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Gimme shelter

Josh Sens | March 15, 2012 | Food & Drink Lifestyle Story Restaurants City Life Eat and Drink National

Fitting that they call it Jack London Square, and not just because the man himself once drank here. Much like London’s stories, which frequently pit man against the merciless whims of nature, Oakland’s waterfront district presents entrepreneurs with the pitfalls and potential of a modern-day frontier.

Yes, there are new condos, and local landmarks like Scott’s and Yoshi’s. But drop by after dark, and the Square reveals its failings as a nighttime destination. Cut off by a freeway and poorly served by BART, the streets here slumber. The call of the wild is a freight train’s whistle, splitting the stillness of a setting that has bucked the best intentions of urban planners and tests a restaurateur’s survival skills.

Grizzled veteran that he is, Daniel Patterson appears as well equipped as any to encamp in this location. He’s familiar with the landscape, having staked a nearby claim with his Uptown restaurant, Plum, and his culinary street cred (he also runs the four-starred Coi in San Francisco) has created built-in buzz around his new waterfront venture. The restaurant is called Haven, and it’s just that: a refuge in a quiet port of call.

Step inside, and you come upon the hallmarks of casual chicdom: a bar, for instance, that’s a wellspring of fine cocktails; uncovered wood tables; taupe tiled walls; and earth-toned booths. The architecture is industrial, with exposed pipes and cement floors, but the space itself feels personable, and an open kitchen, with setback counter seating, gives a heartbeat to a building that was born without much soul.

To brand your place a haven suggests that your food is hearty, and under Patterson’s appointee Kim Alter (who has cooked at Manresa, Ubuntu, and, fleetingly, Plate Shop in Sausalito), the kitchen lives up to that billing.

“Craveable and technique-driven” is the restaurant’s label for the menu, a mouthful that translates roughly to “high-minded comfort food.” However you define it, the aesthetic is apparent in such dishes as shepherd’s pie, a riff on tradition that begins with a layer of ground pork and house-cured pork belly, buried not in mashed potatoes but in a cloud of potato foam; and a little gem salad that doubles as a play on a happy hour staple. The lettuce, splashed with blue cheese dressing and specked with a dice of pickled celery, onions, and red Fresno peppers, is ringed by bright red dots of housemade hot sauce and garnished with crisp chicken skin. All the spicy-tangy-salty notes are there; they’ve just been rearranged: It’s Alter’s take on Buffalo wings.

Culinary irony has a history at least as long as Thomas Keller’s remake of coffee and doughnuts, and too much of it can be tiresome, but for the most part, Alter’s cooking isn’t tongue-in-cheek. Haven comes across instead as a thinking chef’s California bistro, where approachable food gets tilted slightly on its side. Manila clams, generously packed into a cast-iron cauldron, bask beside charred turnips, a sensible, if somewhat offbeat, pairing, further set apart by vadouvan-seasoned garlic broth. Butternut squash soup is a familiar winter warmer, but here it takes a novel turn toward the tropics: It’s poured tableside over lime-coconut essence, with cubes of ginger beer–soaked apples and blistered dates.

Alter has a lot of good ideas, and at times it seems she’s trying to execute them all at once. Artful presentations stray now and then toward the anarchic. Take seared day-boat scallops, delicately cooked but arranged chaotically with roasted beets, black trumpet mushrooms, braised endive, and assorted dabs and dollops of blood orange gel and beet purée. There’s no knocking the nice marriage of fl avors. And no escaping the fact that the plate looks like a crime scene. Good thing risk taking is not a punishable offense.

For all the elements at work in her cooking, Alter aims to be accessible, not esoteric. To punctuate that point, her menu includes a chef’s tasting option for tables of two or more in which all of the courses are served family-style. This relaxed format is a good way to experience the kitchen’s rich leanings, which, on a recent evening, included roasted bone marrow, split and glazed with Meyer lemon; duck breast, resting on a bed of farro, in a foie gras–Banyuls reduction; and smoked fettuccine, mixed with crème fraîche and pancetta, tossed with smoked cipollini onion purée, sprinkled with sturgeon, mullet roe, and bottarga; then topped with a farm egg. The briny fish eggs, a perfect foil for the pasta’s intense flavors, please the eyes as much as the palate: a colorful constellation, orbiting the egg yolk’s yellow sun.

In its early months, Haven appears to be a popular haven, though how patrons arrive remains unclear to me. A Star Trek transporter is my best guess, since on my visits, as I strolled along the waterfront toward the restaurant, I hardly saw a soul, and the only sounds I heard were my own footsteps, which quickened on approach as I pondered the prospects of Matt Tinder’s desserts.

If there’s a better pastry chef than Tinder in the Bay Area, he or she has escaped my radar. His concoctions, wildly creative but perfectly composed, set sweet and savory in balanced opposition, as with bourbon mousse on a sweet crust, with bourbon ice cream, rye toast, and dulce de leche; and a cheekily named stunner called baked California: a dome of shiso-fl avored meringue, filled with mandarin sherbet and flanked by streaks of avocado purée and mandarin gel.

It sounds like an odd idea on paper, but it’s no more of a stretch than opening a restaurant on Jack London Square.

44 Webster St. (at Embarcadero), Oakland, 510-663-4440

$$$, Dinner only, Reservations Recommended, Valet Parking, Wheelchair Accessible, ***


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