Haven: Kim Alter’s bold, comforting cuisine takes center stage in Jack London Square.
Photography by Jennifer Martine
Sitting down at the counter at Haven is like taking a seat at a theatrical performance.
You can almost see the rows of velvet seats sloping behind you and hear the stirring of the audience over the tuning of the orchestra, before the curtain rises to reveal a bustling modern kitchen. The stars of the show are a line of cooks: from stage right, the virtuosic sauté master, a saucier and oven tender, and then the meticulous sous chefs composing vegetables and salads.
Conducting the whole affair is the kitchen maestro, Executive Chef Kim Alter, pointing to her left to cue the steak and béarnaise, to the right to bring in the chicories. She dips fresh spoons into fennel soup before it is whisked away to table eight and peers over her shoulder at the line of hungry diners in the front row, seeing who’s ready for their next course.
“I can feel it on the back of my head,” she says, “especially when we’re busy.”
Haven serves bold California cuisine in a sleek, modern atmosphere. Dark wooden tables overlooking the waterfront at Jack London Square and soft lighting make for an intimate setting for couples and larger parties. The smooth wood countertop, however, with its unobstructed view of the action and doting waitstaff, is for the foodies.
It’s an intriguing menu from any perspective, but the true culinary adventure is listed at the very top of the page, where a small box invites diners to “let us cook for you.” Choose the $55 or $65 per person tasting menu (minimum of two people), state your preferences and allergies, and then let the kitchen place one surprise plate after another before you. The family-style tasting concept, devised partly as a way to ease pressure on the kitchen, comes from Alter; Daniel Patterson, the restaurateur behind Haven, Plum, and San Francisco’s Coi; and Ron Boyd, Haven’s mixologist and chef at Plum. It’s been a hit with diners; nearly 40 percent try it each night.
We tasted practically half the menu in one visit—a total of 10 dishes—starting with velvety fennel soup poured tableside into a bowl first bathed in absinthe and then planted with preserved lemon and absinthe-soaked fennel fronds. All blended seamlessly together.
“I’ve always cooked with alcohol,” Alter says. “I always start a lamb braise with red wine. I always start bacon broth with bourbon. It adds a layer of flavor to things.”
Alter applies her highly technical cooking style to comfort food classics such as cassoulet, shepherd’s pie, or the big bowl of clams (in a bacon and bourbon broth on our visit), one of her personal favorites. The dishes are familiar and approachable, with the many cooking steps blending together in a final plate brimming with subtle surprises.
“We have dishes that have 10 different steps to cooking a beet,” she says. “But when it comes to the table, it doesn’t seem so fussy.”
One of Haven’s most popular dishes is the smoked pasta. The smoked fettuccine with smoked onions, creamy smoked butter, pancetta, and crème fraîche sauce comes with a whole poached egg yolk on top that you break and toss into the mix, so you feel like you played a part in creating this delectable dish.
And then there are the meat courses. Roasted bone marrow dressed in Meyer lemon sauce has the taste of darkness. There’s a hint of home in the contemporary shepherd’s pie, with layered pork bits, crisp russet potatoes, and butter-cream sauce frothed through a whipping cream canister. Alter
got the idea for the braised lamb when she tasted fire-lit coffee liqueur at St. George Spirits in Alameda. She now blends it into the dish with roasted carrots and shaved crisp parsnips.
The process for cooking dinner starts at 8 a.m., when Alter goes to the market. She and her cooks begin prepping at 10 a.m. and start serving dinner at 5 p.m., with Alter usually getting home after 1 a.m. She does it seven days a week. It’s a grueling lifestyle, but Alter wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is my life,” she says.
The show, after all, must go on.
At a Glance
What’s so special: Bold, technique-driven California cuisine with homey, comfort food connotations. The space: Hip and bustling, overlooking the water at Jack London Square. Don’t miss: The bavette: tender medallions of beef dusted with thin slivers of crisp sunchoke and draped in béarnaise, paired with roasted artichokes and quince fries. Bonus: Sophisticated desserts from pastry chef Matt Tinder, including a gorgeous baked California, a play on the classic baked Alaska.
Contact: 44 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 663-4440, havenoakland.com. Dinner daily. Full bar.