An Organic Locale for Locavores to Love

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An Organic Locale for Locavores to Love

     In the short time since it opened at the end of 2009, Gather has established itself as the go-to place for righteous vegetarians and unrepentant carnivores who can forgive one another their culinary dogmas and trespasses. The foundation for this truce is the vow printed on every Gather menu: “We support local food producers and source all of our ingredients carefully, with an unwavering commitment to choosing only foods that are cultivated safely, justly and sustainably.” This applies equally and without prejudice to the fava beans that go into a saffron soup with blistered Italian frying peppers and cilantro, and the halibut that “cooks” in a beet-cucumber salsa with avocado and green coriander oil.
     For the Gather team — owners Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster (who prepared for this leap with their Back to Earth Organic Catering), executive chef Sean Baker (who spent more than four years at Eric Tucker’s vegan flagship, Millennium, in San Francisco), pastry chef Adam Weiss, wine consultant Christie Dufault, mixologist Alison Evanow and interior designer Nicole Sillapere — “organic” is a world view. The faith reveals itself most importantly on the plate and palate, of course. But the “root-to-shoot,” “nose-to-tail,” locavore, all-things-sustainable ideology that ushers the food to that point is evident in everything from the restaurant’s location (in the David Brower Center, “the greenest building in the East Bay”) to the “selection of plateware from Heath in Sausalito.” It’s manifest in all things large and small: banquettes upholstered with used leather belts; a bar fashioned from a Douglas fir that fell in Sebastopol; wait stations and cabinetry made out of recycled pickle barrels; sandblasted pendent lighting shades made from wine bottles; blackboards, flanking the open kitchen, that list current farm vendors and trumpet philosophical quotes; a Source Book that details the origins of ingredients; and a limited selection of California wines (about 20 by the bottle and a dozen by the glass) from “producers who … demonstrate their commitment to the environment by practicing organic, biodynamic, and/or sustainable viticulture.”
     At two dinners in early summer, all the admirable elements of the Gather system fell into place, although somewhat tenuously. The service was cheerful, intelligent and mostly well timed, the food creative and flavorful and the atmosphere animated. But the bustle in the packed dining room (148 seats, 24 at the bar and kitchen counter) verged on frenzy. And the tight placement of tables, especially against the expansive curved banks of windows that look east to the UC Berkeley campus across the street, provided not only a close perspective on what our neighbors were eating but an earful of their conversations, as well.
     A more benign confusion arises as you try to decide what to order from the enticing variety of small plates (four), soups and salads (four), pizzas (five) and large plates (four), many designated vegan (v) or gluten-free (gf) or prepared so upon request. On our first visit, though, it took me so long to find a parking spot after dropping Robin off that she had time to study the menu and determine that we had to have the widely heralded vegan “charcuterie” plate ($16) and the vegan pizza ($16), the latter with a vibrant combination of eggplant, chopped olives, mint and cashew puree (a key substitute for cheese) over a dense and intense smear of tomato. We added the roasted whole Monterey Bay sardines ($13), crisscrossed over fava bean puree and garnished with a potato-fava salad. For cocktails, we opted for classics — a Rob Roy (Highland Harvest scotch, sweet vermouth and bitters) and a Sidecar (Marian Farms brandy, orange liqueur and lemon with a sugared rim), both $10 — instead of such originals as the Bee Sting, Cemetery Gate or Fire in Cairo. Later, we shared a glass of 2008 Straightline Tempranillo from St. Helena ($11).
     On the second visit, we sipped a generous pour of 2008 Sonoma Coast Cep Pinot Noir ($10) and pursued individual courses until dessert. Robin worked her way through a haystack of blanched and cooled kale ($9.50), with roasted heirloom carrots, pine nuts and a snowfall of Fiscalini cheese, plus a well-done Prather ranch hamburger ($13) with aioli, caramelized shallot-tomato sauce (think house-made ketchup) and Sierra Nevada cheddar, plus thin-cut fries and a heap of young arugula. I savored a small triangle of crispy pork shoulder ($13) plated with mustard-spring shallot sauce and a small bowl of local Manila clams with chunks of spicy boar sausage. I also managed to get through about half my hearty Bellwether ricotta gnocchi ($17.50) with a rustic morel-porcini ragout, rapini leaves and corn Serrano espazote puree. For dessert (on a night when selections included rhubarb two ways with rice pudding and vegan chocolate cake) we came together over a wonderful peach crisp ($7.50), with two different peach varieties (one warm, one chilled) on a plate with ice cream, quinoa, huckleberries and swirls of caramel.
     The lusciously fatty pork shoulder and the flavorful burger (on a soft but substantial bun) were outstanding, and fans of a thin-but-not-cracker-like crust with a puffy outer edge will likely make a habit of the pizzas (offered with such toppings as halibut belly, duck sausage and braised collards). But Gather kitchen reaches its zenith with the seasonal “charcuterie.” Ours included five artful, complex little arrangements on a narrow rectangular plank: mushroom pâté, grilled onions, radicchio and rosemary; roasted beets, Meyer lemon tahini dressing, olive puree and dill-almond agresto sauce; marinated king trumpet mushrooms, avocado puree and crispy tofu skin; braised finger eggplants, “angry” tomato sauce, vegan aoli and bread crumbs; and first-of-the-season French beans, seared zucchini and cherry tomatoes.
     Given the ample portions and the richness of generously employed oils and nuts, it’s likely you won’t be able to finish everything you’re enticed to order. So plan on return trips to sample lunch sandwiches or such dinner temptations as the spicy young chicken with lentils, smoked olive, braised dandelion greens and baby torpedo onion salsa ($19).
     It’s easy to crack jokes about Gather’s political correctness and Age of Aquarius romanticism. Of course there’s granola available at brunch, but it’s on the same menu as merguez sausage with a baked egg, chickpea ragout and preserved lemon aioli. That’s a one-world ideal I can live with.

Gather. California. 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, (510) 809-0400, www.gatherrestaurant.com.
 

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