Gather, Chicago

Excellent “neighborhood restaurants” can often be difficult to first find and then to evaluate. Often the best way to learn of such places is through regular patrons who reside not far away. However, such folks can often see the establishment through a filter of feelings of kinship and solidarity with the staff and owners. Once you find such establishments, it can be difficult to evaluate the talent behind the menu since any good business adapts to customer (that is, “neighborhood”) preferences. To be honest, the residents of a “neighborhood” aren’t frequently known for the sophistication of their pallette. (It’s usually whether they reside with animals, children or other similarly-aged humans.) Furthermore, the kitchen and the front of the house of a “neighborhood” establishment often get lazy amidst their doting regulars. Even promising restaurants have been known to atrophy over time.

As a result, whenever a restaurant bills itself as a “neighborhood” establishment, it gives me pause. After all, “neighborhood” can be just as much a nonsequitur for quality dining as “popular.” Neither is a mark of excellence and both are likely to be an artifact of provincial, mass appeal. So when Gather began billing itself as a place to find “neighborhood grub,” I was more content to scatter.

Merely strong backers and credentials underlying a restaurant are also insufficient. However, the right backers and credentials can theoretically do anything. And that is exactly what Gather has. The folks that brought us the late LM (now under a restaurant group calling themselves Community Food & Wine–shudder) have teamed up with General Manager David Breo (formerly of NoMi and Spiaggia) and Chef Ken Carter (a Charlie Trotter alumnus and former chef de cuisine at the now shuttered Cibo Matto at the Wit). Not surprisingly, however, these two gentlemen come together to form something unique, well run and not “neighborhood” in the provincial sense, but “neighborhood” in the “it’s close by” sense. Breo is known for running the front of the house and overseeing the bar program with an iron fist–something which I applaud. In other words, Gather is a place to find knowledgeable and well trained servers, a very good wine and cocktail list and consistently delicious food. And its actually in the neighborhood!

Chef Carter appears to run the kitchen in the same way. His focus is something a kin to those things that define the San Francisco Bay Area: Fresh, sustainable ingredients and a commitment to delicious simplicity. Classic French technique is what informs the menu and we are all the better for it.

Grilled octopus
Grilled octopus

Our meal began with a lightly marinated octopus with frisée and served atop smoked tomato aioli of balanced richness and hot smoked back bacon. The dish was beautifully unified, balanced in flavor and delicious. The cook on the octopus was flawless and the seasoning simple and satisfying. It was a surprisingly elegant start.

Pork belly
Pork belly

Next was braised pork belly which was finished with a brown crust in the pan and served atop a not too rich polenta, blanched tarragon and what the kitchen was calling “blueberry barbecue.” It tasted like a savory-sweet blueberry compote and was an excellent pairing to cut through the richness of the belly and polenta.

Brown butter tossed gnocchi
Brown butter tossed gnocchi

Out next was a delightfully chewy, egg-heavy baby carrot gnocchi, tossed in brown butter and served with shaved roasted carrot atop a simple hummus. The dish was light, refreshing and well prepared, but more or less forgettable.

Wagyu sirloin
Wagyu sirloin

Our entrée was the special “wagyu” sirloin (for which I was heartened the server mentioned was not actual wagyu since the stuff is illegal in the U.S.), served black and blue with lightly pickled broccoli, fresh watercress and warmed blackberries. Everything was cooked and seasoned to perfection. It was the best steak I’ve had this year.

We ended our meal with all three of the desserts on the menu, which we insisted come out together. There was a peach cobbler made with skin on, large quartered chunks of peach in a light compote. The freshness of the peaches shone through and were topped with a lightly sweetened brown sugar streusel with a perfect granular chewiness and a ho-hum dulce de leche ice cream. Even better was the so-called apple fritter (not pictured), which was more reminiscent of a lighter apple beignet with less heft and lighter sweetness. Paired with simple vanilla ice cream and a spiced caramel sauce, the dessert was heavenly. The highlight, however, was the rich semi-sweet chocolate cake with a variety of complimentary plate elements including browned white chocolate over a pool of robust honey and cream cheese frosting topped with dry roasted walnuts.

We lazily paired the meal ourselves with a bottle of the lively Foreau brut sparkling vouvray and moved to the 2009 Bodega Benegas cabernet franc for our steaks. The wine list was extensive enough, but it seemed to piggyback off of some of the wine press and competitor wine bars like Telegraph. Nonetheless, we found what we were looking for. Overall, Gather is defined by simple, meticulous, fresh food. This is real, sustainable food that real people eat. And that is, indeed, remarkable.

Gather
4539 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 506-9300
Reservations recommended

http://www.gatherchicago.com/

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