Haven in Jack London Square. Open for just over a year Haven is an outstanding example of the talent and fine dining Oakland is attracting. Haven's cuisine is probably best described as New American, or better yet, New California Cuisine. Chef Kim Alter's* dishes are among the most creative I have personally sampled. She is particularly adept with vegetables and grains. Two of her dishes score in the top two positions on my list of best food I have ever eaten. The menu at Haven changes frequently and some of the best dishes evolve with the change in season. I view this as the mark of a truly great restaurant, and ultimately a great chef. I hate to harp on a new idea, and I understand the argument for consistency. But, with Americans amidst our own food renaissance, diners attitudes are changing. This is paving way for chefs to boldly express themselves through their food. I believe that one day some of their menus will be widely accepted as a fine art.
While I am sure by the time this post is published the menu at Haven will have changed; it is worth mentioning the two dishes I will never forget. On my first visit to Haven I ordered Smoked Black Rice and Squid. I was initially intrigued by the smoked black rice, but a bit apprehensive about the squid. Squid is a difficult ingredient to work with. When cooking it quickly it should only be cooked for between one and two minutes. Further cooking by even 30 seconds can take it to a texture not unlike rubber bands. When braising squid, in soups for example, it must be cooked for upwards of 40 minutes to return it to a softer texture. This dish was executed perfectly! The smokey flavor of the rice came through just beyond a hint and complemented the nutty flavor of the rice. The squid was softened nicely with just a bit of bite. I gather a similar dish is now being served with Uni (Japanese sea urchin) which I must try!
The second dish came from the chef's tasting menu on my second visit. This is perhaps the most creative dish I have ever eaten. Served in a fairly small portion, probably due to its richness, was a Sunflower Seed Risotto. I was assured that this dish was cooked exactly as you would a risotto, but with sunflower seeds instead of rice. This risotto was nutty, rich, and perfectly al dente; the flavor was exquisite! I suspect that duck stock was used as apposed to chicken stock used in a more traditional risottos.
Much of the allure behind eating at places like Haven is being exposed to these creative dishes. Some of the techniques and equipment used in preparing these dishes are a bit beyond my capabilities as a self-taught home cook, but that never prevents me from drawing on these dishes for inspiration.
If you are an adventurous eater I highly recommend the chef's tasting menu when visiting Haven. Call first and make a reservation. If you want to be a little more in control of your meal you really can't go wrong with anything on the menu. I highly recommend ordering anything made with grains or duck.
* I do not personally know Chef Kim Alter, but it is important to mention her name because the dishes at Haven are of her own vision and she deserves every bit of credit for her part in the success of Haven.
(My recipe for Carrot Coconut Ginger Soup inspired by Haven Restaurant, Oakland CA follows)