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Haven: Big Portions, Bold Flavors Have Mass Appeal 

Wednesday, Feb 22 2012

To date, the New California Cuisine emerging from restaurants like Benu, Aziza, and Commonwealth has wrought dehydrated-vegetable powders, improbably succulent meats cooked at ultra-low temperatures, and tiny leaves and daubs of sauce placed on the plate to resemble a fairy landscape. It has been a cuisine of precision as well as unforeseen flavors, as much display as meal, and not universally loved. For every eater who gets excited about soup teeming with hydrocolloid-thickened strands of broth, there's another who just wants a pan-roasted filet of fish with a nice sauce and some veg. There's a reason that the Classic California cuisine of Zuni, Bar Jules, or Delfina is still so well-loved: It's as approachable as it is beautiful.

If Coi's Daniel Patterson has been one of the godfathers of the New California Cuisine, his inventiveness reaching international renown, each new restaurant that he has opened has tried a different strategy for appealing to a broader public. Il Cane Rosso stays true to the Mediterranean flavors that dominate classic California cuisine. The setup at Plum, if not the food, is studiously casual. And at Haven, Patterson's new Oakland restaurant, he and chef Kim Alter are going for brawn as well as beauty. Haven's bold flavors and big portions will appeal to the timid, while the balance and complex construction of the dishes will get those of us who eat for sport.

Order the Little Gems lettuce salad ($11), described by the waiter as "inverted Buffalo wings": a fan of cool, pale-green leaves slathered with bleu cheese dressing, with tiny cubes of pickled celery hiding underneath, chips of fried chicken skin placed here and there, and dots of a red chile puree around the plate, which you can swipe your salad through to titrate its spiciness. The marrow appetizer ($15), a cow bone the length and thickness of a forearm sliced in half and formed into an X, requires a platter. Shaved watermelon radishes, Meyer lemon segments, and Italian parsley leaves are draped across the surface of the bone — each with a specific bite to counter the marrow's richness — as well as giant croutons that look as if they'd been quarried out of a baguette mine. Smoked pasta ($13), tagliatelle-like noodles coated in smoked-onion purée, butter, and flecks of smoked bacon, is an American carbonara, gutsy and rustic. As with the bone marrow — like any of the entrées — you will not be able to eat it on your own.

Haven is a good fit for Alter, an Ubuntu alumna who was doing impressive work as the chef of Sausalito's Plate Shop before storming out last May over creative differences with the owners. It's interesting to see how Haven's core conceit — large plates meant to be shared, family-style — has reshaped her style. One of her signature dishes at Plate Shop, chicken prepared three ways, is repeated here ($24). The trio continues to include a single fried wing, silky thigh meat poached in oil and shredded, and a hunk of breast meat cooked sous-vide. But at Plate Shop the dish was austere; now, the meat is enveloped in wheat berries saturated with roasted-chicken stock, roasted baby vegetables jutting out of the grains at odd angles. As at Coi and Plum, Haven juxtaposes textures as carefully as it does flavors — the restaurant's meat-and-potatoes dish is chunks of medium-rare bavette steak ($28) interspersed with roasted sunchokes, spears of pickled artichoke, a few slices of cured beef heart, and papery sunchoke chips, with brown-butter béarnaise sauce drizzled onto the meat to give it an opulent cast.

Though the designers haven't disguised the poured concrete floors and exposed ductwork in the high-ceilinged, open room, part of the beleaguered Jack London Square Marketplace development, the space doesn't feel like a warehouse. Plants spill out of canvas planters mounted on central pillars, and the walls are either covered in gray bricks or windows to the square and the bay beyond. And while the room crowds up by 8, there's enough space to keep all those conversations separate.

There are times when Alter can't check the brawn of her food, and bacon is usually implicated. Clams ($14) served with roasted, sweet turnips are grittier than they should be, and their flavor is overshadowed by the bacon-bourbon broth they're steamed in. Another braised hunk of bacon ($13) is served with roasted potatoes, puddles of a shallot-sharpened boiled-egg mayonnaise called sauce gribiche, and a giant salad of bitter chicories — two strong dishes weakened by the mashup into one. And for the shepherd's pie ($25), the chef tops a workmanlike stew of ground pork and bacon in both oversalted roast potatoes and a sticky potato froth with the texture of shaving-cream foam.

But the chef has a gift for inserting a subtle twist into a dish that forces an epiphany. She breaks through the oven-browned, earthy flavors of pan-roasted arctic char ($24) plated alongside roasted broccoli, romesco, and mushrooms by placing a few dots of pear purée on the outside of the plate — a sweet double-take that lightens up the entire platter. Once I discovered dots of blood-orange reduction scattered among the heaps and swirls of scallop, beet, and roasted endive ($25) on another plate, I'd dab a bit of the tart, fruity reduction onto my fork, preventing the sugars in the beets from taking over.

Those moments of surprise are one of the main similarities between Haven's New California Cuisine and the more intellectually driven food at Coi and Commis. They come through in cocktails like Haven's Flash Gordon ($10), in which the spiky edges of gin and yuzu are softened with a dash of celery juice, as well as pastry chef Matt Tinder's witty Baked California ($12): Yes, it's a baked Alaska, except the meringue is scented with fennel, the citrus sherbet underneath sets atop a salted-almond crust, and the marshmallow-looking fluff on the side is actually avocado mousse. The last surprise? It's as good as it looks.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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