"Oh, would you like these seats?" The well-groomed older gentleman raises an eyebrow and smirks at us as he asks the question, and we all burst out laughing. My friend and I have scrunched our way through the crowd and have been hovering around the center of the bar, hoping two spots would open up. It's 7:15 p.m. on a Saturday at Haven. The wait for a table is already an hour and 15 minutes. Guests who have snagged a table look enviously self-satisfied, but our stomachs are rumbling and we have a party to hit after dinner. Yes, thank you, we'll take these seats and eat at the bar.
Just another weekend night out in Midtown or Buckhead? Alas, Atlanta's penchant for martinis and mob scenes has slithered beyond the borders of those neighborhoods. Haven is ensconced in a swanky residential/commercial development on an otherwise sleepy stretch of road in Brookhaven. There isn't another restaurant with its concentration of style or buzz anywhere in close proximity, and Lord, how the locals have embraced it.
Owner Michel Arnette spent years managing various Buckhead Life Restaurant Group ventures, and it's clear he has an innate understanding of how to orchestrate a hot spot. Servers are upbeat yet courteous and focused. The women at the hostess stand have an experienced poise. Welcoming smiles are plentiful, but beware the steely resolve that lurks underneath: They look ready to whip out a can of mace if you hassle them one too many times about your table.
Haven does not accept reservations. I find this maddening, particularly when I encounter the same exhausting multitudes on a Tuesday night. It makes me cranky to eat at 9:30 on a school night. You can call a half-hour before you plan to arrive and be put on the wait list, which might reduce your stand-around time to, say, 45 minutes or so.
The real frustration with Haven, though, starts after the wait ends. Executive chef Jeff Gomez also cut his teeth with Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, and though one would expect him to be adept at running a frantically busy kitchen, the food has a panicked edge that tastes of short cuts and corporate streamlining.
It certainly doesn't take long to arrive at the table. Moments after you place your order, a food runner rushes up to dispense appetizers. How do they cook this stuff so fast? Then you take your first bite and the light bulb goes off. Goat cheese "French toast" is an unimaginative concoction of two slabs of baguette smeared with herbed goat cheese, adorned with a simple, bland tomato sauce. Sweet corn beignets are tasteless puffs studded with a few puny corn kernels. The Caesar salad barely has any dressing. A crab cake tastes distressingly fishy. These dishes need some serious quality control.
Unfortunately, I have a hard time finding one dish to give unequivocal praise. A bone-in rib eye is a handsome piece of meat, cooked as requested, and the honey balsamic glaze has just the right balance of sweet and tart. The accompanying "melted" fingerling potatoes, however, are still crunchy. Worse still, they are set atop the steak, marinating in that syrupy glaze, which renders them all but inedible.
Braised lamb shank is gently gamy and comfy food tender, but the gremolata risotto underneath? I have a feeling it's cooked hours ahead and reheated with a generous dousing of hot broth right before it leaves the kitchen. The texture hovers somewhere between gummy and gluey. And there's a reason why duck breast typically arrives at the table sliced. The small, whole breast looks like a fatty, uncomely lump on the plate. The nicely spiced Swiss chard next to it, though, nimbly celebrates winter flavors while hinting of spring.
When the cooking hits the mark here, it reveals a chef with an admirably refined sense of adventure. Seared scallops are paired with chopped Brussels sprouts, a combination that seems questionable until you taste the vanilla bean-laced cider butter that bridges the contrasting qualities of the two ingredients. Saffron butter imbues whole fried Dover sole with a dulcet whiff of luxury, and the gnarl of garlicky greens alongside supplies a clean, sharp compliment.
But the presentation of the fish borders on disturbing. Its spinal cord has been twisted into an architectural sculpture that belongs in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, not on the plate. It's gross. Just remove the darn thing.
The dessert list is short, but has several misnomers. Blackberry cobbler napoleon has none of the bubbling, homey appeal that the word "cobbler" invokes. It is two wafers separated by honey ice cream and macerated summer berries that are surprisingly vibrant for being out of season. Double-chocolate "muffins" are small chocolate cakes cut in half and stuffed with a chocolate mousse that has all the appeal of generic banquet hall fare.
But the dessert that takes the cake, so to speak, is the pumpkin cheesecake bomb. Picture this: A sodden scoop of what tastes like canned pumpkin pie filling is drowned in viscous caramel reminiscent of the stuff you dipped apples in as a child. This is topped with splintery shards of pumpkin seed brittle. It is, without question, the worst dessert I've had in recent memory.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the kitchen's shortcomings are the result of a restaurant that achieved unbridled success before it was quite ready. So much else here holds promise. It's easy to linger in the dining room and soak in its elegant trappings: the stately wall of wine racks, the industrial-chic loft ceiling, the flattering lighting. I love the painting that looks like a rendering of Renee Zellweger in a Catwoman mask. And kudos to the brilliant artist who created those witty light fixtures attached to the back wall. The glass fixtures are blown to resemble a gush of brown water coming out of an old faucet. They double as a convincing sales pitch. Waiter, a bottle of Evian, please?
I'd like to see the wine list gain more breadth. It's a trick that intown scenester hangouts like One Midtown Kitchen have learned: Give the throngs numerous, unusual vino options by the glass or half-glass. It keeps them entertained and sedated while they await the main event.
The nerve-wracking challenge most new restaurants face is finding an audience. Haven, by virtue of location and a dapper sophistication, already has one right out of the starting gate. I hope the kitchen finds its footing before those crowds become disenchanted and start to drift back to Buckhead.