Nathan Conkle, a Culinary Institute of Charleston graduate, opened The Gathering Cafe last fall. It is a modest space in the Orange Grove Plaza strip mall west of the Ashley.
Unfortunately, the shopping center’s marquee advertises the Dog & Duck restaurant, which is closed. The Gathering Cafe, which is open, could certainly benefit from some roadside recognition.
It joins its Sam Rittenberg Boulevard neighbor, The Original Ms. Rose’s Fine Food and Cocktails, in restoring home-cooked meals to the neighborhood. Conkle also has partnered with local farmers and growers as well as GrowFood Carolina, Limehouse Produce and Adluh grits to shine a light on local and seasonal ingredients.
Conkle learned and practiced his craft at Magnolias, The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island and Whole Foods. He channels the River Cottage in Britain for his inspiration, and although there are no hedgerows or pastures surrounding his cafe, there is a simplicity and straight-forwardness to the cooking and service.
The small dining room incorporates a short bar, fresh flowers, live plants, and a tranquil green and cream color palette. Photos on the walls pay homage to the work of food.
Conkle has named his restaurant with the intention that it will live up to definition. And if we take the temperature of the health of our communities by virtue of their cafes, the vibrant ones are best served by large numbers of locally owned and operated neighborhood eateries.
The Gathering Cafe serves lunch and dinner. Sandwiches ($9) are available at lunch only. New to the menu are a variety of pastas with Tuesdays offering half-off the price.
The kitchen prepares daily soup, lunch and dinner specials. Prices are modest and portions are generous. We were among the majority leaving with leftovers.
Soups are ladled by the cup ($4) or bowl ($6) and are quite filling. A wedge of crispy grilled Brie cheese sandwich accompanies the ubiquitous tomato soup, which is swirled with unctuous creme fraiche. The flavors are bright with the tomato’s acidity parsing the richness of the cheese. Black bean and kale soup was the other option, and if the tomato soup is an indicator, the black bean is a winner, too.
The Gathering Cafe sources its bread locally and serves it with a ramekin of seasoned olive oil for dipping.
Salads are entree size ($8.25), but our waiter quickly offered a half-portion option that we took. Even at that, the leafy greens, Beluga lentils, quinoa, radishes, grape tomatoes and avocado chunks with a lemon vinaigrette were a plate to be reckoned with. Proteins can be added to any of the salads (chicken $4, salmon $7) that also included a Mediterranean chopped salad ($8.25) and kale Caesar ($8.25).
Vegans and vegetarians will find a cornucopia of vegetables to choose from and budget-friendly pricing: $2 apiece or four for $7.
Penang-style curry ($14) is coconut milk based and lush with carrots, potatoes, zucchini and mushrooms. Top this Malaysian-inspired dish with tofu ($14), chicken ($15) or shrimp ($17).
Pastas ($14-$18) can be ordered as half-portions. They include turkey Bolognese ($12) with gluten-free pasta or spaghetti; chicken with rigatoni; fusilli with pesto sauce; or malfadine with shrimp ($18).
Malfadine are narrow lasagna-shaped noodles, a bit thick with curled edges. This dish was billed as spicy but did not taste so robust. However, leftovers the next day answered with the heat of chiles.
A roasted salmon ($15.95) entree was accompanied by lachinato kale, whose aggressive flavor was nicely tamed, and a side of ancient grains that combined sweet potatoes, farrow and apples into a delicious melange of earthy chewiness and a sweet finish. Topped with a black olive tapenade and a sauce base of what tasted like the tomato soup, this was a dish of complex flavors that was carried off well by the kitchen. My only quibble was the salmon was overcooked.
Wine and beer are served, with a modest craft and local beer menu and wines tailored to the entrees.
Expect to see the menu change with the seasons, especially the vegetable sides.
Desserts ($5) are outsourced and include a carrot cake, chocolate fondant cake and cheesecake. There also is a house-made bread pudding.
The Gathering Cafe aims to please. Conkle and his team are season- and ingredient-focused. Shopping in the delicious pantry of the Lowcountry arms them well in the local and cafe food genre.
Now all he needs to do is harvest customers in the neighborhood to gather together and further his efforts to eat local.