He Ate, She Ate
|By Mark Nixon and Gabrielle Johnson|
Small plates go over big at Red Haven
A love-sodden food adventure
There comes a point during a great meal when you know you’ve been had. Not “had” as in tricked — as in seduced. At Red Haven, Greater Lansing’s newest entry into tapas-style dining, the seduction was complete when the first french fry met my tongue. But more on that shortly.
Word of mouth has swiftly made Red Haven a dining destination — on our first visit, by 5:30 p.m., people were already lining up at the door. (Ed note: reservations are highly recommended.) The menu’s wording is stripped to the essentials — mainly nouns and verbs — which may be off-putting to some. Under [Chip], for example, the entire description consists of: carrot, maple sugar, salt, sage. I found it evocative, the way good radio allows your imagination to conjure images and smells. I don’t understand the menu’s obsession with brackets, but this quirk doesn’t intrude. And so the menu proceeds to [Eat], then moves through the tapas-sized portions from [Bake] to [Roast] to [Mash] and so on.
Red Haven urges diners to share, sip and explore many different plates, and did we ever. For starters, we ordered [Cheese], the cheese plate — farm house cheddar, manchego and maple goat. All delicious, as was the dollop of amber-colored pumpkin butter, velvety and delicately spiced. But then a surprise: The cheeses arrived all drizzled up with honey. Playing the sweet honey against the sharp cheeses is apt. It came with a single, small biscotti. Again, nice, but (and here I’m revealing my peasant stock) I like bread with my wine and cheese.
As for those fries: I’m not normally much of a fry guy, but at Red Haven the mound of hot fries arrived perfectly tossed with egg yolk (yes, egg yolk!) fresh rosemary and lemon juice. Surely this is what the God of Potatoes, Fryus, had in mind. We tasted a dozen different plates over the course of two visits, the first of which came a week after Red Haven opened, and it’s fair to say we felt plopped into the midst of a shakedown cruise. Both times, the wait staff was friendly and informative, but as the evening moved apace, they appeared overwhelmed. (On our second visit, a weekday, the chaos was gone and the staff was efficient and seemingly laid back). The menu changes monthly, so what’s ripe and ready soon makes its way to Red Haven. Red Haven’s subtitle is “Farm to Table,” and there’s no escaping the sales pitch. The devotion to fresh, local ingredients is proclaimed on the menu, servers’ T-shirts, and maybe in the men’s room if I had thought to look. Even the water glasses and light fixtures (canning jars) suggest a farm kitchen.
There are several bright stars in Red Haven’s galaxy. My favorite was [Broil], a fresh walleye fillet lightly dusted with rye crumbs and accompanied by cubed root vegetables in a cream sauce. The rye brought out the fish’s natural sweetness, and the earthy bite of sweet potatoes, parsnips and rutabaga played nicely against the cream. [Stuff] was medallions of chicken studded with walnuts. Gloriously crisped skin rimmed each medallion. This is how chicken is meant to taste — and rarely does these days. The priciest dish ($20) was [Sear], a small ribeye steak served with hollandaise sauce, a mushroom pate and stilton cheese that is battered and fried. One bite, and my mouth automatically began reciting “Ode to a Ribeye.”
Next up: [Bisque], a fascinating, thick broth made from brown ale. I loved the hints of radish, mustard, cherry and celery. Alas, the bisque arrived lukewarm, a chronic malady in many restaurants.
My biggest gripe has nothing to do with the food and is something beyond Red Haven’s control: parking. Red Haven is part of The Hamptons, a new mixed-use complex on the southeast corner of Mt. Hope Avenue and Hagadorn Road. Parking is in back, where ominous signs warn that parking is for one hour only. The host told us not to worry about the signs, but they may actual chase some customers away — the Hamptons management should work on this. But co-owners Nina Santucci and Tony Maiale have performed a minor miracle. They get what good food is about; like romance, it should be adventurous and love-sodden. May the adventure and love continue to soar at Red Haven.
Innovative but inconsistent
Walking into Red Haven made me feel like something sexy was about to happen. The place is gorgeous, with cherry wood accents, small, intimate tables and minimalist decoration. As I was seated with two of my girlfriends, we watched servers delivering gorgeous cheese platters, plates of candy apples and mini ice cream sandwiches. With my tapas-style dining experience being limited to occasional trips to Grand Rapids and Spain (because I’m fancy), deciding on a game plan took some discussion. One of my girlfriends and I regularly compete for the title of Most Stubborn Woman in the World, and our determination to decide what the other would order was thankfully complemented by the fact that we tend to like to eat the same things.
Our first course included [Ravioli] and [Fry]. The butternut squash ravioli in the first dish was a perfect blend of fall flavors. The plate included only two raviolis, which was disappointing for our party of three. They were perfectly al dente, with the squash adding a bit of sweetness to the salty, tangy frizzled leeks. I could have eaten a plate of this ravioli and gone home happy. The fries in the second dish were thick-cut and tossed with chopped herbs and were perfect without ketchup or salt — which is convenient because there were no salt and pepper shakers to be found.
Our next three dishes included [Confit], [Poach] and [Sear]. Of these, [Poach] was the one plate that wasn’t scraped clean. The salmon and accompanying egg were both over-poached and the fish itself was so salty that it was almost inedible. This, by the way, is coming from a salt fiend who actually carries packets of salt in her purse. We had to use a knife to cut the fish, which was difficult because our table of three was given two knives to share. The egg and bitter arugula paired nicely but didn’t do much to complement the salmon. I scraped the capers off my section of the salmon to avoid giving myself hypertension.
If you are used to seeing brightly-colored salmon, don’t be alarmed with the color of the fish at Red Haven. The grayish tint isn’t necessarily pretty to look at, but it denotes that the fish is fresh and hasn’t been pumped full of chemicals and dyes that are so frequently put into our food nowadays.
[Confit] was a table favorite and an innovative presentation of the Southern classic, chicken and waffles. A sweet waffle was topped with wilted kale and a baked chicken leg. The chicken was fork-tender and a little spicy. We balanced bites of the chicken with slivers of the cakey waffle and bits of the tart, tangy kale. The refreshing flavor of the kale was a great balance to the sweetness of the waffle. (One tip — don’t take a bite of the item resembling a cherry tomato on the edge of the plate. Whatever it is, it’s inferno spicy, and the words immediately uttered by the friend who put it into her mouth aren’t fit to print.)
My favorite savory item of the night was [Sear], a hunk of beef with sliced mushrooms and potato puree. The meat was juicy, tender and just a little bit fatty — everything you want a steak to be. The mushrooms were thinly sliced and earthy. Two of us loved them; the third said they tasted like “dirty socks.” This hunk of beef, incidentally, was prepared by another hunk of beef in the kitchen, a gorgeous blonde man I kept my eye on throughout the meal. If Red Haven’s ploy is to entice the diners with eye candy, well played.
I ordered a ginger ale and wished I hadn’t. It was completely flat, as was the refill. My companions considered cocktails, but were aghast at the prices of $10 and up. For dessert, we opted for a deep ramekin of chocolate mousse and a mini Funfetti birthday cake that easily satisfied our raging adult-sized sweet teeth. The chocolate mousse was the clear winner, airy and rich enough to make you slap your mama. While the flavor was deep and smooth, the grainy, almost lumpy texture left something to be desired. The birthday cake was served cold from the refrigerator, which was a letdown. It was dry and the frosting was an uninspired sickly-sweet buttercream. While the presentation of the cake was adorable and complete with a sparkly candle, who wants to eat a dry cake just because the presentation is cute?
Keep your eyes peeled for a Sunday brunch announcement, which I’ve been told is impending. With the level of innovation happening at Red Haven, I can’t wait to see how they change the face of breakfast in the Lansing area. I’m hoping for a build-your-own Eggs Benedict bar, in case my opinion matters.
Mark Nixon is an award-winning writer and editor, with a newspaper career spanning more than three decades. As a lifestyles reporter at USA Today, Nixon wrote about cooking trends and the new American cuisine. As a columnist for the Lansing State Journal, he wrote extensively about Michigan-made food and drinks.
Gabrille Johnson punctuated her education (she graduated from both MSU and Cooley Law School) eating her way through other states and countries, from whoopie pies in New Hampshire to fish and chips in Ireland. She is a big fan of the Lansing restaurant scene and blogs about her dining adventures at eatinglansing.blogspot.com.