Watching us nicker with pleasure as we ate Gather's signature dish, the dressed-up couple at the next table asked their server what it was. Called the vegan "charcuterie," it comes on a wooden plank. The server recited its five separate glories with the solemn specificity of a Bible student or a royal messenger: Chickpea panisse — that is, fried chickpea-flour cake — with almond-pepper purée and grilled-scallion salsa. Beet tartare — that is, raw red, pink, and golden beets chopped and reconfigured — with horseradish-almond purée and arugula blossoms. Baby-potato-and-celeriac salad with olive sauce and Sangre de Toro bean — that is, Mexican "bulls'-blood" bean — purée. Braised-mushroom bruschetta with creamy leek "fondue." Roasted baby Purple Haze carrots — that is, purple outside and flame-orange within — with cashew-nut paté, green-garlic confit, pea shoots, and young garden greens.
Ordering it, the couple giggled as they watched the server walk away. "I hope you memorized all that," said the woman in mock-stern-teacher mode. The man tittered, but twitchily, as if truly afraid he might be quizzed. This is Berkeley, after all.
Gather is like the hot chick who knows she's hot. And in Berkeley this year, what's hot is a seasonal, sustainable, organic, half-meatless menu created by executive chef Sean Baker, who worked as a sous-chef at San Francisco's Millennium Restaurant before elevating Santa Cruz's Gabriella Café to Zagat status. What's hot is having a chalkboard on the wall listing "this week's farms." What's hot is being owned by two environmental activists and being outfitted with salvaged goods such as tables made from a recycled water tank and high-school bleachers, lighting fixtures made from empty vodka bottles, and seats made from recycled leather belts. What's hot is being lodged in Berkeley's greenest building, the David Brower Center. What's hot is having an organic cocktail bar that spins out basil-acaí gimlets and cucumber spajitos. What's hot is having not only tables — lots of them, occupying nearly every available inch of floorspace — but also counter service, as if this was a truck stop. Open for dinner since December and lunch since early March, with breakfast service beginning next month, Gather has and is all that — and the result is part popular restaurant, part political statement.
Before opening Gather, co-owners Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel had already accrued the kind of cred that would stand them in good stead here. Together, they founded Back to Earth, an organic catering and outdoor-adventures nonprofit. At the company's web site, Derfel — who made headlines in 2007 for saving a year's worth of his trash to reveal the magnitude of modern wastefulness — rails against "capitalism turned fascism" while praising not only "resistance to US imperialism" but also "revolution, and a return of the world to all of us from the few who want to be kings at our expense."
Come for the solidarity; stay for the forbidden-black-rice squid. Practicing what he calls "full root-to-shoot cooking, because using the whole vegetable is just as important as using the whole animal when we're talking about sustainability, Chef Baker turns out wildly original dishes that beam back at you like perfect little paintings. At first sight, many of them provoke double-takes: A huge, glistening, dark-green pyramid turns out to be a satisfyingly velvety Lacinato kale salad with celery root, pine nuts, Spigariello-broccoli flowers, and Fiscalini cheese. The big, white, savory slab sandwiched between two crunchy slices of levain bread turns out to be baked Bellwether Farms herbed ricotta with purple tardivo radicchio and nutty, tomatoey, garlicky, cinnabar-red Catalonian romesco sauce. Deep-fried, polenta-dipped oyster mushrooms taste remarkably like real oysters, especially when daubed with faux "ranch" dressing. The biscotti resting beside a cheesecakey wheel of pistachio-brittle semifreddo have a kooky country taste because they're made of corn. Calder-esque fried cardoons stand nearly vertical. A pig-leg soup contains kamut and the Italian heirloom green called minutina. In dish after dish, flavor and texture and color combinations detonate across all five senses with a cadence that declares: This is no random accident. Love me? I knew you would.
Yet it's not as easy as it should be, because Gather is so jam-packed with so many tables crammed together as if to force the credo of community — as if simply arriving here implies that we're all friends who relish rubbing elbows and don't mind our neighbors hearing every word we say. Our table out-spanned my midsize shoulders by just four inches on either side. Had I flung out my arms, I would have stroked the hair of strangers. Setting our purses between us as if to produce virtual boundaries, the stranger at the next table and I tensely watched their handles intertwine.
Meanwhile, we reveled in attentive service and exalted in the soufflé-smoothness of seared-fava-leaf-chickpea cake: a vegan, gluten-free wedge against a reef of baby artichokes, hearty Vallarta beans, lacy young frisée, aromatic caramelized fennel, and smoky-sweet rosemary vinaigrette. Braised leeks, fresh thyme, Bloomsdale spinach, and golden Fontinella cheese gilded our wild-mushroom pizza, whose buttery-tasting thin crust bore burned-black bubbles that somehow enhanced its made-for-you urgency, as did hedgehog mushrooms and chanterelles from the Oakland hills.
We wanted entire bowls of every component of the vegan "charcuterie." Its baby potatoes were almost-not-quite-crunchy, just this side of underdone: no random accident. Its purple carrots tasted seductively of licorice.
It was early on a weekday evening, yet a line had formed. The thing about hot chicks who know they're hot is that everyone wants them.
A woman at a nearby table boomed, "My nine-year-old knows about cap-and-trade." Her companion, thumbing through a copy of Anna Lappé's Diet for a Hot Planet, mentioned a friend. "He's in Mexico," she declared, looking right and left, "doing — you know — social-justice stuff."