-own-weight firm, they wear their fuzz with pride. Similarly, with its dedication to local ingredients, inventive dish preparations and cozy-chic interior design, Red Haven — the restaurant opening today kitty-corner from Michigan State University — stands a good chance at setting the standard for destination dining in the area.
“Our goal is to take the mundane dining experience and turn it into something exciting,” says Nina Santucci, who co-owns Red Haven with her partner Tony Maiale. “If you’re laughing while you’re eating, we know we’ve done it right.”
Santucci and Maiale met while working at a restaurant in Philadelphia, where Mailale was a chef and Santucci was a waitress. They moved to Texas, then back up to the East Coast, honing their culinary style, taste and management experience along the way. They worked up the ranks at several high-end restaurants, and then, two years ago the duo decided to strike out on their own.
“We were talking about starting our own place, and thought maybe we should start with a food truck,” Santucci said. ”I mentioned this to my dad, and one week later he bought a food truck for $10,000. It really happened that fast.”
That food truck morphed into the Purple Carrot, the mobile fine dining kitchen that set up shop primarily in East Lansings Hannah Plaza, but ventured to festivals and other special events around town. Santucci, who was raised in East Lansing, says that a move back to Michigan was “a natural choice,” especially given her family’s heavy involvement with the food industry — they produce cherries, chestnuts, grapes and Mangalista pigs, Austrian-bred porkers renowned for their succulent fattiness.
“I liked that the Michigan agricultural community gives you access to so many great components of a top quality menu,” Santucci said. “The only problem is, Michigan diners just don’t have as progressive tastes as people on the East Coast.”
But she thinks she can change that. At the Purple Carrot, Santucci and Maiale fine-tuned their style, dabbling with unique dishes and sides (think: chicken meatballs and beer bubble garnishes). She said this experimental style spurred their curiosity, resulting in increasingly creative dishes.
“No matter what we tried, people loved it,” Santucci said. “It made cooking exciting. I was afraid we were going to have to dumb dinner down, but the opposite happened. After we really got into it, we had a hard time limiting ourselves.”
Hence the move to a kitchen without wheels. Red Haven is tucked into a 2,200- square foot suite inside the Hamptons mixed-use development project at the corner of East Mt. Hope Avenue and Hagadorn Road. With a menu focusing on “getting playful with textures” and “reinterpreting classic flavors,” Red Haven is not following the typical appetizer-entre-dessert model — which Santucci says will be a surprise for local diners.
“We want people to trust us to give them a unique experience, and we promise to do good with that trust,” Santucci said. “By using fresh, local ingredients that were picked yesterday and developing dishes that play with all five senses, Red Haven is definitely going to be a one-of-a-kind restaurant.”
And you don’t even have to watch out for the pit.