Food & Drink

Robbin's New Hood

The Birroteca restaurateur rolls the dice on a veggie-themed restaurant in Federal Hill.

Dressed in a sweat-soaked gray T-shirt, blue plaid shorts, and red Croc-like chef shoes, Robbin Haas is rendering fat from duck breasts. In another pot on the 12-burner stove in the kitchen of Encantada, his new “vegetable-centric” restaurant on the third floor of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), buckwheat gnocchi boils away. Nearby, line cooks are busy plopping slices of jalapeño peppers on chunks of yellow watermelon, as racks of pork belly, zucchini, and chanterelles await broiling, roasting, and sautéing. “Did anyone bring up the ice water for the radishes yet?” Haas shouts to no one in particular. “We need to make them sparkle.” Then, to a line cook, “Cut these fennel bulbs in fours. Neatness counts! That’s right, everything you learned in kindergarten applies in the kitchen as well.”

Haas isn’t normally behind the stove these days. At 60 years old, his chef-ing days are mostly a thing of the past. He’s a restaurateur now, the operator of four restaurants in the area—The Nickel Taphouse in Mt. Washington, Birroteca in Hampden and Bel Air, and now Encantada.

But Haas—who as a hard-partying, thirtysomething cook in Miami helped define Southern Florida cuisine and was named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine in the process—glides back behind the stove as if he never left. “He tries to find any excuse to get in the kitchen,” says Melanie Molinaro, Encantada’s 24-year-old executive chef. “It’s just who he is.”

Haas has enjoyed enormous success with his other restaurants, which have become stalwarts of the county and city dining scenes. Three years after its 2011 opening, Birroteca’s original location in Hampden still draws crowds for its chalkboard full of craft beers and duck-confit pizzas, while The Nickel Taphouse, an upscale take on the working-class pubs in Haas’s native Buffalo, NY, has been luring some regulars away from the neighboring Mt. Washington Tavern.

With Encantada (which means “enchanted”), he knows the stakes are higher and the risk is greater. The restaurant is sited in a very visible building, but its top-floor, tucked-away location makes it out-of-sight, out-of-mind for many looking for a night on the town. For Encantada to have staying power, Haas knows he must attract both museum visitors and, more importantly, a core of regulars from the neighborhood and beyond. And will diners pay in the double digits for a plate of cauliflower?

Since opening on July 1—Molinaro’s birthday—early reviews of Encantada have been strong, and Haas says things are coming along. But business also looked rosy at first for the building’s previous tenants. In its early years, the space went through several incarnations most notably as Joy America Cafe, with now-James Beard Award-winning Spike Gjerde and his brother, Charlie, running the show. More recently, Mr. Rain’s Fun House limped along for five years, serving contemporary cuisine and some of the most creative cocktails in town, but rolled its last lumpia last summer. “Even with wonderful press . . . our pursuit of culinary excellence was not rewarded with the business we expected,” read a statement from the restaurant upon its closing.

Haas was named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine.

Haas is well aware of the location’s up-and-down history, but this is a guy who seems to have a knack for taking on challenging spaces and forcing them to work. The Nickel Taphouse housed a string of short-lived restaurants and businesses. Birroteca, in Bel Air, was home to a nondescript Bill Bateman’s, while the original Birroteca, located in a no-man’s land along Clipper Mill Road, was infamously the site of a double stabbing back in 2009, when it was known as Kolper’s. Even the restaurant’s name was a risk. “I wanted to name it Birroteca and people told me nobody knows what that means,” says Haas. “Now I look on the Internet and there are like 35 birrotecas.

“Look, I’m not afraid of challenging spaces,” he continues. “AVAM is going to be challenging, but it’ll have its concept in its favor. There’s not another restaurant like it in Baltimore.”

Robbin Haas has spent nearly his entire life in restaurants. Before he was 10, he was scrubbing dishes at small hotel restaurant where his mother, sister, and brother also worked. He spent a good part of his teen years and early 20s at a big Italian eatery toiling for a man named Russell Salvatore, a no-nonsense, hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside taskmaster, who fired (and rehired) Haas as often as the menu changed. But Haas says he picked up nearly everything he knows about the restaurant business from Salvatore: the importance of good service, how to treat your staff, the proper way to run a kitchen. “He was the best restaurateur I ever worked for,” he says.

During his late 20s and 30s, Haas crisscrossed the country cooking for a series of ever-larger hotel restaurants. And then came Miami. When Haas arrived at Colony Bistro, the restaurant of the iconic, Art Deco Colony Hotel in South Beach in 1993, it was a tired affair, resting on its laurels. But within six months, the then 38-year-old chef revamped its menu, retooled its beverage program, and captured the admiration of Food & Wine, as well as a host of other publications. “Superlative food from start to finish,” opined the Miami Herald in its review of the restaurant. “Not since Norman Van Aken first hit at A Mano has there been a chef of such star quality on Ocean Drive.”

Haas found himself a celebrity chef in the days before Food Network made every toque with a catch phrase a household name. “I had some pretty wild times,” he admits. “You’re a local celebrity in South Beach. You get to bypass all the lines and be taken to the VIP section.”

He hung out with a group the press dubbed the “Mango Gang,” a cadre of local chefs who put the bright, snappy flavors of South Florida cooking on the culinary map. “It was the beginning of the American regional food movement,” says Haas, who counts celebrity cooks Van Aken, Aarón Sanchez, and Chris Consetino among his friends. “There was Southwestern cooking, California cooking, but there wasn’t any other cooking around. They tried to put a handle on us. Everybody had mango trees in their backyard.”

And then, after running several successful restaurants in South Florida, he says he was ready for a change. So he packed up his chef knives, and moved to Guatemala with his third wife, Tanya, to “do the ex-pat thing.” When he left South Florida, the Miami New Times dubbed him “Best Chef to Go Away” and lamented: “Mr. Haas was a wild one all right—rarely got enough sleep, if you know what I mean. But he was talented, and the flavors of his food jumped off the plate like a frog from a frying pan.”

Seven years—and two successful restaurants in the Colonial city of Antigua—later, he and Tanya were ready to move back to the States. Shortly after, he partnered with an old buddy, John Knorr, co-founder of Evolution Craft Brewing Co. in Salisbury, and eventually helped him open a restaurant in Maryland. When Haas saw the beat-up stone building that would become the first Birroteca, he thought it had good bones. Most importantly, it was cheap. He spent three days power-washing away all the grime.

Today, Haas insists he has mellowed with age—and no longer parties as hard. With his stocky stature, gray Berber carpet hair, and raspy voice from a pack-a-day habit, he’s more Buffalo than South Beach. His employees call him “the Old Man” or simply “Dad.”

“He comes through you like a force,” says Jon Hicks, Haas’s executive chef at The Nickel Taphouse. “It’s like a father force. He makes you pay attention to things you might not have paid attention to before. He walks in the room and it’s like Dad came home. Better straighten up.”

“He’s a hard-ass, which is the nicest way to say it,” says Chris Rivera, Encantada’s general manager. “He’ll hold your feet to the fire. But it works for him. He’s the same person 100 percent of the time, and I respect that. Once you get through the ringer and he trusts that you’re doing a good job, he takes care of you.”

“I see this as the future of 21st-century dining,” says Haas.

Those who drink the “Robbin Haas Kool-Aid,” as he calls it, are a devoted lot. A few have festooned their bodies with Birroteca-themed tattoos, including a former general manager who inked his ankle with “Don’t Hassle the Haas,” a play on David “Don’t Hassel the Hoff” Hasselhoff.

“He’s an old-school chef, no bullshit, take-no-prisoners,” says Molinaro. “When I tell people he’s 60 years old, they’re like, ‘Holy hell!’ He’s always firing, always ready to go. . . . He’s very innovative and always thinking ahead. He lets the chefs and general managers take the forefront. He’s given us all the tools we need to succeed and now it’s up to us to do it.”

As requests for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals became increasingly regular at his restaurants, Haas, a recovering meat-and-potatoes guy, says it was time to rethink the very idea of what an entree could be. And after Molinaro dined at Philadelphia’s James Beard-nominated vegan restaurant Vedge, she and Haas began batting around ideas for a Baltimore-based restaurant with a locally sourced menu, heavily driven by vegetables.

“I really see this as the future of 21st-century dining,” he says. “I think things are going to become a lot more vegetable-centric, a lot more grains. A traditional chef looks at what we call the center of the plate and sees a protein, whether it’s quail or a piece of salmon or chicken breast. But we’re trying to make it where vegetables are the center of the plate. [In many dishes], animal protein becomes the secondary or tertiary item on the plate.”

In creating the menu, Molinaro, who worked her way up from pastry chef to executive chef at Birroteca, wanted to present vegetables in revolutionary ways. “I thought, ‘How can I make them sexier, more chef-like, have them in ways you would never even have thought of before?’”

So she brainstormed unlikely pairings, such as watermelon with whipped lardo and soy-marinated cucumbers. Or sea urchin with cauliflower custard, Granny Smith apples, and Meyer lemon. Dessert means beetroot meringue with white and dark chocolates and blackberry. It’s food that skirts unconventionality, like the art on the walls of the museum. “I want customers and employees to have fun with what we’re trying to achieve here,” says Haas. “There’s definitely a niche for this kind of restaurant.”

Its uniqueness, Haas thinks, will help Encantada thrive in the AVAM space where other restaurants have faded away. Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of AVAM, believes this time she’s found a keeper. “He’s the best restaurateur I’ve ever had,” says Hoffberger, who sought out Haas for the space. “To have someone whose food I adore, and who has never had an unsuccessful restaurant, that’s bowling strikes.

“I don’t think it’s the space that’s so difficult. Restaurants in general are challenging. There were other issues more personal to the people we’ve had there. . . . I wish all the chefs that have come through the best, but after 20 years, I really think that this is it.”

Hoffberger and Haas worked closely on trying to make the cafe look like an extension of the museum. Hoffberger picked out the colorful Suzani fabric for the chairs and the artwork for the walls. David Hess, who designed the sweeping iron handrail in the museum, created several of the restaurant’s tables from fallen wood. Sometime next year, Haas plans to convert the museum’s glittering art bus into a sort of permanent food truck and open an outdoor bar, furthering the museum-restaurant connection.

For now, Haas says he’s as excited about Encantada as he has been for any restaurant he’s ever opened. He insists he’s committed to Baltimore for the long haul and has ideas for other ventures in the Mid-Atlantic. “I really like the Baltimore restaurant scene,” he says. “There are a lot of great restaurants, but Baltimore is still missing a lot of things. I just have to find the right space to do it.”