Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi wanted to open a restaurant close to his Oakland home, so he signed on to open a restaurant as part of the redevelopment efforts of Jack London Square.
But typical delays prompted Patterson to focus on smaller projects, notably Plum Restaurant and later Plum Bar in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. Last December, his waterfront spot finally opened, called Haven.
Haven has similar touches like Plum, with its wood furnishings and open kitchen. The menu, under the direction of Executive Chef Kim Alter, resembles the approach at Plum, which is a creative emphasis on California seasonal ingredients with clean flavors and rustic comfort.
I checked out Haven for the first time this month, dining with my friend and co-worker Angela. To get a nice range of Haven’s offering, I persuaded Angela to go for the chef’s tasting menu even though she finds tasting menus to be too much food for one person. So I’m actually surprised that she went along with my suggestion to try the five-course tasting menu ($65), which isn’t advertised on the menu. (The menu only lists a four-course tasting menu at $55.)
Unlike some recent tasting menus I’ve tried that included several complimentary starters and in-between bites along with the main dishes, Haven’s tasting menu is presented family style (that’s why the entire table has to go for the chef’s menu). Each course isn’t presented on one plate, but instead comes in a couple of dishes, pulled together in what our server described as “layers.” (I may be old-fashioned, but I totally don’t get the “layers” description. Why not just call it a course with multiple dishes?)
The only complimentary taste comes in the beginning with the amuse bouche of potato chips. This wasn’t a bowl of potato chips, but one bite. Angela thought it was lackluster to just start with one chip, but with the first bite, she was engrossed by the flavors added to the one chip.
The chip carried the salty flavors of halibut smelt and freeze-dried yogurt topped with a little dill. Angela said she could eat a whole bag of this and hinted at that to our server (to no avail).
Our first “layer” was a spring pea soup with ricotta. Served chilled, this soup was delightfully light even though it looked rich and thick. It reflected the technique of the kitchen, providing the right texture despite first-impressions.
The rest of the meal was filled with savory delights, like the simple Brussels sprouts with an almost lacquered glaze made of fish sauce, onion caramel, and mint. It was a true example of umami flavors.
The Brussels sprouts were actually an accompanying dish for a warm asparagus salad with a deep-fried four-minute egg that was perfectly round with a light golden breaded exterior. I broke into the egg to let the yolk ooze all over the asparagus.
Some dishes were complex but restrained. I enjoyed a sunflower seed dish prepared risotto style with sun chokes. It felt like a healthy dish to counterbalance some of the other dishes, but Angela thought it was underwhelming. A squid dish with perfectly roasted potatoes was dramatic with the black squid ink, but it was topped by Chinese greens whose bitter flavor didn’t seem to blend well with the squid or potatoes.
Our main “layer” of rabbit loin was hearty but the rabbit center seemed slightly undercooked (Angela said she couldn’t eat Peter Rabbit so left most of it for me) and our final dessert seemed too heavy for the overall tasting menu, ending with a bowl of banana bread cut into triangles and served with caramelized banana slices and vanilla foam. (Angela did like the sprinkling of salt as a finishing touch.)
Side note: The pacing of the tasting menu seemed really off for us. Our first few “layers” came one after the other, without given us the chance to really enjoy the dishes, not to say the least finish what’s on the plate. We actually had to ask our server to slow down the dishes because our table was getting full and we barely finished one dish before the servers came to try to take them away. By the third course, it slowed down to the right pace.
My favorite dish of the night was also one I probably would never order. A foie gras terrine came out with rhubarb and green strawberries. I typically don’t like to eat foie gras (not good for my cholesterol), mostly because of the overly rich texture and often liver-like flavors. In California, a ban on foie gras will go into effect this summer, so I guess this was Haven’s last hurrah for foie gras.
If this is the last foie gras I ever eat in California, I’m so glad it was here. Haven’s version was unlike any foie gras I’ve tasted in the past, with a dreamily light texture and savory-sweet taste. The combination of light texture and savory-sweet flavor made me feel like I was actually eating scoops of salted caramel ice cream.
I’m sure the foie gras’ success is because of Haven’s diligence in sourcing the best ingredients for its dishes. The entire meal was a delightful extension of Plum, but raised to the next level with a bit more variety and creativity in the technical execution. Patterson’s restaurant (along with a planned artisan marketplace) was touted as the centerpiece of Oakland’s waterfront redevelopment, and with the crowds that seems to be making its way to check out the food, Haven may just be the beginning of a long-awaited revitalization.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
Haven, 44 Webster St. at Jack London Square, Oakland. PH: 510.663.4440. Dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.havenoakland.com
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