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Jan 4, 2014 06:47 PM

Verbena on Polk, SF

Being a fan of Berkeley's Gather, I long looked forward to the SF outpost. Believe me, I wanted to love it.

I suppose it was slightly unfair to expect a Gather replica, but at least my unconscious seemed to!.

We found the menu difficult to decipher, even for a "food person," and the portions inhospitably small.

My Better Half was still hungry after we got home.,

As for flavors, they were hit and miss. My $23 "Brassicas" dish was more "interesting": than drop-dead delicious. Likewise a beet salad. Nothing really sang, though I think my BH enjoyed the tiny sardine dish and the meatballs, as far as they went., With 2 IPAs and one glass of rose, the bill came to $100 before tip, a bit too much for a neighborhood week night meal that left us slightly unsatisfied, both aesthetically and physically.

I'll probably give it another chance after it's been open longer, assuming I like what I see on the online menu.

PS Those of you fond of Gather's grass-fed burger will be disappointed--not on the menu.when we were there.

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  1. I gave Verbena a try earlier this week. It's definitely not as in the mold of Gather as I was hoping, but I think it's still a good addition to the neighborhood.

    I totally agree on the menu. I hate it when my only clue on how to put together a meal is to go off of the relative prices of the different items. Some headings telling me what's an entree and what's a "small plate" would go a long way.

    On the other hand, the food I had was delicious. The celeriac and mushrooms had me scraping every last bit I could out of the bowl. I'm still not convinced they didn't slip some veal stock into the sauce on the mushrooms. The duck meatballs with kale and mole were rich, but not overly so, and a great combination of flavors.

    Unfortunately my guesswork on prices was off the mark, so I was definitely hungry afterwards. The parsnip and chocolate gelato was pretty good, but not worth a trip or anything. I could have used an additional appetizer to make it a full meal.

    The cocktails I tried were good. One, the noble bay, was pleasant, but felt like it was missing some backbone. The emerald remedy, with gin, pimm's, chartreuse, and celery was one of the best savory cocktails I've had in a long time.

    I think if they can make it clearer on the menu how they expect you to feed yourself, they'll have a good neighborhood restaurant. I don't see it being worth a special trip the way Gather is.

    4 Replies
    1. re: jacquesf

      There were actually unfamiliar words on the menu, a problem I seldom encounter, though I often find myself defining for fellow-diners.

      1. re: Fine

        The only oddities I see on the current sample menu are garum (Italian fish sauce) and "cioppino verde," which they made up.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          they are now lableing the cioppino verde as swordfish. I only knew what Brassicas was from studying horticultural.

      2. re: jacquesf

        The menu was arranged like most are with smaller on the top and getting progressively larger on the bottom.

      3. Wow I have had such a different experience. We went the second day they were open and this past weekend. Both time the service was great, food came quickly but not too quickly and almost everything I would order again. First time it was just me and the French Spouse and the second was with another couple, one of whom does eat seafood and one who has celiac and an almond allergy.

        I guess I didn't find the menu difficult to decipher since on both our visits the server asked if it was our first time and then explained both the portion sizes and the menu in detail. I certainly did think anything was inhospitably small but I prefer 2-3 small dishes to one big entree any day. I also would never pay over 10 dollars a hamburger.

        I liked the food far better than the meal I've had at Gather and the portions better especially for the last section of entree sized portions. The quail dish had two large dish and was more than enough for two people.

        I think realistically you will spend at least 30 a person and we spent around 50 a person but we are glutton and especially the second time they were able to make everything we order except one thing gluten and almond free so we went a bit crazy and probably ordered too much.

        Dishes we had the first visit
        The dishes we had:
        1. Sprouted seed bread, chevre, beet sauerkraut $6 the bread was straight forward, two dense thin slices, there was large portion of chevre, the twist was the beet sauerkraut which was dehydrated powdered beet sauerkraut. The bread was really excellent but I wish there was one more slice because it was so damn good. This a small portion.

        2.Beets, harzelnut curds, treviso, citrus $11, I've seen version of this at other restuarants but this stood out for the contrast of the citrus to the earthiness of the beets which had a smoked flavour to them, there were beets in all the ways, compressed cubes, thin jellee layers with citrus segment. This dish is good as a starter dish for one or shared for two.

        3. cardoons and parsnips, kale, yogurt, charmoula $13 Another smaller starter sized dish, this had all the savory aspects you expect from the cardoons and parsnips with the charmoula and yogurt giving it a depth of flavour. Very satisfying dish.

        4. Sardine, cauliflower, horseradish, steelhead roe, chickweed $15, This was my favorite dish, with four small pieces of sardines on top of a divine cauliflower mash. I wish it was larger only because I liked it so much. It is interesting textured and flavoured dish with the oil from the sardine, the saltiness of the roe, the cream of the cauliflower and subtle bite of the horseradish.

        5. Cioppino verde, fennel, potato, new oil $27- This was the French spouse favorite dish. It came with a slice of seared bread that was great for the broth. It was an entree size but on the smaller size. It consisted of a butter poached fish, mussels, clams and grill octopus. The broth was beautiful with lots of flavour without being over salted.

        6. keffir lime cheese cake, burnt marshmallow, black sesame meringue, $9, the components were all good but I found the marshmallow which was plentiful overwhelmed my palate with the sweetness still the cheese cakes had a lovely tartness.

        7. drinks-1 fake mojito, 1 ginger beer, 1 cappuccino which was done in a traditional Italian roast than a third wave west coast one. They also have small and large French Press in regular and decaf.

        Second visit we had so many:
        1. sprouted seed bread again-actually got two orders cause the celiac friend was so happy to have bread at a restaurant.

        2.Mushrooms with celeriac & lovage 7 nice homey dish, small, bread is need to sopping up the liquid.

        3.Trotter terrine, served cold of course, nice slice topped with a spicy mustard and pepper compote. 8

        4.Beets again, still good
        5. sardines again-still adore these as did all the seafood eaters.
        6.cardoon again
        7.Koji Quail- two big quail, crispy on the outside, lots of meat, grains cooked perfectly- I liked it better than State Bird's Quail 28
        8.Swordfish aka cippino verde- there was more seafood in it this time still delicious broth
        9. Brassicas- as a large entree size dish this was pretty one not in terms of flavour and everyone agreed would be better as small dish.

        we finished with the ginger cake which the German and the FS both agreed tasted just like the traditonal ginger cake you fine the south of Germany.

        The Chocolate and parsnip dessert was gluten and almond free and it was the best dessert, it was chocolate flourless cake with parsnip sorbet, a light custard and a cranberry gelee.

        Service for this first night:
        For only being open less than a week, the service was excellent. They aren't taking reservation by open table yet so I called to see if a table was open on the spur, they had room at the bar but though they could get me into a two-top in dining area and they had one free by the time we arrived. The host was pleasant and prompt. Our main server was fabulous, she knew all about the menu, asked us questions about dietary issues, made good suggestions and was just darn friendly as was the rest of the staff. Everyone in the front of the house seemed to be working together seemlessly. The folks at the table next to us were happy with the cocktail suggestions and our server was happy to have the bartender make us mocktails.

        Service for the second night: they were exceptional. Our server went through the entire menu with a pen and marked what the celiac and the FS who is pescatarian could have. We did order two dishes that are normally gluten and almond free and the kitchen ended up making them both gluten free. Everyone from the host to the manager was on top of things.

        The best thing is what is on the ceiling-sound baffling panels!! Along with making the place look nice they actually thought about sound. The music was at a nice low level and communication was easy most of the time. The dining room was only 2/3 full as four 4-tops were still be prepped for use. There is also a room upstairs that is even better if you are hard of hearing or need a quieter space. There is a bar along one side and as it gets busier, I am sure there will be more noise in the dining area. There is one wheelchair accessible unisex bathroom on the main level. The entire main floor is wheelchair accessible and it would be easy to get around. The upper level does not look accessible and there are more bathrooms up on that level. The lighting is on the dim side for reading the menu. There is a wow wall of shelving for all the canned goods with a ladder I really wanted to climb. Second visit the place was completely full and we still had no problem hearing including myself who is HOH.

        Price- It was 108 for 6 dishes, two non-alcoholic drinks. Plan 25-50 a person depending on how much and what you choose to eat and at least two dishes per person. The portions are small but I think very worth in terms of taste.

        2 Replies
        1. re: tjinsf

          Have you been back since?

          Anyone else?

          This place's plating looks so incredible. I've been looking at plating from all the big name places (Saison/Benu/Crenn/Coi/Manresa/Baume) and none of them seem to have as gorgeous of plating as this little place.

          If the flavors even come close to matching the beauty of the plating it seems like it would be amazing.

          It looks like the kind of place that is truly special, because here in LA you would never see such elaborate plating for anywhere near $50 a person. Hell, you can spend $100 a person without seeing plating like that.

          1. re: BacoMan

            yes I've been back three more times. I thought the plating was pretty but nothing out of the ordinary for that style, she can see the same things at AQ, Commonwealth and other places but I really like how they do vegetables and seafood and the earthiness of many of the dishes.

        2. Trying to squeeze in as much fresh okra as possible during its short season, two weeks ago my brother and I had a late dinner (10pm via opentable) at Verbena, a first time for both of us. Neither of us has been to its sibling in Berkeley. It was easy to park on Polk Street at that hour. The room was about half-full when we arrived a few minutes early. It was notably more subdued than the other places we’ve been eating late, making it feel more sophisticated and special occasion. The soundtrack for the night was 70s and 80s soft rock.

          We asked our waiter for advice on how many plates to order. He recommended four or five depending on the mix of smaller to large plates for the two of us. When I expressed my preference for a non-sugary cocktail with brown spirits, he suggested the Octavia Boulevard, $11, made with bourbon, Gran Classico, amaro and orange, that I enjoyed.

          Sprouted seed bread, $9, chevre, peppers and onions. When I saw the two slices, I couldn’t help think of our city’s infamous $5 toast. Yet, this turned out to be incredibly dense with seeds, almost a nut bar, and a course unto itself with the roasted onions and peppers.

          Padron and shishito peppers with okra, $16, fresh cow peas, fermented lime mayonnaise, curry leaf. Cut into smallish bits and seared, the dry-fried okra had very little sliminess. This dish, however, was all about the peppers and we did not run across any spicy hot ones. Overall this tasted like a well-made South Indian dal embellished with some creamy richness.

          Tomato and fennel, $17, seaweed-cashew tonnato, lobster mushroom & saffron
          vinaigrette, rice cracker. Hunks of yellow heirloom tomatoes had little flavor. But the cashew “tonnato” with a briny element from seaweed almost made up for it. The seaweed repeated in the dusting on the rice cracker “leaves” and some crackly pieces of sea vegetables. Carefully seared mushrooms added earthy depth.

          Meatballs and clams in fermented green tomato broth, $17, frying pepper, bok choy, new oil. Call us cretins, this omnivore dish was our favorite of the savory items. Chicken-pork meatballs were lean but tender. The lilting acidity made the broth extra delicious and I wish a slice of toast had been served alongside.

          Corn creamed in carrot juice, $24, huitlacoche, escabeche, serrano pepper, cranberry bean. Jokingly I asked our server the vintage of the beans (after reading the menu description of this year and last year’s shelling beans) and he confirmed that they’re fresh and harvested this year. William noted that the carrots escabeche had more nuanced seasoning than what I make at home or find at taquerias. The dish also had some whole mushroom caps and deliciously smoky potatoes. The creamed corn was too sweet to eat much of and we were pretty full at this point in the meal.

          Strawberry with tomato cake, $9, angelica, white chocolate, buttermilk, lemon balm ice cream. Dish of the night and the one that did not feel overpriced. Triangles of light and crumbly tomato-studded cake were heavily toasted. The fragrance of the lightly macerated strawberries perfumed the plate.

          The two-top table felt small, and it took some coordination to remove plates before serving the next dish, which the host and waiter managed to do without fail. I did have to request a change of share plates. Service overall was very good.

          Everything we tried had some smoky, seared or charred notes that introduced the depth and complexity often missing from vegetable dishes. And emulsions or nut butters added satisfying richness. The cuisine was certainly enjoyable but I did not get the same “wow” factor of my first meal at Napa’s Ubuntu, for example. My next visit will probably be for dessert and a sweet wine at the bar.

          While serving size is not huge and individual prices seem on the high side, our tab for two with one cocktail, tax and tip (and some food leftover) came to $137. That’s comparable to what we’ve spent at State Bird Provisions or Cotogna, so it’s not out of line. In fact for ambiance and service level, it tops both of those spots.

          1. Just had a very nice early dinner here. The short version: on a scale of 10, if the other dishes averaged about 8.5, the dessert was turned up to 11. Apple candy cap cake with celery root ice cream & pickled plums. Pure sorcery! Smoky & savory & chewy & mmmmm.... I will definitely go back for dessert.

            The rest of the meal was delicious, although portion size/price ratio was at the expensive end of my value comfort zone. As Melanie said, lots of smoky flavors -- nice, not overdone. Service was fine but not flawless. Music choice early in the meal was odd enough that I noticed it: Beatles & MJ, felt mismatched w/ the rest of the aesthetic. They switched to better jazz later.

            The veggie dishes we got were much like larger versions of Gather's veggie charcuterie selections: lots of different ingredients & techniques juxtaposed in each bite. I liked these much better than the seafood dishes, although those were good too.

            If you are both vegetarian & a little picky: only 4 smaller plates & 1 larger pasta, so if you don't like a couple of ingredients or don't want to eat pasta, you won't have much choice. At least look at menu online before you go.

            Overall, thumbs up!

            1. I went for dinner with 4 other people in October and found it to be just so-so. Service was stellar and despite a mix-up with our reservation time and size of party, we were seated promptly and checked on several times by the maitre'd to ensure everything was satisfactory. The cocktail menu (house drinks) is small but all of the drinks were well made and the originals were really creative and well balanced. The meal itself was nothing to write home about. I think the best part was the sprouted bread starter with chevre, beets, and sauerkraut, though the portion size was small for 4 people and we ended up ordering it two or three times. I don't remember all that was ordered as it was a few months ago and nothing was all that memorable, but my main was a very flavorful Asian-inspired lemongrass soup. Had I been expecting that, I'm sure I would have felt more satisfied with a low key place in the TL/Little Saigon or Richmond but it was still very good. My wife had some sort of prawn dish which came up short. I don't recall anyone else's orders but nobody was really impressed by the menu or kitchen. The cocktails and bread were the highlights. That said, our meal was just fine. It was nothing special though. I'm not inspired to return anytime soon.