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Classics Reimagined at a Berkeley Stalwart | Gather's insightful new chef finds new meaning in ingredients that others take for granted. | By Anneli Rufus

Gather's new chef, Tu David Phu, is reimagining simplicity.

Early one late-summer evening, the statuesque West Oakland–bred, California Culinary Academy–educated forager and slow-food fan presides in his open kitchen over some of his favorite ingredients: peak-of-the season produce and his own house-made cheeses.

"I've got to fill Sean Baker's shoes," Phu says of Gather's celebrated original executive chef who left last year for Gather's fledgling San Francisco sister-restaurant, Verbena. It closed then reopened, sans Baker, this spring as Reverb. Phu has chops, having been at Saul's Deli in Berkeley, Flora in Oakland, Precita Park Cafe in San Francisco, and Daniel Boulud's db Bistro Moderne in New York City.

"Those are big shoes to fill. But I've also got to take it to the next level," Phu asserts as out from his kitchen travel ramekins of barbecued sunflower seeds, wooden planks bearing assorted house-made pickles (dilled chard stems, kimchi, daikon/mint, and more), and mountainous kale salads.

As more diners arrive, their smiling faces savvy yet curious, it's clear that they see themselves as eager players/acolytes in some hybrid performance/rite, a holy coalescence of art, eating, entertainment, and enlightenment that might seem surreal anywhere but Berkeley, anytime but now.

It's a play whose plot everyone knows: Only the scenery—carrots or kohlrabi?—changes. It's a liturgy they can recite by heart, hailing halibut one day, pork belly the next.

Gather's omnivore-friendly, fork-to-table menu changes daily. Tonight it brings towering, tender salmon tartare with charred corn, summer squash, and Green Goddess dressing. It also brings dreamy South-of-France-style chickpea panisse: golden-crispy outside, comfort-food-freakoutishly-creamy inside, lightly fried garbanzo-flour oblongs perched amidst a monumentally multicultural mélange of lentil-mushroom ragout, confit-leek-currant salsa, and pine nuts.

And tonight's tasting menu starts with a chilled-corn bisque whose tangy, hyper-fresh corn purée, yogurt, cilantro, and smoked paprika evoke in their brightness a bold foreign flag and, in their melded sharpness—at once chilling and warming the tongue—the sort of secret that only best friends tell.

Bar manager Daniel Sheel—formerly of Atlanta's Octopus Bar—pairs these corn dishes with his kick-ass Verde Verte cocktail (tequila, Carpano Bianco, blood orange, lime, cilantro, and habanero pepper): Its heat leapfrogs the tongue, then slowly, relentlessly sears the back of the throat.

Then out comes a wonderwork: honey-drizzled fresh figs, white edible orchids, whole pistachios, grilled levain, and a glowing snow-white dome of house-made-hours-ago burrata that could almost pass as a xialongbao, right up to its typhoony twisted top.

This dish is fruit, nuts, bread, and cheese—stereotypically, medieval-sonnet-worthy simple fare. Yet the salty-meaty nuts and sweetly yielding fruit meet the hearty crosshatched bread and stretchy-outside, runny-inside, radiantly airy cheese in a cascade of revelations: Phu has reinvented an ancient shepherds-picnicking-on-sunny-hillsides assemblage.

"You're looking at a five-year dish," smiles Phu, who spent that half-decade perfecting every aspect of its conception, right down to the orchids, whose translucent, elusive elegance looks, tastes, and feels just this side of a gentle breeze.

It's my pride and joy," Phu says of the cheese—which virtually begs, Spread me! and over whose ingredients and workmanship he labored for years.

"When a restaurant buys ingredients and products from outside, questions always arise about where everything came from and how good it can be. I always want to know where everything comes from. When you make something in-house, you can control all of that. And those questions are answered," says the chef, whose tattoos display his devotions: the slow-food movement's snail logo near one thumb; the word HAND spanning his right wrist, MADE the left—spelling, together, HANDMADE.

"And that's exactly where I stand. This is my basis. I've tried molecular gastronomy, and it's interesting, but it isn't for me. Slow food is about freshness, quality, and deliciousness. That's where my heart is."

The result—as manifested in honey-drizzled, party-pink strawberry ice cream, say, and in roasted chicken served with cornbread—is fare that's not crazy-fancy-complicated-just-for-the-showoffy-sake-of-complication but breathtakingly simple, in fact complexly simple. That is mastery: to take basics, deconstruct them, re-examine them, revere them and then reimagine them with awestruck expertise. That's Phu's forté.

"The simpler a dish is, the more complicated it can be to make and serve," he says.

This proviso carries through in a pizza topped with juicy, gigantic heirloom-tomato slices, whole basil leaves, and the luscious fresh mozzarella that's made daily in-house. Tasting like an entity in its own right rather than a mere topping-delivery service, its thin, ripply-rimmed crust stubbornly resists being sliced but conveys wholesome, simple friendliness.

"I didn't want to cut up the basil," Phu said. "So I just said: Throw it on exactly as it is."

Such exhortations require more courage than most of us realize: "It took me a decade of working in kitchens to feel confident and secure about the ingredients I choose and about keeping dishes simple. As a younger chef, I always had that typical urge to say, 'Add a little more of this. Add a little more of that.' "

Now he knows better. Such security pays off in firm, Fiscalini-festooned fried green tomatoes; in bilstered padrón peppers with King Trumpet mushrooms, corn, cherry tomatoes, and smoked yuba; and in a seasonal ratatouille starring squash (fruit and blossom), pickled gypsy peppers, eggplant, basil, yogurt, and—house-made, need we say?—sambal oelek.

The ratatouille really resounds, its whole and nearly-whole al-dente delectables poised Picasso-perfectly atop a guacamole-esque chopped-eggplant bed. Finessing East-West fusion in stop-sign-red squirts, the seedy sambal balances the butteriness of the produce and is, mercifully, not too hot.

That's a welcome pleasure in an era when chefs fall over themselves to see who can use the most butter, sea salt, duck fat, ghost peppers, and cream. Phu's dishes are so subtly flavored as to fill you with (a) relief and (b) reverence for his restraint.

But Phu feels that he shares the stage with his sources: trusted favorites such as Full Belly Farms and Straus Family Creamery. "They're friends of mine. This is more than just a business that's part of an industry. It really is a community. I look at these providers and I think: I support you. You're my friend. I want you to do well."

 

 

 

 


 

Gather

2200 Oxford St., Berkeley,
510-809-0400
www.GatherRestaurant.com
Serves dinner daily, 5-9:30pm;
weekday lunch 11:30am-2pm;
and weekend brunch 10am-2:30pm.
Entrées $16-$31.
Beer and wine.
Accepts credit cards.

 

 

 



Gather chef Tu David Phu does inventive yet complexly simple food, including seasonal ratatouille.. Photos by Lori Eanes.

 

 

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