Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Goofin' Around With Off the Grid

Plus Bites Off Broadway ends (for now) and Haven makes a test run.

By Jesse Hirsch
Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Off the Grid impresario Matt Cohen has a new lark. Each week he's loaning out a food truck to a different Berkeley brick and mortar for his Wednesday night pods. "Everybody likes to do something quirky and new," Cohen said.

But behind the giggles lies a dose of savvy PR. Though Berkeley's restaurant community has embraced food trucks more than, say, Oakland's, Cohen recognizes there's work to be done. His new "guest truck" gambit functions as community outreach, an olive branch to North Shattuck's non-mobile restaurants.

Lush Gelato got a truck last week, and upcoming guest hosts include: Saul's Delicatessen, serving pastrami latke and vegan mock liver sandwiches on October 26; a Juice Bar Collective member, serving tamales on November 2; and sandwiches and tallow chips from Local Butcher Shop on November 9. Guerrilla Cafe and Taste of the Himalayas are also slated to take a turn.

Does Cohen think the experience might entice anybody new to follow the call of the open road? "If you get a few drinks in Peter [Levitt] from Saul's, he might talk about starting his own food truck," said Cohen, "but I think it's just talk."

Bites Off Broadway Ends

Bites Off Broadway's six-truck pod staged its last event of the season on Friday, drawing record numbers. "I think people heard we were shutting down, and they wanted to check us out while they still had a chance," said proprietor Karen Hester.

The tumultuous on-again, off-again food truck event was initially booted from Oakland Technical High School on Broadway, before gaining cautious approval for a limited run in front of Studio One on 45th Street. Now Hester has her sights set back on the original location, an area she calls "blighted" and in need of some fresh entrepreneurial spirit (it's also across the street from her house).

Hester and some of the truck owners from Bites Off Broadway plan to speak at this week's Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, voicing support for removing Oakland's moratorium on truck pods. She hopes to get the ball rolling for a Bites Off (or On) Broadway next spring.

Despite a host of municipal setbacks for mobile food in Oakland, Hester maintains a hopeful stance. Pro-street-food city councilmembers Jane Brunner and Rebecca Kaplan will present a new proposal to the Community and Economic Development Committee this week, and Hester feels change is on its way. "It's like medical marijuana," she said. "Someday the council members who are against it are going to look back and see they were standing on the wrong side of history."

Haven Works Out the Kinks

This May, the entire kitchen staff of Sausalito's Plate Shop restaurant threw down their aprons and walked out in a show of labor solidarity. This left some of the area's best culinary talent adrift, most notably executive chef Kim Alter. Alter was very much an "it chef," and food blogs were agog with breathy speculation on where she would land. Oakland, as it turns out.

Last week, Alter kicked off a series of weekly pop-ups at Daniel Patterson's Plum, trying out potential menus and building hype before she helms Patterson's new Jack London Square restaurant, Haven.

For all the buzz surrounding the Alter-Patterson collaboration, the first Haven pop-up was mellow. Counter seats by the open kitchen were filled, but Plum's communal tables never hit capacity. "It was, uh, slower than I expected," said Alter.

The four-course menu skewed California casual, starting with a braised artichoke, caramelized sunchoke, and chicory salad; moving to clams and lardon in a barely detectable bourbon broth; then a bavette steak with chanterelles and cauliflower cheddar purée; finishing with a lemon ricotta green tea soufflé from Coi's pastry chef. Alter has been sous cheffing six days a week at Plum (filling the void left by Charlie Parker's sudden departure), and the pop-up menu wasn't wildly different from any other night there. Still, it was her own.

"[Patterson] is notorious for being very specific about every detail, down to the plates used for each item," Alter said. "For Haven, I'm getting more room to breathe .... I just want to make simple, delicious food that you can eat with a beer, elbows on the table."

The pop-up's only anxiety belonged to staff, who seemed hyper-focused on customer reaction. After much prodding from our server to fill out comment cards, the general manager introduced himself and asked for more feedback. After we left, another server followed us, asking us again if we had enjoyed everything.

"We're working out the kinks. Like, we learned that some people don't like eating soufflé out of the same dish. I guess that would be awkward if you were out for a business dinner," Alter laughed.

To join the Haven focus group, make a Tuesday-night reservation through December by calling 510-444-7586 or visiting

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