Review: Haven, in SideBern's old spot, sets high bar from the start

Published April 13 2015
Updated December 15 2015

TAMPA

David Laxer reached way back when naming Haven, alluding to his parents' long-ago Beer Haven in what is now the Bordeaux Room of Bern's Steak House. This homage to Gert and Bern Laxer makes one wonder what the family patriarch would think of this newcomer, which opened in March at the site of SideBern's. It's certainly less old-school fancy than Bern's, and less expensive than SideBern's, but I'm guessing Bern Laxer, who died in 2002, would be over-the-moon in love with the new project. As am I.

First off, Bern was wild for gadgets and seemed perpetually ahead of the curve. At Haven, he would likely sit riveted as a bartender administered the Coravin program, a curious device that works with a fat surgical needle to extract wine from an unopened bottle, replacing the empty space with inert argon gas. Thus, a bottle of the good stuff remains safe from oxidation, continuing to age as if undisturbed.

And he might be charmed by the edgy house-aged cocktails and concoctions like the Haven Sour ($9), made with Haven's own bourbon produced by Winter Park Distillery via the solera method — although it's possible that Bern Laxer might scratch his head at the list of more than 300 whisk(e)ys. Laxer just missed the American whiskey explosion, but director of spirits Dean Hurst is clearly in the thick of it.

And Bern Laxer, an unapologetic veggie enthusiast and grower, would likely be gaga over many of the playful and stylish small plates. There's something described simply as sweet corn ($9), which marries corn in every guise from ears of caramelized baby corn to corn sprouts, roasted corn niblets, corn nuts and popcorn brought together with grassy-caramely Zamorano cheese and a hint of chile heat. And then there's a pot into which a whole roasted head of cauliflower ($13) has been dramatically wedged, its burnished crown shampooed with a goat's milk brown butter and festooned with crunchy ham, ginger and shallot.

But it's over in the corner of the new dining room, the part that used to be Bern's Fine Wines, where Mr. Laxer might swoon and need smelling salts. It's a glass-fronted cheese cave, its contents arrayed beautifully and architecturally in tall columns and fat pyramids.

It is without a doubt the area's most encyclopedic and ambitious cheese program, best sampled in a $47 ceramic deviled egg tray containing 18 different cheeses. Sounds like a lot, but among three people was about 90 minutes of moaning bliss. On our visit, the acme was a tiny wedge of Point Reyes Bay Blue, mellow and crumbly at the edge, with a softer center and a salted-caramel note. But we were also fans of the Bleu Sunshine (from Winter Park, finally some great Florida cheese!) and the buttery, mushroomy lusciousness of Vermont Farmstead's Lillé Coulommiers, like a Brie in texture but with a fudgy grassiness that is magical.

I could go on about the cheeses — served at the right temperatures and levels of ripeness, with crusty bread, cornichons, fruit compote and Marcona almonds — but I've got miles to go in order to touch on all that Haven has to offer. Executive chef Chad Johnson and chef de cuisine Courtney Orwig have taken a number of their SideBern's preoccupations and blown them up big. Charcuterie, which will eventually be almost all housemade, for now features a number of lovely terrines, sausages, torchons and pates. And cheeses crop up all over the menu, from a trio of stunning savory housemade macarons ($9; I think I liked the creamy, buttery Délice de Bourgogne one best) to a changing mac and cheese offering ($12).

I know Bern's Steak House is fabled for its rigorous server training, and surely the Epicurean Hotel across the street aims high, but it was always at SideBern's where I had those memorable service experiences that meld professionalism with keen food knowledge. This is even more the case at Haven: From bartenders to the girl behind the cheese counter in the white pillbox cheesemonger cap, these folks know their stuff and are happy to kibitz.

With decor that is pretty but comfortable, and dishes that seldom scoot over $20, Haven adheres to the growing "casualization" trend. That said, few newcomers in the increasingly dense playing field have set the bar so high right from the start. Surely Gert and Bern Laxer would be tickled by what their little Beer Haven has wrought.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

         
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