Eating for the Earth

It doesn’t get much more farm-to-table than Gravy, an eatery on Vashon Island that consistently delivers seasonally prepared perfection.

We had the privilege of joining Gravy owners Dre Neeley and Pepa Brower at the Vashon Island farm where they source many of the restaurant’s ingredients. While in the greenhouse, Neeley proudly lifted from the dirt a kohlrabi — a leafy root vegetable with a round, purple base that’s reminiscent of something between a turnip and cabbage. The co-owner and executive chef informed us, “You guys are going to be eating some of this later.”

During our excursion to Aeggy’s Farm, a space ripe with fresh produce located a few miles away from the restaurant, Neeley and Brower explained their food philosophy. It’s one that seems utterly simple and, at the same time, extremely significant.

“Once you’ve had a tomato in peak season, you don’t want to serve anything less,” Neeley said. “It’s about being proud of what we produce.”

Brower echoed Neeley’s dedication to flavor but emphasized sustainability as a key factor as well. “It’s also a political conversation,” she said. “Why on Earth would we eat asparagus flown to us in a plane when we can find something better down the street? It’s a conversation we need to be having and need to continue to have.”

Neeley has been working in the kitchen since his informal position as his grandmother’s prep cook growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. His duties included shucking beans and selecting bushels of collard greens from the farmers market. “She’s where I got my inspiration and my passion,” he said. “She taught me all the secrets.” After he graduated from Grandma’s kitchen, Neeley went on to become formally trained in the culinary arts and has since created his own signature style of French-inspired cuisine with a Southern twist.

Brower, on the other hand, has always worked in front-of-house positions. She grew up in New York, and her professional experience includes every hospitality job under the sun. Her role at Gravy is similarly all-encompassing — she handles the restaurant management, events, finances, and is the first face to welcome anyone who walks in the door. She immediately makes you feel like you’ve known her for years, a true testament to her years in customer service.

When Neeley and Brower met 12 years ago, they were quick to realize how utterly compatible they were with their yin and yang restaurant experience. A few years later, the two were married. Three years ago, they opened Gravy in a storefront on Vashon Highway. “I don’t think I could do it without him, and he couldn’t do it without me,” Brower said of the partnership with her husband. “It’s a nice pairing — it works.”

Back on the farm, one of the fields is currently home to a couple hundred chickens. We make our way to the chicken coop to fill a few cartons with fresh eggs as the chickens cluck and scatter away from our path.

Neeley makes his egg selections and another promise of our harvest appearing on our plates later. Once we’ve gathered all the ingredients for the night, we hop into the “Gravy Boat,” Neeley’s beloved Cadillac.

After arriving at the restaurant, we review the menu for the evening. Despite the name of the eatery, you won’t find any dishes slathered in gravy. The moniker actually derives from Brower’s childhood imaginary friend. A strange name for an imaginary friend, she admitted with a laugh, but the companion’s importance to Brower as a little girl was undeniable. “Gravy was the only one I would talk to.”

When she was crafting the mission statement for their new company, she penned that Gravy transformed from imaginary to real — in the form of a community restaurant where anyone can come for an open ear and a full plate.

The menu boasts imaginative and elegant flavors but changes frequently based on what’s in season. One thing visitors can count on is the promise of chicken wings on Fridays. Neeley creates a new spin on the staple each week and has yet to repeat a flavor combination since they opened. During our visit, we tried wings with a sauce created from three types of mustard: yellow, whole grain, and dry. The tender breaded chicken complemented the distinctively spiced sauce, and we were shocked that this was the only time the chef would serve this delectable creation.

Next up was the apple and endive salad, a unique starter with crisp and slightly bitter greens, rounded out with nutty hints and sweet apple coated in a smooth vinaigrette. The house-made cornbread followed shortly, which is finished with a slight, wood-fired char that left beautiful stripes on the tender bread. A dollop of honey butter sweetened the bite.

The main courses were the beautifully plated and even-better tasting buttermilk fried chicken thighs and steak frites. Possibly the best fried chicken dish we’ve ever tasted, the double brined and breaded chicken thighs were stacked high upon a bed of spiced cauliflower, dates, tahini, peanuts, and herbs. The steak was equally noteworthy. Cooked over the wood fire, giving it a smoky finish, the meat was served with blanched herb fries, a heaping portion of singularly divine sherried mushrooms, and one of the eggs Neeley had picked out from the farm earlier that day.

We finished off the feast with Gravy’s signature dessert, one that they’ve had as a menu staple since their first dinner service: the chocolate terrine. Similar to a torte with mousse-like consistency, this flourless chocolate cake is heavy with richness, yet somehow melts in the mouth. Atop the chocolate lover’s dream, you’ll find swirls of cardamom whipped cream, coarse grains of sea salt, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Now, we can’t promise all of these mouthwatering menu items will be available when you come for a visit, but that’s what Gravy is all about. They’ll offer up equally inventive and delicious entrées made with local ingredients at the peak of their season. So, try something new, and ask the owners all about it.

We promise, this destination is well worth the ferry ride. 

 

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