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Gather Around Gather in Berkeley

At Gather restaurant in Berkeley, it’s all about head-to-tail and root-to-shoot cooking.

The nearly year-and-a half-old restaurant at the David Brower Center takes the unique approach of making its menu 50 percent vegetarian with plenty of vegan options.

If you’re rolling your eyes, thinking it’s some hippy-dippy Berkeley joint that won’t appeal to gauche, non-Birkenstock-wearing carnivores, you’d be wrong. In fact, my husband, aka Meat Boy, has happily eaten there twice with me, once when we paid our own tab and most recently when we were invited to dine as guests of the restaurant last month.

Popular with theater-goers, the restaurant was packed almost from the moment it opened its doors for dinner at 5 p.m. that Saturday evening. The space is very California-like with a warm, laid-back vibe. There’s plenty of rustic, reclaimed wood, as well as metal, steel and concrete. Fun touches include light fixtures made from recycled vodka bottles, filtered water served in recycled milk bottles, and comfy banquettes crafted from old leather belts (I even spotted one still sporting its Gap insignia).

The restaurant was started by Bay Area food activists Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, who founded Back to Earth,  a nine-year-old organic catering company. Executive Chef Sean Baker, former sous chef at the vegan restaurant, Millennium in San Francisco, and executive chef at Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, was named “2010 Chef of the Year” by Esquire magazine for his intriguing and innovative cuisine.

The compact menu features organic, local and sustainable ingredients, with vegan and gluten-free options spelled out clearly.

One dish, above all, has received a ton of buzz since the restaurant opened — “vegan charcuterie” ($16). It’s a beautiful wood board arrayed with four or so little tastes that change regularly. It doesn’t try to mimic meat salumi in any way except in its convivial nature that makes it perfect for sharing. It’s a great way to start the meal with a glass of wine.

On the night we were there, the sampler included glorious Hen of the Woods mushrooms that tasted smoky, meaty and almost tinged with soy sauce. The mushrooms were piled atop creamy spring onion soubise and baby onion marmalata. There also was cashew cheese, which was creamy, yet grainy with pulverized nuts, alongside beets that had been roasted in salt to concentrate their sweetness. The charcuterie comes with grilled triangles of artisan bread brushed with olive oil that you’ll want to use to mop up every last bit.

On the flip side was “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes” ($12), the name of which alone couldn’t help but make me smile. It arrived as a slab of rustic terrine that looked a little like headcheese. With little nuggets of pork held together with pork juices that had turned to gelatin, it was pure porky goodness, showing that the kitchen is as deft with meaty dishes as it is with vegan fare.

There has been a lot of talk about the pizza here. Some people hate the crust; others love it. I fall into the latter camp. What makes this very thin crust controversial are the whimsical poofy balls of dough that form the rim of the pizza. I think they give the pizza a most distinctive look; plus, the dough balls bake up very bready, so for carb lovers like me, it’s the ultimate combo of crisp, thin center and airy, chewy, yeasty border. There’s usually three or four pizzas to choose from. We enjoyed one with sweet tomato sauce, juicy little lamb sausage nubbins, delicate pea tendrils, mint and chile salsa ($18).

A special of beef cheeks brought a different interpretation with the fork-tender meat cut into planks like a steak, and paired with baby rapini, fava beans, and fava leaves with the kick of horseradish.

I opted for the “Seared Panisse” ($18), comforting polenta-like cakes made from chickpeas that were seared to a golden crisp on the outside with a fluffy, incredibly custard-soft interior. A dice of San Joaquin Gold cheddar cubes added bite and richness, while stinging nettles, braised black trumpet mushrooms and teeny-tiny turnips smaller than M&Ms rounded out the dish.

For dessert, we shared a candy bar-shaped roasted white chocolate semifreddo ($8.50) with the texture of frozen cream, that came with squiggles of strawberry sauce. The garnish was crunchy cocoa nib caramel corn that added texture, a touch of earthiness and a hint of salt to this none-too-sweet treat.

If you’re searching for a restaurant that can satisfy a wide range of appetites, you won’t go wrong by gathering at Gather.

More East Bay Restaurants: Camino in Berkeley

And: Commis in Oakland

And: Oliveto in Oakland

And: Marzano in Oakland

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