Restaurant Review: Gather, in Berkeley, Calif.
Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster were not yet born in 1971 when Alice Waters opened the seminal Chez Panisse, paving the road that brought local, seasonal cooking into the mainstream. But with Gather, their 148-seat restaurant, these self-described “pathological optimists” are turning that road into something of a four-lane highway.
“Food is a fundamental expression of an era’s gestalt,” Mr. Derfel said. “We’re here to harness the power of the fork to nourish people’s spirit and feed a movement.”
In the David Brower Center, a hub of environmental and social nonprofits, Gather shows its sustainable ethos in its very structure. Eco-chic aesthetics are reflected in banquettes covered in recycled leather belts, and reclaimed wood tables are free of white-tablecloth pretension. Sandblasted vodka-bottle light shades glow above a bar, where biodynamic and organic California wines and cocktails are poured. (I began a recent meal here with a Bee Sting, a bright concoction of Square One botanical vodka, lemon, ginger, honey syrup and mint.)
While you wait, there’s reading material. A “Source Book,” available by request, lists the origin of pantry items down to the organic oregano and fair-trade chocolate. Farm sources and quotes from food activists are scrawled on chalkboards surrounding an open kitchen. Gather has the feel of a Michael Pollan book come to life.
But one is not force-fed food politics. Rather, the omnivore’s real dilemma concerns whether to go vegetarian (or vegan, designated V on the recycled paper menus) or not, since the executive chef Sean Baker, 29, offers equally appealing options of both. (Gluten-free types and locavores: see GF and L.)
Instead of segregating diners by eating preferences, Mr. Baker’s innovative dishes — he spent years at San Francisco’s Millennium vegan restaurant — inspire crossover. The beluga lentil and black trumpet mushroom ragout gives an earthy density to Bellwether Farms herbed ricotta gnocchi, and regardless of one’s orientation, the vegan “charcuterie” plate (above) — a five-part medley of artfully presented citrus, roasted vegetables, nuts and vegan butter-like spreads — is delicious.
House-cured meats, roasted whole sardines over gold carrot purée and roasted pig leg with fava bean purée testify to the chef’s root-to-shoot, nose-to-tail philosophy. The pizzas alone are worth a visit; morel pizza topped with fontinella, stinging nettles and braised leeks emerged nicely blistered and chewy, leaving little room for dessert.
Gather, 2200 Oxford Street; (510) 809-0400; gatherrestaurant.com. Dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $60.