A Gathering Place That Lives up to its Name
Greetings all, and welcome to my inaugural post for The Local Beet. I’ve had a passion for food writing for several years now, ever since I graduated from culinary school and realized my education was best applied in written word. Over the past few years, I served as lead writer for Restaurant Intelligence Agency, and recently left to get back into more journalistic food writing. Someone recently told me that I have a knack for combining adorableness with serious writing, and I took that as the greatest accolade, as I always strive to be engaging, quirky and genuine in my writing, be it on a blog, a tweet or even an email. I hope you enjoy my personal brand of writing, starting with a charismatic review of a new restaurant.
A new restaurant whose mission statement elucidates on “friends and family coming together to enjoy amazing hospitality” runs the risk of coming off a little too “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but the folks at Gather, a cozy addition to Lincoln Square, achieve what few neighborhood restaurants set out to achieve. There’s a fine line between tacky and welcoming when one sets such aww-inducing goals, and Gather toes that line favorably.
Unlike some other cliche-laden restaurant names, Gather’s rings exactly true, and you’ll want to do precisely that at this European-tinged American spot. The space feels like the living room of someone’s rich aunt, with a kitchen so open guests should perhaps sign waivers before dining at the counter, in such close proximity to whirling cutlery. As the inviting waitstaff explains, the food is seasonal and locally derived, and the menu changes on the chef’s whim. If I’ve heard that pitch once, I’ve heard it 1,000 times, but again, Gather exceeds expectations with a concept that may not be terribly outre, but is simple and well executed, and that is precisely what matters. The kitchen sources ingredients from the Lincoln Square Farmers’ Market when available, and outfits its menu with sustainably sourced products plucked from farms around Chicagoland. The chef, Ken Carter, is an alum of Charlie Trotter’s, and promises a “less is more” approach with his food, putting the spotlight on the ingredients, rather than mask their flavors with too many add-ons.
The menu is concise, divided into appetizers, entrees and gather & share dishes (still not sure the difference between appetizers and “gather & share”). I guess you could say we “gathered & shared” the roasted cauliflower, with golden raisins, lentils, grapes and curry. When cauliflower florets are roasted perfectly, they are the ultimate vegetable comfort food. My first reaction was to call these little guys “nature’s chicken nuggets,” which I honestly don’t feel is far off. It was like playing ping pong trying to get the grapes on my fork, but the juicy tang of the raisins, and the toothsome, savory lentils and spices in the dish bring it all together beautifully.
Entrees get even better with the half chicken, served as a seared breast and Southern fried leg with sweet potato gnocchi and garlic miso. Every element cooked perfectly, though the plate could probably use more than five gnocchis. The porchetta is a beast of a sandwich, with enough piled-high roasted pork shoulder to please a lumberjack. It’s served open-faced on pillowy flatbread, which I initially misheard as “fry bread” and got way too excited (and subsequently way too depressed when I discovered the truth).
The cushy simplicity carries over to dessert, with things like apple fritters, frozen chocolate cake and sticky buns. Sticky buns for dessert! What a welcome surprise to find these gooey carb bombs outside of a breakfast pastry case. Nothing innovative or outlandish about these buns, but they are just perfect; sort of like a Cinnabon, without the ungodly guilt that comes with actually patronizing Cinnabon. It’s served in a small cast-iron skillet, because of course it is.
This is the type of place where your server will chime in that every dish you ordered is actually his/her favorite as well. Not only is that not annoying, but it genuinely feels like they’re being sincere, and it genuinely feels like they want your friendship. These days, it’s a wonderful surprise when a restaurant depicts and delivers on a straightforward, honest concept, and Gather does exactly that.
Gather is located at 4539 N. Lincoln Ave., and is open Sunday through Wednesday from 5:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m.; Thursday from 5:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. until midnight. Call (773) 506-9300 for reservations, but bear in mind the restaurant keeps 50% of its seating open for “spontaneous walk-in gatherings,” which is just precious.