Brunch gets a bad rap.
Maybe it’s the sameness of the dishes, a Benedict here and a French toast there. Maybe it’s the heaviness of said dishes, or that too many Bloody Marys can really mess up your Sunday. Or maybe it’s us brunchers: “Brunch is for douchebags” showed up on a list of “Related Searches” when I started Googling the subject.
And chefs — chefs seem to really hate brunch. “Why Brunch is the Worst: Chefs on Bad Service, Expensive Drinks” reads the headline on a Thrilllist story. “This Is Why Real Chefs Will Never Eat Sunday Brunch,” opines SpoonUniversity.com.
So why would a highly reputable chef from a highly reputable restaurant that had never done brunch before decide to start slinging eggs?
“We just knew we were missing out by not offering it,” said Brooke Palmer Kuhl, director of public relations for Haven. “So our executive chef Chad Johnson was like, let’s try it. And it has been a huge hit!”
No wonder. I had Sunday brunch at Haven recently. And it was like no Sunday brunch I’d ever had before. This was a brunch that did things I didn’t know brunch could do.
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”77″ display=”basic_thumbnail” thumbnail_crop=”0″]Like what they do with bacon, for instance. Haven — part of the Bern’s family of restaurants in South Tampa, not far from the Steak House and Élevage on South Howard — doesn’t just serve you a few slices of crispy Applewood. They serve five kinds of bacon. The “Traditional (thin & crispy),” yes, but also “Adobo Braised Bacon,” “Pea Meal Bacon,” “Chicken Fried Bacon” and “Bacon Eggroll.” For a bacon lover, which I am, this posed a dilemma, because of course I wanted it all. I suggested to our delightful server Danielle that the restaurant do a flight of bacon, and one indication of how delightful she is is that she treated my suggestion like it was some kind of brilliant and that she would share it with the chef. Chef Chad, hear my plea!
Though in fact a flight of these bacons might prove problematic if they’re anything like the Adobo Braised version I had. A generous serving of pork belly coated in a thick, delicious sauce with a gentle kick, I can’t see it marrying all that nicely with the Pea Meal and its apple jam or the Chicken Fried with its sawmill gravy. But I’d be willing to try! And at just $4-$7 a serving, I could make a whole brunch of it.
But then I would miss the Foie Gras French Toast. I’ll pause a minute and let that sink in. Foie Gras French Toast. The menu’s full of little “Huh?” moments like that. You don’t just get scrambled eggs. You get to choose from Brisket Scramble and Truffle Cheese Scramble and Chile Crab Scramble and Caviar Sea Urchin Scramble. The croissant’s not just a croissant — it’s a Salted Macadamia Croissant. And instead of a sad little fruit garnish, how about a whole plate of Oven Roasted Grapes — on peanut butter powder?
What Chad Johnson is doing is elevating brunch (he was, after all, executive chef of Élevage for a while, too). He’s reimagining it. And it’s not an over-the-top expensive reimagining. You can, believe it or not, order a single egg and a single piece of toast for four bucks total, and I bet it’d be the best egg on toast you’ve ever had. But come on… there’s the Foie Gras French Toast!
Granted, that may sound too rich for some brunchers’ blood (and you may have a problem with the whole foie gras thing), but believe me when I tell you it’s not cloying, it’s not even all that sweet. The toast has the perfect amount of crunch, the foie gras the perfect degree of unctuousness, and there’s shredded duck confit in there, too, to add another layer of texture and flavor, plus real maple syrup (but not too much) and bits of green apple for tartness. Unbelievably good, and the only entree on the menu that’s over $20 (it’s $22).
Johnson reimagines the humble pierogi, too. His melt-in-your-mouth Corned Beef & Potato Pierogies ($10) take the familiar Polish dumpling to a whole new level, enriching the flavor profile with ramp butter and an almost imperceptible tang of sauerkraut. The Brisket Soft Scramble ($8) is equally subtle and satisfying, with poblano pepper, cheddar and scallion ash complementing but not overwhelming the steak and eggs.
I haven’t even mentioned the cocktails yet. In the same “let’s not take ourselves too seriously” mood as the rest of the menu (the oyster section is headed “Shuck and Slurp,” the grapes and croissant are under “Munchies”), the cocktails are named after the ladies (and gentleman) of Sex & the City. I had a Miranda ($10), a brunch-friendly sweet/savory concoction of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, Averna Amaro liqueur, white peach, lemon and mint. (Mr. Big, by the way, is a $20 brew involving George Dickel Bottled in Bond 13-year bourbon.) There’s a Bloody Mary menu, too: You can choose your vodka and your base: Kimchi, Hot & Spicy or OG.
Among the many pungent anti-brunch comments I found on Reddit, there was this one from a server who had clearly worked too many Sundays: “Brunch is a mutant, bastard stepchild of a meal, served at a time when decent people should be sleeping off hangovers or minding their own business.”
But Haven, rethinking brunch on so many levels, even has an answer for those decent, if drunken, people: “Hangover Fried Rice,” fortified with oxtail, kimchee and a fried egg. We weren’t hung over but we ordered it anyway, and had it the next day.
For Monday brunch — because we sort of didn’t want Sunday to be over yet.
Haven Restaurant, 2208 W. Morrison Ave, Tampa, 813-258-2233, haventampa.com.