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Lighter Side of Lenox

by B.A. Nilsson on April 4, 2013

Haven Café and Bakery, 8 Franklin St., Lenox, Mass., 413-637-8948, havencafebakery.com. Serving breakfast 7:30-11:30 Mon-Fri, lunch 11:30-3 Mon-Fri, brunch 8-3 Sat-Sun. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: soup-salad-sandwich

Entrée price range: $8 (grilled cheese) to $15 (blue cheese burger)

Ambiance: seat-yourself casual

Because our exotic vacations are annoyingly few, my teenage daughter and I play a game in which we imagine ourselves, at various moments, to be somewhere overseas. We typically end up in a European locale that combines Tuscany’s rural beauty with the urban indifference of Paris, where we just might have to bully through an inscrutable menu in order to tame our appetites at a picture-book café.

The menu at Lenox’s Haven Café is in English, of course, and the downtown environment is unmistakably affluent New England. But, once seated at one of the polished wooden tables in the sun-warmed dining area, we decided that, with the addition of a thatched roof or two, we as easily could be in Cockington Village in Devon.

Not that any Cockington eatery would be offering grilled polenta topped with pesto ($14.50) or a $10 beet, apple and almond salad over arugula. Faced with the offerings for a Haven lunch, we were whisked back to Lenox, and still found ourselves in a relaxing place.

It began in Shelly Williams’ kitchen, from which she catered parties and places with fast-growing success. Needing a larger facility, she went hunting for a commercial space. “We weren’t looking for a restaurant,” says Bridget Conry, who was cooking with Williams at the time, “but we decided to take a chance with it.” Conry had managed restaurants and the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, but relocated to Lenox in order to raise kids. “When we opened, Haven it was pretty much as you see it today. We wanted to keep the menu simple, and we didn’t want it to be about fancy table service.”

You’re greeted with a stack of menus, a blackboard list of specials—among them a turkey turnover with gruyere ($10) and a salmon burger with chipotle mayo ($13) the day we stopped by—and a sign pleasantly suggesting that you order at the counter. We nabbed a table first at which to study the offerings, which include a house-roasted turkey sandwich ($12), Haven’s croque monsieur ($12.50), a grilled veggie sandwich with goat cheese and tapenade ($11.25) and even a grilled cheese made with Cabot white cheddar on grilled farm bread ($8), all of which are served with mesclun topped with a simple dressing so good that Haven sells the olive oil with which it’s made.

Burgers feature grass-fed, hormone-free beef, and it’s a good-sized half-pounder served with house-cut fries. While I usually jump at any blue cheese option, which in this case also includes mushrooms and onion confit ($15), I wanted to enjoy more of the beef flavor and ordered the classic ($12.50) with the addition of cheddar ($1).

“Can I bring you anything else?” we were asked when the plates were delivered. I had a real burger and real fries before me and said, “I suspect it would be unseemly to put ketchup on this. What do you think?”

“It really doesn’t need it,” said she. “That would be like putting milk into your coffee.”

I looked over at the sepia-colored surface of my coffee cup and said, “I guess I’ve sinned enough. No ketchup.”

It didn’t need it. There’s a summery suggestion of the meadow that comes through each bite of a patty like this, particularly when it’s still pink. I confirmed this impression a couple of days later by grinding my own patty’s worth of store-bought beef, which tasted limp by comparison.

The Haven Cobb salad ($13.75) is a work of art. My daughter ordered it in the belief that bacon becomes a health food when it nestles with greens and veggies. It’s not tossed and, presented as it is in a colorfully striped bowl like a Morris Louis painting, never should be. Upon a red foundation of halved cherry tomatoes rose the pastel green of avocado slices; beyond it, bacon’s broken brick and a snowcap of grilled chicken slices with blue cheese and mesclun nestled therein. It’s a kinetic art. The act of consuming it is the act of combining it, and its appearance modulates with every bite. Re-appraise; remix; re-enjoy.

Other salads include arugula and faro ($10.75), Aegean (artichoke hearts, tomatoes, olives, feta and tuna, $12.50) and curried chicken ($10.75).

The roasted tomato soup is eternally popular, I was told, and so its continued availability guaranteed, I ordered the day’s soup special, white bean and spinach ($4.50), a vegan-friendly preparation with a full, rich flavor.

Breakfast items, served before 11:30, include a scrambled-egg burrito ($9.50), Toad in the Hole (a fried egg in sourdough toast, $8), an omelette variety ($10.25-$13.50), croissant French toast ($6.50), buttermilk pancakes with honest-to-Pete maple syrup ($7.50) and the full-blown Haven breakfast of polenta or pancakes, fried egg and sausage or bacon ($9.50).

For the weekend brunch, add eggs benedict on a ham-gruyere biscuit ($14.50), a veggie version for a dollar more as well as several of the lunch items.

So successful has Haven Café become that a second one will open in Great Barrington in June. “It also will help us get back to catering,” says Conry. “We’ve been so busy here that we’ve been neglecting that.”

Downtown Lenox already is a haven of fine-dining alternatives, but Haven itself offers a much-needed—and admirably healthy—lighter-fare alternative.