Eat Your Vegetables!

Josh Sens | March 12, 2014 | Story Restaurants

There’s not much I like less than kumbaya cuisine, which is what I dreaded when Gather opened in late 2009. A downtown Berkeley outpost in a solar-powered building that pledged to dot its menu with vegan dishes? I braced for crumbly tempeh burgers and chalky tofu scrambles. But what could have been a drab exercise in righteous restraint turned out to be engaging and inclusive, with inventive meatless dishes that carnivores could warm to (vegan charcuterie) as well as meaty options (braised lamb with chicories) that justified the cholesterol.

Four-plus years later, the team behind Gather (chef Sean Baker and co-owners Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel) have tweaked the template and applied it to a tony patch of San Francisco, where the closest that locals get to earthy-crunchy is Sanskrit chanting in yogilates class. Think of Verbena, in the Russian Hill location that once housed Marbella, as Gather dressed up for date night. More intimate and upscale than its East Bay sibling, it’s moodier looking, too, with dark wood accents, kiss-me lighting, and rustic-refined touches like a walnut bar backed by artsy panels fashioned out of soil from local farms. An illuminated tower rises nearby, its shelves stacked with Mason jars from which the chef can pick a peck of pickled peppers, along with carrots, herbs, and other preserves.

The menu is divided into four sections of increasing portion size, and animal proteins appear in three of the quadrants. But there’s no doubting where Baker’s deepest passions lie. The chef ’s fondness for the harvest inspires him to great bursts of creative expression. A plate becomes his canvas for a brushstroke of black garlic and fermented rice purée, a dark palette that the chef brightens with seared artichoke hearts and tangy pickled green tomatoes. Once a painter, Baker turns beet poet, riffing on the root in a form-defying salad. Its central ingredient appears three ways: poached, roasted, and dehydrated, arrayed with roasted chicories and white grapefruit on a bed of hazelnut curds.

The presentations are supremely photogenic. Rice–and–wheat berry crisps rise like sails from a sunset-colored sea of red hummus, with sunchokes, potatoes, and sun-dried tomatoes. A smear of apricot mustard provides a golden backdrop for a rough-chopped slab of Padrón pepper–spiked trotter terrine. All along, Baker’s mind is racing, but his exhilarating rush of ideas is frequently too dizzying for its own good. Complex and layered, the cooking at times conflicts with itself. A cured sardine, cut into small parts that all but beg for chopsticks, comes with a creamy complement of horseradish and fried chopped cauliflower, a cool combination undone by the briny overkill of steelhead roe. Rich coins of seafood sausage, plump with rock cod, prawn, crab, and scallop, bob in a bath of fava and miso pistou. It’s served in a bowl so deep and filled with so much sauce that you’d swear it wants to be a soup.

The menu moves in all directions, genre-jumping around the Middle East, Asia, California, and beyond. Pork-and-chicken meatballs in black mole, with hominy cooked in whey, come from south of the border, but in the context of the evening, they seem to arrive from out of the blue. “Eclecticism” is the kind word for this. But the wild diversity that works so well at Gather, where, amid the choices, you can still sit back and share a pizza, has a scattershot effect at Verbena.

Could these be the pitfalls of this sort of expansion? The restaurant world is filled with casual spin-offs, bistro-style satellites of more formal mother ships. And there’s good reason: It’s easier to go from high to low. The Gather crew has branched out in the opposite direction, and that’s much tougher. When you ramp up the refinement, you raise expectations. There’s a sense at Verbena of a kitchen that feels pressure to impress.

In other respects, though, the restaurant cuts a confident, calm, high-minded profile, an ideal makeup for today’s fine dining. It has killer cocktails, a smartly chosen wine list from sustainable producers, and desserts, by Amy Pearce, that are the best I’ve had in moons. Among her stunners: molasses gingerbread with carrot sorbet and lush ale caramel, and a Meyer lemon cheesecake that looks less like a pastry than like a Picasso, with cubes of crustless cake atop a streak of turmeric marshmallow and a scattering of black sesame meringue. There’s plenty going on in these not-too-sweet creations, but everything about them is just so.

Not that the savory menu doesn’t have its perfect moments. One that lingers in my memory is a button mushroom starter, the mushrooms braised and darkened by their juices, gathered on a mound of celeriac purée, with a green dusting of dehydrated lovage and an acid splash of tomato vinegar. Phew! Sounds like a lot. But the elements all meshed, and the robust flavors built into a rustic presentation: a beautiful, deceptively simple seeming dish.

That’s what stands out most when I think back on Verbena. In its soaring celebration of all that grows around us, it’s best when it settles back to earth.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner at Verbena.

Button mushrooms ........................... $7
Artichoke with green tomato............$11
Beets with hazelnut curds................$11
Sunchokes and potatoes.................$13
Meatballs in black mole....................$16
Quail with Sonoma grains............... $28
Molasses gingerbread.......................$8
Meyer lemon cheesecake..................$9
Hirsch Grüner Veltliner ...................$16
André Brunel Côtes du Rhône........$10
Total ............................................. $129

Verbena, 2323 Polk St. (near Union St.), 415-441-2323

Two Stars

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of San Francisco

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