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Gather is much more than a place to eat, more carefully sourced, passionately created, and openly hospitable than the average eatery. Explicitly conceived as a means for connecting farmers, cooks, and diners with every bite, local and organic ingredients aren’t mere buzz words tossed around these vaulted ceilings, but honest mantras held in the highest regard. A certified LEED Platinum building in downtown Berkeley provides the foundation for this mission without missing a beat.
Guests are invited to take a look into the open kitchen and watch the chefs in action, meticulously crafting dishes at a steady but brisk pace. The great outdoors are welcomed inside, with a comfortable sundeck seamlessly connecting the two spaces, while large-pane windows allow daylight to readily flow throughout. Even the menu itself exhibits this very same openness, boasting plates for every imaginable dietary constraint all in the same breath. Most impressively, the inherent depth of flavor found in food itself doesn’t suffer one bit for all these extraneous considerations. Impeccably fresh produce sings on stark white plates, imploring eaters to join the song, whether they’re vegan, gluten-free, omnivorous, or just plain hungry.
Saturday mornings are the highlight of every week, bearing the promise of exciting adventures around this fine city, without arduous classes encumbering an already overloaded schedule. No matter where the day takes me, each new exploit always begins in the same place: The Ferry Building farmers market, arguably the most renowned year-round source for fresh produce in San Francisco proper, drawing locals and tourists alike. It would be easy to make a full meal of the generous samples, ranging from buttery avocados to sweet dark cherries, but there’s so much more than just fruits and vegetables on offer. Time your visit correctly and you’ll cross paths with some inspiring bay area chefs, freely divulging secret recipes thanks to CUESA‘s Market to Table program.
Featuring the season’s best and freshest offerings, it’s always a treat to see what the innovative food luminaries in the area bring to the plate, and even better when you can get a free taste. The Plant Cafe is a common stop on my market trips, since their Embarcadero outpost is a mere two piers away, so I was especially thrilled when reigning chef Sascha Weiss appeared on the demo schedule.
Presenting chickpea panisse in a whole new light, Mr. Weiss has elevated the concept from french fry-alternative to an elegant plated hors d’oeuvre. Piled high with tender asparagus and mushrooms singing with umami flavor, the whole composition is a shining example of why eating fresh and seasonal is always best. That said, if you make just one part of this dish, it must be the pistachio-pea purée. Somewhere between a pesto and a sauce, the richness of the nuts boosts the sweetness of the tender peas to create a creamy, sublime experience. Rather than reaching for the standard hummus, I think I’ll just call this a dip next time a snack craving hits.
Chickpea Panisse with Pistachio-Pea Purée, Asparagus, and Maitake Mushrooms
Adapted from Chef Sascha Weiss of The Plant Café Organic
4 Cups Water
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 1/4 Cups Garbanzo Bean Flour
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Whole Cumin Seed, Toasted and Ground
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
Neutral Vegetable Oil, for Frying
8 Ounces Maitake Mushrooms, Cleaned and Halved Through the Stems
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
16 Stalks Asparagus, Trimmed and Bottom 1/3 of Stalks Peeled
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
2 Cups Sliced Leeks (Washed, Cut 1/4-Inch Thick)
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Shelled Pistachios
1/2 Cup Shelled English Peas, Blanched
2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
1 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
1 Cup Arugula, Pea Tendrils, or Other Tender Greens
1 Radish, Sliced Very Thin
2 Teaspoons Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1/4 Cup Vegan “Goat Cheese” (Optional)
For the panisse: Bring the water, salt, and olive oil to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Add the garbanzo flour, whisking so it doesn’t form lumps. Ass the lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and pulls away from the sides of the pan; about 10 minutes. Pour the batter into a greased pan and allow it to cool to room temperature. Slice into desired shapes and pan fry in oil until golden.
For the mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss the sliced mushrooms, olive oil, salt, and pepper together in a bowl. Lay the mushrooms out on a parchment paper-lined sheet pan and roast for 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Leave the oven on and set the mushrooms aside.
For the asparagus: Toss the asparagus together with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Lay the spears on a sheet pan or baking pan and roast in the oven until soft but not mushy; about 5 minutes. Set aside.
For the purée: In a sauté pan over medium heat, cook the leeks in olive oil until softened; about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender. Add the remaining ingredients, thinning with water as needed to achieve a purée that is silky-smooth and can be spooned on a plate without turning into a soupy puddle.
To finish: Place 2 – 3 stalks of asparagus on each plate. Top each with a piece of chickpea panisse, spoon some of the purée on top, and add a piece or two of roasted mushroom. Toss the greens with olive oil, sliced radish, salt, and pepper. Add the dressed greens to the plate and crumble a small amount of the vegan cheese on top, if desired.
Makes 6 Servings
It’s truly the end of an era as Millennium closes its doors for the final time in downtown San Francisco. After more than two decades of sharing space with Hotel California, this eminent establishment of vegan fine dining has outgrown its original outpost and is ready to leave the nest. Relocating to Rockridge in preparation for a June re-opening, it won’t be long before San Francisco will be treated to Chef Eric Tucker’s unique take on fresh, seasonal produce once again. I’ve had the incredible fortune and privilege of eating my way through a serious portion of the ever-changing menu, each dish a thoughtful composition of flavors and textures, sparkling under the romantic, warm lights. I’d like to think that this first twenty years is only the very start, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of the new East Bay kitchen.
Some of the specifics may have fallen victim to my terrible memory, the details lost in time, but the flavors and experiences are all utterly unforgettable. I, for one, am looking forward to a brand new Millennium.
Dyan’s “Whole Lotta Lovage” Limeade (left); cucumber, lovage, mint, lime, soda. Steve’s “Wanna Meet that Dad” BBQ Negroni (right); mezcal, gran classico & sweet vermouth, aged with oak and chipotle chile, fried onion
Situated right in the heart of downtown on Market Street, you’d think Kombu would have snagged a prime location, and for all intents and purposes it couldn’t be in a better place. Stumbling distance from both the Powell and Montgomery BART stations, you’d be crazy to walk by without grabbing a seat… Except that if you’ve been in downtown San Francisco recently, there’s a strong chance that you already have, and multiple times at that, because it’s nearly impossible to find. There might be a menu stand out front if you’re lucky, but there’s no sign on the street, and the address is better known for housing an outpost of Equinox Gym. Even after making it up to the fourth floor, you must still suspend disbelief and walk past the casual takeout counter, because what you’re really looking for is just around the corner.
Each item on the menu is clearly composed with intention and care. Numerous vegan options appear in each section, handily labeled, making it easy to dine out with eaters of all stripes here. The views are stunning, especially midday when light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet, aside from the incongruous mix of 80’s and 90’s pop music, Kombu is like an oasis high above the traffic below.
Falling firmly into the New American category, the menu features locally grown and organic foods in what could best be described as unfussy, elevated comforting cuisine. Each dish is clearly composed with care, from conception to cooking, and I can confidently say that after tasting almost the entire vegan menu, there isn’t one lackluster selection amongst the ever-changing seasonal options.
Appetizers kick off any meal in style, but these introductory gems are tempting enough to draw one in off the street for a quick snack in their own rights. When it comes to the Carrot and Beet Hummus, no beans need apply, because these are actually vegetable-based purees, much lighter and more refreshing than the traditional dip. They’re brilliant alone and even more fabulous mixed together, swirling into a an edible watercolor painting on the plate. Each has a unique earthy sweetness, nicely complimented by the buttery points of toast provided on the side. Truth be told though, all I need is a spoon, since I’d like to order these up by the bowlful.
Providing a bloodless answer to the classic steakhouse starter of steak tartare, Kristin’s playful interpretation of Beet Tartare is much more than your average beet salad. A duet of citrus in the form of orange and grapefruit creates unique nuances in each bite, some more tart or tangy than others, anchored by the tender cubes of red beets. Both earthy and bright, sweet and sour, it’s a bold study in contrasts that ultimately comes together to create an implausible harmony on the tongue.
Moving on to the main event, the Seared Tofu might not sound like much by name alone, but this is not your run-of-the-mill tofu stir fry. Seasoned with finesse, you can really taste the tofu without feeling overwhelmed by the earthy, beany aspect of it. Accompanying vegetables remain crisp and vibrant, featuring a rare example of sautéed kale that hasn’t had the life cooked out of it. The tomato jam-infused rice hidden underneath posseses a firm bite, and the silky miso sauce adds just the right touch of richness and saltiness, like a refined version of dengaku.
What constitutes the ideal veggie burger is a point of contention amongst herbivores and omnivores alike, but I’m happy to report that the Kombu Burger (slider sized as seen above) would definitely pass muster with even the most discerning of eaters. A dense, buttery, brioche-style bun caps off a savory, satisfying patty, seated atop creamy cabbage slaw. It’s very rich all told, but guarantees that those who partake have no chance of walking away hungry. The firm burger holds itself together remarkably well, refusing to crumble under pressure, which is the downfall of all too many lesser vegetable patties.
Tempting fate and testing my eggplant intolerance, the rich eggplant caponata crowning the velvety Polenta was flavorful enough to be worth any amount of pain. Delightfully salty thanks to briny little capers hidden throughout, the dish wouldn’t be the same without them, as they brought out just the right meaty, savory notes to make it feel like a complete meal. Incredibly soothing, easy to eat, but never coming close to approximating a bowlful of gruel, you can truly taste the corn of the polenta base, accentuated by rich vegetable broth undertones. Shatteringly crisp squash blossoms are real gems here, worth of a menu slot all their own. I would gladly order them up by the plateful and munch through them with a drink at the bar.
A glowing, golden mountain of creamy rice, the Saffron Risotto readily flaunts its riches, showing off a treasure trove of spring delicacies at the summit. Morels, maitake, wild asparagus, and impeccably seared fiddlehead ferns all sparkle with a subtle hint of charred flavor. Thick enough to easily eat with a fork, the risotto itself boasts ideally al dente grains thoroughly infused with saffron and cooked to a comfortingly sticky consistency. I only wish there were more of those glorious vegetables found throughout the towering mound and not just on the peak, as it’s a whole lot of rice once the garnishes have been devoured.
Dairy-free dessert choices are a bit limited, but one would never feel restricted once a perfectly chilled glass of either Mango or Mocha Chia Pudding arrives at the table. Rather than approximating tapioca with soaked, whole seeds, this interpretation finds them roughly ground, creating a smooth custard that still boasts a bit of texture. The bright mango flavor is every bit as juicy and sweet as the whole fruit, making it a perfectly refreshing, light finish to any meal. However, chocolate-lovers would be foolish to pass on the mocha version, no matter how filling the preceding meal. Full-bodied 90% chocolate, deep, dark, and intense, shares the spotlight with the bold espresso flavor woven inextricably throughout the creamy melange, managing to compliment one another and not compete.
The true sign of a chef’s skill is their treatment of vegetables, from the most humble to rarefied. Few examples of more perfectly cooked greens, roots, and legumes alike can be found in all of the city, and even fewer opportunities for vegans to partake in those culinary exploits. Don’t be afraid to ask about vegan options should you stop in for yourself; beyond the numerous options that are clearly labeled for every meal of the day, many of the other dishes can be easily converted as well.
Chef Kristen was kind enough not only to share these incredible dining experiences with me apropos of nothing, but offered to extend that generosity even further by giving her recipe for that luscious polenta, in case readers far from San Francisco wanted a taste of their own. Though nothing could compare to the flavors wrought forth by the skilled kitchen staff at Kombu, I’m delighted to have this summery main dish on file to soothe any inconsolable cravings that may strike. It’s worth whipping up in your own kitchen, and ideal for featuring the freshest produce of the season.
Creamy Chive Polenta with Eggplant Caponata and Roasted Tomatoes
By Chef Kristen Thibeault of Kombu
6 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Roma Tomatoes, Halved
1 Teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1 Shallot, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1/2 Cup White Wine
2 Cups Rough Chopped Japanese Eggplant
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Dry (Uncooked) Polenta
1 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Milk Beverage
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
1. Roasted Tomatoes
Place halved tomatoes on baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. sprinkle with herbs de provence and salt and pepper. Roast at 350 until golden brown and caramelized. Set aside.
2. Eggplant Caponata
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in medium saute pan. Add shallots. Saute until translucent. Add tomato paste and saute until browned. Add chopped eggplant and saute until soft. Add 1 clove minced garlic and saute briefly until just translucent. Deglaze pan with white wine and scrape browned tomato paste from pan to enhance flavor. Reduce by 1/2. Remove from heat and add capers, red pepper flakes (optional) and black pepper to taste. Set aside.
3. Creamy Polenta
In medium sauce pan bring 2 cup vegetable stock, 1 cup drinkable unsweetened coconut milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt to a boil. Slowly whisk in 1 cup polenta. Continue stirring until starts to thicken and bubble. Fold in chives. Season with salt to taste. If too thick stir in additional coconut milk to desired thickness. Serve immediately, dividing the polenta amongst four plates. Top with eggplant caponata and roasted tomatoes on side. Finish with drizzle of good quality olive oil.
Makes 4 Servings