Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Gather Restaurant at Berkeley’s David Brower Center

Vegetarians and Carnivores Come to the Table
2200 Oxford St., Berkeley
PH: 510.809.0400
Open for weekday lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5 to 10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

The three-month-old Gather Restaurant fits nicely into the Berkeley persona — environmentally friendly, local sourcing, high on vegan delights. Add to that a bit of big city glamour and style and you’ve got yourself a destination restaurant in downtown Berkeley.

Gather is in the relatively new David Brower Center, which is a green building that’s home to exhibits and non-profits. (Even though it’s in the center, you still enter the restaurant from a separate entrance facing the UC-Berkeley campus.) It’s owned by Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel of Back to Earth (outdoor adventure tours and an organic catering business) and the kitchen is headed up by Sean Baker, formerly of Millennium, the vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco.

My food blogger buddy Foodhoe suggested that we check out the new place, so we headed out on a Wednesday night (because Foodhoe also had to pick up some freshly baked bread that night from her bread club she belongs to — that girl is connected!).

Gather has a circular layout with the open kitchen in the center back. The casual restaurant plays up the homey-ness with home-made sauces in jars on the shelves and the whimsy with chalkboards displaying quotes or book-reading suggestions.

The menu from Baker changes daily, and is clearly marked with dishes that are vegan or gluten-free. They also pride themselves on their sustainability and encourage diners to check out their Source Book. So you know Foodhoe didn’t hesitate to ask to see the book, which was a black three-ring binder filled with lists of vendors and their backgrounds.

I couldn’t be bothered with checking out the Source Book (I’ll take their word for it) because I was busy trying to decide what to eat from the diverse menu. The offerings included several vegetable-focused dishes in the appetizer and starter section, three choices from the wood-fire pizza oven and entrées that were a mix of meat dishes and faux-meat dishes.

Even before we arrived at Gather, Foodhoe had already decided in her mind to order the restaurant’s Vegan “charcuterie” platter ($14), which is quickly becoming its signature dish.

In my mind, I imagined pale faux meats, thinly sliced and looking like cardboard. So I actually passed on the “charcuterie” and ordered a couple of starters on my own. I ended up with the Cauliflower and Porcini Puree (really a soup, $7.50) and the Tomales Bay Mussels ($11) because I love any kind of shellfish.

The vegan “charcuterie” platter came out first and I have to admit that it was a lovely platter of about six different nibbles. The platter didn’t even pretend to be charcuterie and instead took the word very liberally and basically were vegetable creations such as mushroom pate with grilled endive, winter vegetable bread salad, roasted beets, chickpea puree and avocado seaweed salad.

Foodhoe went crazy for her platter, experimenting with the various bites and oozing her amazement for some (the seaweed salad) and turning her nose at others (the bread salad in particular). She encouraged me to help her eat the platter, which is not only beautiful but quite large, but I wanted to save myself for my starters.

Side note: This is where I’m going to talk about the pacing at the restaurant. It might be blamed on Gather being fairly new, but I felt the service felt a bit scattered. I clearly stated to our waitress that I wasn’t going to share Foodhoe’s platter but instead would order the soup and mussels for myself. But instead of bringing my soup or mussels with Foodhoe’s charcuterie, I had to wait a long time before both my soup and mussels arrived at the same time.

When my cauliflower soup finally arrived, the server mentioned that it was vegan but had to quickly take that back because it was topped with some chopped black trumpet mushrooms and a dollop of crème fraiche. The overall taste of the soup was nice, and I appreciated how I could really taste the porcini flavor.

My mussels followed quickly and it looked like a pretty sight of the sea with the Tomales Bay mussels and little squid tentacles on top. The bowl of mussels was infused with the flavors of the house-made sausages and was served with caramelized endives. The serving wasn’t overwhelming, but when combined with my soup I started to get full.

I felt like we should have tested the pizzas, but none of the three options really excited me (yes, even the goat belly pizza). And Foodhoe and I had separately on our own been eating our share of thin-crust pizzas around the bay. So we skipped ordering a pizza and just went straight to the large plates.

Foodhoe was intrigued by a dish called Mushroom “Cioppino” ($16). A play on the seafood cioppino, Gather’s version features wild mushrooms with English peas and carrots served with a grilled piece of bread with lentils that was promoted as “beluga lentil caviar.”

Chef Baker’s creative vegetable twists to traditional dishes like the cioppino really made me think of Ubuntu in Napa Valley, which also is a vegetables-focused restaurant. While not as cutting edge as what Chef Jeremy Fox put out in Ubuntu (and what his successor may do now that Fox is out of Ubuntu), I appreciated the creative touches in Baker’s dishes.

I kept up the meat-eater’s end of the meal by ordering the Braised Pork ($17) served on creamy polenta and braised greens. The dish didn’t look big but it was topped dramatically with a large portion of bread crumbs.

The braised pork was tender and easy to eat, but I felt the flavor wasn’t forceful and instead was muted like polenta.

There were just a few choices for dessert, but I was pretty much full from my meal. Foodhoe (who went all vegetarian tonight) decided to order the sorbet, and because it was just sorbet I didn’t bother taking a picture of it. Unfortunately, because I have the worst memory, I can’t recall what flavor it was without a picture. I remember it was a citrus, because citrus is in season right now, and I remember it tasting really tart just like the citrus (there were definitely no added sugar and was all natural). I wasn’t a fan.

Gather is a beautiful room with an open feel that’s conducive to young families or friends gathering for a meal. My only reservation is the flavor of most of the dishes weren’t as pronounced or distinctive.

Being a non-vegetarian, I probably felt a bias that the menu seemed to lean heavily on the vegan/vegetarian selections. But when I really think about it, it’s probably evenly divided down the middle, giving carnivores and vegetarians ample selections to make them happy so they can co-exist.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Beautiful plating)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Gather on Urbanspoon

Other related reviews:
Ubuntu: Visit 1
Ubuntu: Visit 2


foodhoe said...

Single guy, Dude I love your new lens! Yeah that sorbet was extremely tart, and the cookie was rubbery. Hopefully their new pastry chef will improve things...

agent713 said...

I love reading these reviews. I get to experience an amazing meal without the cost of calories!!! :D

Cookie said...

It always annoys me when the food doesn't come out when it's supposed to! I sometimes get a few appetizers as my main but the server will bring them out with the rest of our appetizers so I'm done with my food before everyone else!

Hungry Dog said...

Argh, this is thr third time I've tried to comment...blogger is being fussy. Anyway, sounds like this had some pros but the lame service would keep me from going, esp. since I hardly ever make it to the east bay. Nice review, as always. When is SF Gate or the weekly going to hire you as a full-time restaurant reviewer?!

Unknown said...

Just enjoyed a perfect meal, including the service, in fact, I would say they were very attentive. (perhaps they've been working on this?) In any case, it was Friday night at 8pm, so they were busy. Having read other reviews I was worried it would be too loud, not at all. Go check it out.

Jon said...