The world’s oldest social medium is the dinner table. Even before humans stumbled upon agriculture, the feast that followed the hunters’ kill enabled social sharing of the necessities of life. Not just of essential nutrients but of the trust and cooperation without which complex society would never have evolved. Now, in a world where most meals are eaten in solitude, bent over our keyboards, a restaurant that trumpets “sharing” and actually means it, is a refreshing change of sensory experience. Gather, Chicago is a top contender.
The first thing that one notices about the neighborhood is the density of restaurants. Lincoln Square must now be the most densely populated stretch in Chicago if one were to extend the definition to sports-bars. But they do serve food and pretty decent food so get off your high-horse. And, because rents have not caught up, the places are quite spacious and nearly every one of them has an outdoor seating area. Given it was Sunday and LS either means a pricey cab or very lengthy train ride, and most importantly: because we completely forgot about German Fest, we drove. Now usually, a mistake of this magnitude is sufficient to delay arrival by an hour, cause massive rage in the driver and equal parts anxiety and fear in the passenger. But, not only did we not even realize that we were heading for the mouth of revelry until we heard the music, we found a rock-star parking spot immediately! For free! Try that in River North.
Seated promptly at our choice of outdoor table, service began with the typical: “Have you dined with us before?” I really do wish that the industry picked a different ice-breaker since in the end, all restaurants work in exactly the same way: 1) order, 2) eat, 3) pay. However, that was the end of the cliché. What followed would so completely exceed our expectations that I have already reconsidered my neighborhood elitism. BTW, the restaurant does offer a special family dinner menu on Sundays with an eye to serving actual families. And quite a few came out. If you are allergic to children you should pick a different day but the families dining there last night seemed to all remember that “parenting” does not get outsourced to the waiter just because the parents have their mouths full. Not a single instance of misbehavior was observed and everyone sat and used their indoor voices. It was almost quaint to see 3 generations sitting next to us, dining out like in a time that’s long-since vanished.
Our favorite from the menu were the Brussels Sprouts. The mix of nuts, cheese and miso flavor improved upon the famous veggie in a manner that I wished I could prolong. When will someone invent a small, edible wiper “blade” that would allow us to politely squeegee out our plates without having to embarrass anyone? A close second was the cured salmon. I like this on its own but the mix of fried egg, burnt toast and cucumber crème fraiche was a huge improvement on what I buy at Costco. Almost tied with the salmon was the Crispy Pork Belly. Cubes of pork and watermelon make for an unusual combination especially when both are generously drizzled with soy glaze. And, BTW, when they say cubes they mean smaller Rubik’s cubes – not the confetti that passes for meat in your shrink-wrapped salads. The reason that the pork does not score higher is that the venerable pig has become a bona fide religion as of late. There is so much competition that a simple mix like the above is too small a plan to stir men’s souls. The dish is absolutely excellent but you can have similar at 15 other places. The other two, you can’t. So there. The only disappointment were the scallops. But I have been increasingly disappointed with them, mainly due to stratospheric prices. Still, even here, Gather gives you four for US$23. Compare that to Balena’s 2 for 27. Finally about the portions: They’re HUGE! Not sharing as in morsels but actually for sharing with 3 or more people – or just 2 gluttonous people. Or 2 adults and two smaller kids. Or…you get the point. As usual, we over-ordered and self-extraction from our chairs was a triceps workout. You have been warned. Wanna sample all the goodies? Make sure to bring a posse. They don’t have to share your DNA. Or a to-go bucket. You’ll still spend less than you would for dinner for 2 at any Gold Coast haunt. Money that you should then spend on after-dinner drinks.