A few months ago, I met someone who did not have an Instagram account but who nevertheless snaps smartphone photos of every meal he eats in a restaurant.

“I use it like a diary. It’s like a little screenshot of my life,” he told me, swiping through images of bygone falafels and fillets. “Sometimes I also use it to remember a dish I liked someplace so I can order it again … if they still make it. But a lot of places change too fast for that to work.”

Often, reinvention is a good thing, especially when it takes the form of an intentional, seasonal response to whatever local producers unload at a restaurant’s back door. This works best when the chef in question has a firm sense of concept and direction for the restaurant, reinterpreting that theme with fresh ingredients.

Other times, change chooses you. You might not even be aware it is happening — like that friend who moves into a house with a group of Australians, then makes you cringe when he can’t stop referring to everyone as “mate.”

Both species of change are afoot at Gather.

Now 7 years old, the Yarmouth restaurant remains committed to its goal of sourcing the lion’s share of its food locally.

“We shoot for two-thirds of our kitchen dollars to be spent within a day’s drive,” head chef Colin Kelly said. “So we have to build a new menu four or five times a year. All the staff sits down with Matt (Chappell, Gather’s owner), and it’s pretty cooperative.”

Late summer is when seasonal reinvention should be easiest. Not only are nearby farms erupting with produce, but Gather even allows locals to bring in surplus from their home gardens to swap it for credit at the restaurant. August and September should be the restaurant’s farm-to-table victory lap.

Watercress and fennel salad with watermelon radish, peas, toasted hazelnut and herbed vinaigrette. Michele McDonald/Staff photographer Buy this Photo

And a few dishes do capture the essence of this time of year, at least in their conception. The frilly watercress and fennel salad ($15) is a peppery, powerfully herby, vegan take on a Green Goddess salad. Shelled peas, slick shavings of fennel bulb and toasted hazelnuts lend texture to this bountiful tangle of green on green on green. In the background — probably a bit too far in the background — a vinaigrette of olive oil, English mustard powder, thyme and tarragon dances.

In another, Kelly’s team liberates charred kernels of Maine corn from their cobs, blending them with cheddar cheese and cornmeal to form a dense hush puppy batter. However, because sugar gets replaced by Maine maple syrup, Gather’s hush puppies ($9) brown beautifully but do not remain crisp. Diners are left with a choice: Either eat them when their interior is hotter than magma or learn to love soggy hush puppies.

The exterior of Gather, which occupies a former Masonic lodge. Michele McDonald/Staff photographer Buy this Photo

In a 3 1/2-star review of Gather five years ago, our then-critic described being charmed by the converted Masonic lodge’s rustic décor and its most prominent feature: an 18-seat communal table that extends down the equator of the dining room. Then, as today, the homey, inviting space was among the restaurant’s biggest assets.

In 2014, Gather had also recently been granted a full liquor license. Five years on, its wine and cocktail menus, both overseen by bar and front-of-house manager Dylan Suagee, are eclectic and whimsical. With several well-executed Mexican and Southwestern-influenced cocktails like the tequila-and-Campari-fueled Ruby Dee ($12), a honey margarita ($12) and an espresso-and-horchata martini ($12), the bar signals its confidence clearly, even if it is a bit disconnected from the rest of the restaurant.

Give it time, though. If recent shifts are any indication, the two might yet converge.

That’s because another creeping change underfoot at Gather is a shift in its culinary focus. Glance at one of the early menus put together by former chef Chad Conley (Rose Foods, Palace Diner), and you might be tempted to describe Gather as a Maine reboot of California cuisine: an acutely seasonal restaurant that draws inspiration from classic European (mainly French and Italian) cooking.

After a few dozen seasonal menu rewrites, however, Gather’s North Star seems to have taken a detour in the night sky. It’s not a complete overhaul, but today, you’re just as likely to walk in to find an old friend eating a bowl of Maine seafood bouillabaisse ($24) as tucking into a “banh mi” pizza ($14).

“I don’t know if you’d call it eclecticism,” Chappell said. “That might be possible, but it’s not conscious. It rolls more in flavor profiles than anything else. Sometimes we’ll go off in more of an Italian direction; sometimes it’s a little more Asian. But I like to let the kitchen be creative and try new things. It’s the lifeblood of the kitchen; without that, you’re going to get pretty bored.”

The entrance hall to dining room at Gather offers evidence of its commitment to local farmers and to building community. Michele McDonald/Staff photographer Buy this Photo

Casco Bay fish tacos ($17) certainly spice things up, literally and figuratively. The crisp-fried local haddock chunks are a great match for a fiery Sriracha mayo that made my dinner guest’s eyes widen in surprise as he finished his first bite. Or he may have been reacting to the flat-top-toasted Tortilleria Pachanga corn tortilla that had gone so stiff and stale, I could have played it at 45 rpm.

Contrast that with the consistency of the unpleasantly runny horchata custard ($9), a (barely) cornstarch-thickened, gluten-and-dairy-free pudding that tasted mostly of sugar and looked like a hazelnut-topped medical sample.

But nothing prepared me for the Maine lobster ramen. At $29, it was one of the most expensive entrées on the menu, a dish our genial, yet absent-minded server described as “like nothing I’ve ever tasted.” Make that two of us. Once an apprentice to a Southern Italian chef who taught him to make pasta, Kelly knows his way around a house-made noodle. Thanks to a home-brewed bicarbonate concoction, his whole-wheat ramen are bouncy and curled, precisely as they should be.

Other components look the part, from a rose fashioned from strips of pickled carrot to a jammy-yolked hard-boiled egg marinated in soy and mirin.

Yet once the duo of stocks – dashi and a bizarre lobster stock made pho-style with charred ginger and garlic – hits a smear of soy-lime tare on the bottom of the bowl, things go sideways in a hurry. The resulting broth is too acidic, with tarry overtones from the singed aromatics and almost none of the savory, umami richness of a classic ramen soup.

“Sorry, no chopsticks left,” my server announced when she set the bowl down in front of me. “Do you need a fork, or is that (soup) spoon OK?” I silently wondered if she had ever eaten ramen before, then agreed to take a fork. With it, I fished out the still-chilly lobster claw and knuckle meat, a few forkfuls of the noodles, and forlornly left the majority of my $29 in the bowl.

Nola Stone, 5, left, her mom, Maggie Stone, and Sammo Stone, 3, wait at a table on the deck for their pancakes at Gather’s Sunday brunch. Maggie Stone says they are regulars who come from Freeport because they love the food, the friendly atmosphere, the play space for kids and the bluegrass music. Michele McDonald/Staff photographer Buy this Photo

What I did then will come as no surprise to anyone who has tasted Gather’s pizza. I reached into the doggy bag containing the remains of my appetizer order of cauliflower and mushroom pizza ($14) and pulled out a still-warm slice to tide me over.

Pizzas have quietly turned into Gather’s signature dish, regardless of occasional stumbles elsewhere when its kitchen ventures into territory it is not equipped to navigate.

Before he came to the restaurant as a line cook in 2013, Kelly was trained on the wood-fired pizza ovens of Bonobo in Portland’s West End. In Yarmouth, with a less temperamental deck oven set to “Inferno,” he creates a fantastically blistered, chewy crust that can withstand wet toppings like dollops of mascarpone drizzled with orange juice and truffle oil, as well as dry ones like par-cooked cauliflower and roasted North Spore maitake and king trumpet mushrooms.

Did I mention they’re gorgeous, too? I snapped a photo of the fragrant pie the second our server set it down (and retreated to bring us the silverware she forgot). But I didn’t post it on social media. I’ll hang on to this one to help jog my memory the next time I visit Yarmouth.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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