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Smoke-grilled peppers

Most of my readers are aware of the comings and goings at Haven Oakland. After a sojourn in SoCal, Chef Charlie Parker is back in the Bay, and has taken the reins of Haven, the restaurant that was originally built to showcase his talents. (The fabulously talented Chef Kim Alter is moving on to another, as yet unannounced, Daniel Patterson project. Rumor has it she’ll be helming a place for DP somewhere in San Francisco, sometime in the next year. Stay tuned.)

Having enjoyed Chef Parker’s food immensely when he first opened Patterson’s Plum, I dropped by his counter at Haven a few weeks ago to check out his current menu and to see what he was up to in his new digs. The first sip of a delightfully pink prosecco launched my palate into full gear. My tastebuds were engaged, and I was ready to enjoy a great meal.

With the first bite of a spectacular beet salad I was transfixed. This was followed by a buttery ahi tartare, then a pillowy burrata. Everything was delicious – I mean everything. As I was voraciously consuming my next dish, (some off-menu chicken wings Chef Parker bestowed on us), I was wondering why I was so uniformly captivated by the food. I mean, I love to eat as much as the next person, but why was I blissing out on every single dish? Why was I on some crazy mission to consume the entire menu?

Chicken Wings

Chicken wings and green beans

The foods we love – the ones that really engage us, the ones we know we are going to savor until every last bite is gone – those are the gems. These foods that resonate with something primal, that we know we must have again, are the hidden culinary treasures we hope to find each time we venture out to eat. We instinctively know that each diner’s success at this attempt will vary greatly, yet we dare to hope. We keep looking. This particular dining experience was, for me, a little like finding a personal Nirvana. I’d discovered something special, and it appeared to be abundant.

Fortunately for my curiosity on such things, as I was ruminating and masticating my thoughts and food simultaneously, Chef Parker dropped by for a little chat. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I barraged him quite mercilessly with questions. What was the thread that he uses to tie his dishes together? Could he possibly explain what it was that I was finding so enjoyable? Certainly the answers to my question must contain the secret to my instant and rather profound obsession with the flavors on my plate.

His answer: Acids. He’s a fan of brightening up a plate with the natural brightness found in acidic foods, and his menu reflects that. His light and skillful touch with variants in acidity, whatever the source, give his food and my palate an instant connection. Citrus, peppers, fruits, vinegars all combined in various ways to balance the flavor profile of his dishes. It made perfect sense. I began to understand, in a much more meaningful way, what I like in a meal. It was almost as if I had been walking by my soul mate for years, and never had his number before. With a little bit of knowledge, I knew more about how to order the things I’d like, and could be guaranteed a much higher chance at hitting a culinary bullseye every time I go out.

It was a fascinating conversation, and one that taught me a lot about my own tastes and what foods really speak to my preferences. I’ve always known I loved heat, but really never understood the other flavors that resonate as completely as perhaps I might have. I appreciated Chef Parker’s indulgence in my little journey into self-awareness.

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Pork and veg

I returned a few weeks later, delighted to find the chicken wings were again being offered. The chicken wings were spectacularly golden, crispy and, for lack of a better description, “bright.” Gotta be the acid. The wings weren’t overly spicy, but they resonated. I devoured them, and turned my attention to the Parisian Dumplings. These dumplings had been another of my obsessions in the time while away. Not quite a gnocchi, they are these delightfully crispy pillows of potato, cuddled in a blanket of a mysterious combination of eggplant and egg. Perfectly balanced flavors. Not sure I’d fancy them, but the first bite I’d taken on my last visit sent me over the moon. On this second visit, we tried a chilled melon soup, which served as an effective palate cleanser, cool and clear on the tongue, readying the mouth for further pleasures to come. What could be better than melon in summer?

My second meal at Haven went on in much the same vein as the first one had, as our party thoroughly enjoyed everything we tried. Haven has always been a standout restaurant and one of my favorites on the Oakland dining scene. Thanks to the patient tutelage of Chef Parker, I now know that in the vibrant light of the flavors produced by acid, my personal pleasure center can be found. His flavors electrify my palate, shooting right through the pleasure center of my brain. So what’s true for you? It might be a worthwhile exercise to make an effort to find out. Haven’s menu is a great place to start. These days, when food is such a thrilling adventure for so many of us, we can always learn a lot from a talented chef the likes of Mr. Parker.

Armed with the knowledge that Chef Parker’s tastes align with my own, I can confidently dine at his table knowing that the likelihood of coming away sated both physically and spiritually is a sure thing. Good to know. And I always bring good company, so I’m set. How about you?

Haven Oakland
44 Webster Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 663-4440
www.havenoakland.com

About The Author

Angela F. Lazear is an Oakland native and the author of EAST BAY FOOD SCENE: Essays on the Ritual of Dining (www.eastbayfoodscene.com). Launched in 2007, East Bay Food Scene was established to pay homage to Oakland’s fascinating history, while chronicling the city’s rebirth through a vibrant, ever-changing landscape of food offerings. Many of Angela’s fondest childhood memories involve accompanying her grandparents to Oakland’s finest restaurants and sitting with them at the “grownup” table. Twice a month her grandparents would take her out for shrimp cocktail and filet of sole, at what was then The Sea Wolf, on Jack London Square. It was on these occasions that Angela discovered that collective dining brought with it the opportunity to make lasting memories. To this day, a perfect “old school” shrimp cocktail will bring to mind one of her grandfather’s fascinating and colorful stories of Prohibition, bootleggers, and run-ins with “wise-guys” seeking to get alcohol to the masses. These colorful stories were a kind of live theater. When Oakland began its dining renaissance, Angela saw an opportunity to honor both her family’s legacy and the city of her birth. Contrasting Oakland’s past to its present, her essays focus on how sharing great food experiences with loved ones can enrich one’s life immeasurably. Food is more than sustenance, it serves as a landmark for recalled experiences with loved ones and family. It is this connection between food and family that drives Angela to experience and chronicle the current generation of chefs and restaurateurs, as they re-invent cuisine and elevate it to an art form. Her mission is to share with her readers the stories of an Oakland that was, and to connect them to the Oakland that is becoming, that its inhabitants might remain in touch with the City’s past, as they inevitably meet with its promising future. The ritual of dining is an experience so entrenched in our collective personal history that we run the risk of missing the point if we fail to savor the experience as much as we do the myriad of flavors. Each morsel has the ability, at a later date, to recall moments from our past as vividly to the senses as if actually captured on film. A self-titled “Philosophoodie,” she would encourage her readers to savor every bite as it comes, take the time to engage with one another over every meal, and “make a lasting memory of your own.” Twitter: @foodaprecianado; Instagram: Foodapprecianado Facebook: EastBayFoodScene

2 Responses

  1. Dana

    I want to know what the first picture is of…and then I want to put it in my mouth immediately.

    Reply
  2. Joanna

    I have usually enjoyed the food on my dozen or more visits, but the service can be annoying at best. I especially would love to go to the bar more often, but the attitude is just too much for the price you pay. Maybe it’s the single female(s), I don’t know. But I get treated way better at other JLS restaurants that have just as good food without the attitude.

    Reply

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