Eastern Market restaurant finds its groove after a rocky beginning
Curbside view of Gather
Within the first month or so of its opening, my husband and I stopped into Gather in Detroit’s Eastern Market for dinner. Small plates made for sharing? Check. Locally sourced ingredients from nearby farmers market? Check. Detroit-made candles in the bathroom? Check. Bicycle in the hallway? Check. At first glance, it seems like Gather checks all the boxes of the slew of trendy new Detroit restaurants to open in recent months.
The space was minimalistic with just three communal tables and 10 wooden school chairs pulled up to each table, plus a few seats at a tiny bar. Bright fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling. The open kitchen boasted white subway tile. The rosé slushie was a bit watery, and most of the meal was forgettable, except for a pork belly dish that had an excessive amount of pork belly. It was a bit one note, fat on top of fat, but with the amount of meat on it, the dish was worth at least $24. It cost $12. I thought to myself, “They’re gonna go broke. This place is never going to last.”
On a late summer day, over a year after my first visit, I tell the owners Lea and Kyle Hunt my initial thoughts on the first iteration of Gather as we sit in the second-floor space, which is equally minimalistic as the restaurant counterpart downstairs. This level is going to become Collect, a craft beer bar that, as of press time, was slated to open in October. Lea laughs at my assessment and says, “You were very right.”
Since opening in May 2017 after launching a Kickstarter and holding pop-ups, they’ve experienced a rocky first year, even by normal standards. Nate Vogeli, their first executive chef, left just a few months after opening, forcing the restaurant to close for a month while they searched for a new chef. The Hunts, high school sweethearts who hail from Macomb Township, saw their bank account get dangerously low before reopening. That first year was very difficult, Lea says.
Owners Kyle and Lea Hunt
“It’s hard to make it through your first year of a restaurant,” Kyle says. “It’s hard to be closed for a month in the first year. It’s hard to change chefs in the first four months of the restaurant. But somehow, we made it. I feel like at our first-year anniversary party, we were like, ‘We did it!’ ”
With executive chef Jessi Patuano now heading up the kitchen, the rookie restaurateurs have settled in and come into their own. The Hunts had no restaurant experience before — Lea has a background in sports marketing and Kyle in sustainability — but they went all in on this 34-seat eatery.
During my second visit, though the space looked very much the same, the menu had been revamped under Patuano, a Schoolcraft College grad who has had experience in the finest kitchens in metro Detroit, including The Root, Chartreuse, and Torino. Together, Patuano and the Hunts are working to create a neighborhood restaurant that is nurturing and inviting, more like a dinner party and less of a formal experience. After you walk into Gather’s clean and simple space, you’re ushered to one of the stainless-steel tables and reclaimed school chairs. If it’s busy, you will have to sit next to strangers — and it’ll be cozy. There’s a knife and fork placed atop a brown paper napkin on the table and next to amber-colored plastic glasses. The silverware might not be in the right place according to fine-dining standards, says Lea, and that’s OK. The menu is short and, during the times I visited, has dishes like house-smoked barbecue ribs and socca, a chickpea flatbread. The food is served on plates that look like it came straight out of grandma’s china cabinet.
Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta: Marinated heirloom cherry tomatoes, cucamelons, spicy green pesto, radish, fresh herbs, grilled country bread, and black pepper ricotta
Gather is not your typical new American small plates restaurant. This place is remarkably special, and it comes from the love and passion the owners and its kitchen staff have for what they’re doing, whether it’s giving back to the community through Burger Wednesday — a day when diners can enjoy a $5 burger in exchange for an item that will benefit the restaurant’s charity partner of the month — or making as many components of each dish in house. Other than condiments such as Blis hot sauce and breakfast sausage from Farm Field Table, everything is “painstakingly made from scratch,” Patuano says. They recently launched a bread program which mean they are baking sourdough and country bread in house.
Socca, a chickpea flatbread with herb-marinated veggies, garlic purée, pickled peppers, fresh tomato, and spinach
Like the food menu, the cocktail and wine list is also brief and simple. When we visited, there were about nine wines, a mix of New and Old World wines, available by the glass and bottle. No bottle cost more than $44, a Blanc de Blanc from Burgundy. There are even fewer cocktails listed, including a margarita, French 75, and the Clint and Chelsea (Stroh’s and a cheap shot of bourbon) to name a few. All cocktails feature spirits from Eastern Market neighbor Detroit City Distillery.
During the late summer when we dined, my husband immediately gravitated toward the peach and tomato panzanella salad, which I was hesitant to order because it’s so simple. Why get a stale bread salad when there are so many other choices? But Patuano reimagines this Italian side dish with a Middle Eastern spin, boasting pickled peaches and red onions, tahini vinaigrette, baba ghannouj, and sunflower seed za’atar. Patuano layers flavor after flavor and this simple salad is transformed into a stunning dish that is perfectly balanced between salty, sweet, acidic, and spicy.
The grass-fed coulot, which is an underutilized cut of meat but just as tasty as the more well-known cuts — if not even more flavorful — comes medium rare. You don’t even get asked how you want it because that’s how Patuano wants to serve it, our server told us. It’s beautifully plated with dollops of umami-filled black garlic sauce, white onion sauce, and verdant radish butter. We also ordered an heirloom tomato bruschetta, which was a celebration of the season’s peak produce. Just like the panzanella salad, Patuano doesn’t stop with just piling tomatoes on toast. The bruschetta came with pesto, thinly sliced radish, and black pepper ricotta, each bite equally crunchy, spicy, and creamy.
Left: Prince Edward mussels with tomatillo salsa, cucumber, radish, and grilled country bread; right: Coulot steak with black garlic sauce, white onion purée, and radish butter
When Patuano conceptualizes a dish, she starts with what’s available. During the summer, the menu changes constantly to reflect all of the available fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers. About 80 percent of the menu is locally sourced during peak produce time, Patauno says, and everything, save for the exception of ingredients such as mussels, chocolate, citrus, and olive oil, come from a 500-mile radius.
Executive chef Jessi Pantuano
Patuano says they’ll do “a study in one particular product” and work extensively to explore all the different ways to highlight that ingredient, such as tomatoes, which manifested in six different ways on the summer menu. It’s a challenge for everyone on her staff to think about how to use the same product in new ways — and the results are wildly creative.
During the rest of year, the menu doesn’t change as rapidly. This season, Patuano brings back a dish that was so well-received that it even surprised her. A confit sweet potato with maple and brown sugar aioli, nori dust, toasted sesame seeds, and pickled cipollini onions. “I thought it was super weird when I put it on the menu, and I was so nervous that no one would order it and somehow it became our signature dish,” Patuano says.
That’s kind of like how Gather is: You think it’s one thing but then it’ll surprise you.
1454 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 586-850-0205. D Mon.-Sat., B and L Saturday