Verbena: A Showcase for Vegetables
Photos and article by Virginia Miller
VERBENA, Russian Hill (2323 Polk St. between Union & Green, 415-441-2323)
Gather has been my favorite Berkeley restaurant (alongside, what else? Chez Panisse) since it opened in 2010. Though a staunch meat eater, their vegan “charcuterie” wowed me, like the affordable offspring of Scandinavia’s vegetable-heavy creativity or of SF chefs like Coi‘s Daniel Patterson, who have long been pushing the reaches of what can be done with vegetables.
So it was with gladness that I heard the Gather crew, chef Sean Baker and owners Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, were opening a San Francisco restaurant, Verbena, which debuted December 18, 2013. High ceilings, warm woods, illuminated walls lined with bottles of (ubiquitous) house pickled vegetables, and a cozy, upstairs dining room… the space is sleek, strong, and inviting, bustling when full without being overwhelmingly loud.
After three visits in the first seven weeks, it’s clear Verbena’s vegetable-heavy ethos is similar to Gather, including strong meat and seafood options. Dishes are artistic and at its best, this translates to the taste. Baker works layered wonders with vegetables sourced exclusively from Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond, CA.
My top dish in initial visits is an artful streak of seared artichoke hearts ($14), less common than the pervasive beet, which is also showcased in a dish here. The hearts are dotted with pickled green tomato relish and pine nuts, undergirded by a dramatic smear of black garlic and rice koji “aioli” for another bold layer of flavor. It’s blessedly original… and most importantly, delights the taste buds.
Comforting and filling, turnips and sunchokes ($13) form a mound marked by shiitake mushrooms and farro “crisps” atop a pool of Moroccan-spiced red hummus, the shining point of the dish. The one vegetable small plate that didn’t work for me, surprisingly? Glazed carrots ($12), which I typically love. Though the carrots were perfectly tender-crisp, smartly touched by verbena and aleppo pepper over an intriguing smoked cashew mousse and topped with fresh greens, they were so sweet I recalled childhood memories of candied carrots sauteed in too much brown sugar that turned me off the vegetable for years.
In general, however, vegetables are the shining star here. Even a seemingly “basic” salad of colorful chicories ($11) is imbued with winter brightness from orange, satsumas, blood oranges and bronze fennel, tossed in a tart, dill-inflected pumpkin seed milk dressing. On the large plate side, brassicas ($23) – in this case, cauliflower and visually striking Romanesco broccoli – line the center of a bowl alongside a standout puree of beluga lentils. Dotted with pickles and hot peppers, half the bowl is filled with… you’ll never guess: creamy cheddar sauce. A blissfully decadent vegetable course.
On the meat side, duck/pancetta/chicken meatballs ($16) can’t help but win me over. They’re in mole negro sauce, my favorite style of mole, earthy with chocolate and spices, recalling my journeys in Oaxaca, Mexico. A smattering of collard greens, hominy and whey complete this decidedly Bay Area-meets-Oaxaca dish.
When they say “sardine” ($15), it’s not a typo. They mean one, small sardine, cut into pieces, arranged atop hunks of whipped cauliflower and horseradish cream like mini-sushi. Though tiny, flavor and presentation are fascinating, as the garnish of steelhead roe explodes in the mouth.
Desserts are no afterthought. In fact, they are intriguingly complex without feeling overwrought. I couldn’t help but adore an unusual twist on cheesecake served as cubes of kaffir lime cheesecake ($9) over a sheet of burnt turmeric marshmallow. Mini-black sesame meringues add savory crunch, while pomegranate seeds brightly pop. It’s one of the more blessedly original desserts this year. Even molasses ginger bread ($8) could be ho-hum but the moist bread benefits from the vegetal-sweet of carrot sorbet and a dreamy IPA beer caramel sauce.
In drink, I’m disappointed to say that after trying five cocktails over my visits, none really impressed despite the “right”, quality spirits and pleasing-sounding combinations. For example, I felt like hunting for the celery in Emerald Remedy # 2 ($11), a blend of gin, Pimm’s, Green Chartreuse, celery and lemon. Though I adore each of those ingredients and “green”-forward, vegetal drinks, the combo was indistinctive, lacking focus. Similarly, Noble Bay ($12) sounded like my kind of drink combining Redemption Rye, apple brandy and sweet vermouth with Bay laurel and bitters. Though the Bay laurel was pleasing on the nose, I couldn’t taste even a hint of it in the too-sweet rye spice of the drink.
Best bet? Stick with the lovely wine list consulted on by Michael Ireland (Gather, The Restaurant at Meadowood, Wingtip). Without annoyingly trumping up sustainable, biodynamic, and all that, it wasn’t till I spent time digging through the wine book on my second visit that I ascertained all wines, both international and local, fall into those categories. There’s many a pleasure amongst these small producer-growers, like one of my longtime favorite Nor Cal wines, Forlorn Hope, with their crisp 2012 Que Saudade Verdelho ($11), or a gorgeous small producer from Austria’s Kamptal, 2012 Hirsch “Heilegenstein” Gruner Veltliner ($16). On the red side, another Spanish Rioja favorite is represented by balanced glass of 2005 Lopez de Heredia Vina Cubillo Crianza.
Portions are small and prices add up quickly, but right out of the gate, Verbena (aka Gather West?) does what Gather has done well these few years: showcase vegetables, meat, local producers and local ingredients in a sophisticated way.