The system at Gather Kitchen allows you to build your own meal, or try one curated for you by the chef. This was one of our own creations. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

The new organic fast-casual Gather Kitchen bridges health and taste

“I think I’ve reached a point,” revealed Valentine, my cohort in adventure dining, “where I will eat for health instead of taste.”

It’s a reasonable conclusion to make in an era when gluten, high fructose corn syrup, and the demarcation “processed foods” are enough to get you banned from yoga class. Eating well is in; eating good? See, that’s where there’s often a problem.

The three flavors humans crave most — salt, sugar and fat — are valued precisely because in the natural world, those are some of the most difficult elements to come by. Our paleo ancestors sought out meats and sweets because they grew weary of the blandness of hunter-gatherer staples. And they weren’t the only ones. The spice road revolutionized cooking in the West (say what you want about immigrants, but they aren’t afraid of bold tastes). And since the advent of America P.V. (Post-Velvetta), we have had a hankerin’ for things that aren’t good for us but nevertheless trigger our salivary glands. The legacies of such cravings have been diabetes, obesity, heart disease. Contemporary food movements — including raw, organic, local, low-sugar, gluten-free, reduced fat and no cholesterol — have set the bar(s) for what’s healthy to use as fuel for our bodies. But, as the axiom warns, vegans live five years longer than carnivores… it’s just that they make life less worth living. The idea of modern society is to eat with gusto, just don’t kill yourself in the process.

So someone like Valentine — who tends to squirt Tabasco on everything from popcorn to cheesecake, making spiciness his go-to panacea for bland-tasting meals — will be happy to discover Gather Kitchen, the bright and spacious fast-cazh resto on the ground floor of Thanksgiving Tower. Newly opened, it employs the structure of many similar eateries, from Chipotle to Pokebop to the salad bar at Whole Foods: a bowl into which you can pour all your culinary wishes, from protein to vegetables to nuts and sauces, and not die trying.

We’ve seen it before. But the latest somehow feels fresh.

And fresh is certainly one watchword. I can’t think of a cafeteria-style concept as comfortable in its diversity as Gather Kitchen. The “entree” station offers choices of “bases:” cauliflower “rice;” quinoa; sweet potato or zucchini “noodles” among them. This isn’t the usual “steamed or brown rice” or “romaine or iceberg” non-choice; each base boasts a different volume and texture — a unique palette on which to compose your flavors. Pick one (or two if you want to explore more) as a foundation, and construct the tower of tastes from there — virtually every one of the options locally-sourced, organically sustainable, non-GMO certified, from black beans to onions to broccoli, prepared a la minute. Add lean beef, organic chicken or falafel as a protein; top with one of the half-dozen house-made salsas (a tangy sweet-and-sour that catches you off-guard; a spicy roasted pepper sauce that packs a kick). You can even throw on some almonds or chia seeds if the mood strikes you. Everything is fair game.

But even more important, everything is good. The trope that healthy is synonymous with “bland” finds no purchase here. It’s home cooking if your mom didn’t have access to clarified butter or refined sugar. (They also offer in-house-designed options to take the worry out of constructing your own, but you can still modify it to suit your specific needs.)

For lighter fare — or dessert, which is how Valentine and I approached it — the snack bar has its own “bases,” among them vanilla chia-seed pudding, a faux tiramisu (flavored with cashews, but indistinguishable from the authentic recipe), a dairy-free chocolate mousse (order it early; they run out fast) and a banana-and-nut melange that, taste aside, conjures up recollections of baby food. You can probably mask that, though, behind gobs of fresh fruit (huckleberries, strawberries, kiwi), nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.), shaved coconut, apple butter and more. No need to mask it, though, if you get the chia pudding, which has the consistency of ice cream but doesn’t melt instantaneously.

The owner, Soraya Spencer — who hails from North Africa and has brought many traditions and tastes with her, including a ras-al-hanout spice mix that exudes comfort cooking — says customers have already started asking for a soft drink fountain (she offers only infused waters, like lime and watermelon). She told me she’s looking into adding a carbonated water option but turns a deaf ear to the suggestion of syrupy soft drinks. Our pancreases salute you. So do our taste buds.

Gather Kitchen, 1601 Elm St. in Thanksgiving Tower. Mondays-Saturdays.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 15, 2017.