The story of Haven, the newest high-end addition to Jack London Square’s amorphous dining scene, is rife with news hooks. After more than three years, after opening both Plum Restaurant and Plum Bar in Uptown and after a name change (from Bracina), Daniel Patterson finally has a restaurant in the Jack London Market building. Initially, Lauren Kiino was to be the chef, but after her business partnership with Patterson (in Plum and Il Cane Rosso) dissolved, the position was taken by Kim Alter, whose resume includes Aqua, Manresa, Ubuntu and, most recently, Plate Shop in Sausalito.
But the nub of Haven’s narrative is the menu — not just Alter’s eclectic, experimental, new California, whole-animal, veggie-abundant creations in the general sense, but the actual printed-daily paper menu. It takes a leap of faith to present diners with descriptions so minimally formatted as “CHICKEN wheat berry, root vegetables, foie, banuls”; “LITTLE GEM point reyes, celery, chicken skin”; “BRAISED LAMB carrots, allium, firelit liqueur”; “SHEPHERD’S PIE, pig, potato, winter spice”; or “LIME TART sesame, dulce de leche.” A chef has to believe that her customers will trust the shorthand and that her servers will be able to explain the undisclosed details and nuances, because those words on the page definitely do not plumb the depths of Alter’s genius or indicate her kitchen staff’s sophisticated handling of the listed ingredients.
“My idea of cooking, my style, is to make food approachable,” Alter said in a phone conversation in March, a few weeks after Robin and I had made two visits to Haven. She granted that a lot of technique is involved behind the scenes. But, she noted, “I teach my cooks all that — it doesn’t need to be printed on the menu. The simpler menu opens up the conversation and gives the diners the chance to be more intrigued once they’ve started eating.”
We were certainly captivated during our two dinners. The description of “SQUASH SOUP coconut, charred date, mint” ($10) didn’t account for the presentation, with the lusciously creamy, almost foamy, soup being poured into the bowl that arrived with the other bits artfully arranged at the bottom. “SMOKED PASTA egg, pancetta, pepper, chive” ($13) turned out to be a small, ultra-rich portion of a reimagined carbonara, with the egg yolk centered atop al dente ribbons that were indeed infused with a light smoky flavor. The aforementioned little gem ($11) was anything but your average salad: two tight hearts of lettuces were coated with tangy blue cheese, sprinkled with a confetti of chopped pickled celery and given a crunchy kick with crisp pork-rind-like chicken-skin chips and spicy heat from decorative dots of chili sauce.
Despite their double-digit pricing, when we took into account their complexity and labor-intensive preparation, all those starters (of six or seven offered nightly) felt like bargains. So did the two side dishes we tried (usually three on the menu, all $7). I could dedicate a full page to analyzing how the flavors balanced, blended, contrasted and collaborated in the cauliflower with cheddar, balsamic and orange, and the Brussels sprouts with mint, lime and garlic. Suffice it to say that Robin declared the latter the best vegetable dish she has eaten in a restaurant. Similarly, the lime tart ($10, as were the baked California and chocolate cake) from dessert chef Matt Tinder was spectacularly successful — a beautifully plated composition of shapes and tastes — and easily enough for the two of us.
Entrees (again, six or seven choices) proved less consistently on target, however. At $18 and $25, respectively, the price points seemed elevated on both the heirloom beans with duck egg, escarole and gremolata, and the day boat scallops (two) buried in a visually jarring jumble of beets, black trumpet mushrooms, endive and blood orange. But the shepherd’s pie ($25) left me awestruck, for all the right reasons. Alter deconstructed this classic to its basic elements and reconfigured it with adventuresome twists and treatments: The potato appeared in three forms — fingerlings, fried skin and foam; there was ground pork and chunks of belly, some garlic, pumpkin-pie-evoking spices and lots of other accents of texture and seasoning. This was the dish that gave me a clear understanding of the way Alter takes one-pot comfort food toward, but not entirely into, the realm of molecular gastronomy. Alter later told me she started dreaming up the recipe while making boudin at Manresa, inspiring her to use pig’s blood as the key thickening agent in her shepherd’s pie. (Alter has augmented her bavette steak, $27, with unadvertised slices of beef heart; maybe it’s a good thing she keeps her menu annotations basic.)
At our meals, the servers were well versed in the intricacies and backstories of the menu, and they and the house managers aimed to please. When Robin’s heirloom beans arrived with the duck egg despite her request to leave it out, the dish was taken off the bill and we were brought glasses of dessert wine on the house. Complimentary Prosecco greeted us on our second visit, as did an amuse bouche serving of the smoked pasta we’d relished a week earlier. Those touches — plus the superb house-baked Parker House rolls (be sure to request one), good cocktails from an amply stocked bar, fine glasses of wine from impressive California and Old World selections, the inviting feel of the open kitchen (facing a dining counter) and a playlist of rock and soul programmed by music-lover Alter — all enhanced an experience that transcended the tasteful, slightly personalized but somewhat unsurprising postindustrial design of the space.
Ultimately, Haven hinges on Alter’s virtuosity, and I’m ready to go back and try her tasting menu ($55–$65) served family style. Early reports said it didn’t vary much from the regular offerings, but with the coming of spring, Alter told me, her daily trips to the farmers markets yield more options and “more opportunities to get inspired, play around and come up with more off-menu stuff.”
Simply said, but ripe with promise.
Haven. California. • 44 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 663-4440.
Serves dinner 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thu., 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Fri.– Sat.,