THE RESTAURANT KNOWN as Gravy commenced existence four years ago this spring on Vashon Island, a pretty little idyll just a 15-minute ferry ride from West Seattle. The official anniversary falls on April 2; though they were all set by April Fools’ Day, “We did not want to do that!” chef Dre Neeley says, laughing his ready laugh. Since then, the airy-in-summer, cozy-in-winter place with its black-and-white tiles and friendly open kitchen has become a beloved fixture for locals and a happy find for those visiting.
Neeley’s menu mostly reads European bistro, reflecting his five years as head chef at Seattle favorite Cafe Presse, but he learned to cook at his grandmother’s knee in Birmingham, Alabama, so her influence finds a home here, too. When the menu changes in mid-April for warmer times, the chicken, for instance, goes from Frenchy confit served with roasted apple, charred fennel, root vegetables, lemon and rosemary to his grandma’s recipe for deeply browned, superlative Southern fried. In its season, the fried chicken rivals Neeley’s genius “Trifecta Burger” — made with ground sirloin, smoked ham hock and duck breast, cooked on a wood-fired grill — for most popular dish.
Those desirous of more of his family’s cooking — including collard greens and macaroni and cheese — should make a point to get to Gravy for Sunday barbecue, extending out onto the back patio, Memorial Day through Labor Day only. “It’s pretty fun,” Neeley says, which sounds like an understatement if ever there were one. But spring’s also special, because produce gets grown just for the restaurant right on the island by Aeggy’s, which also provides Gravy’s eggs. That project’s been quite a bit of work, Neeley notes, with which he helps to the best of his ability. “I go out there and pretty much get in the way,” he notes, laughing — he says he also brings a bottle of wine. The vegetables found in Gravy’s springtime salads, like the Italian one with “nice” quality tuna packed in olive oil below, taste like they were cared for by friends, with happiness.
Neeley’s partner in Gravy and in life — it takes the two of them a minute to figure out that they’ve been married for nine years, both laughing — is one Pepa Brower. She was first a server then general manager at Seattle’s estimable Brasa back in the day, with additional GM experience with Tom Douglas under her belt. Her mother, a longtime Vashon artist, found Gravy’s space, which they could actually afford, unlike cityside options. Brower does not miss the Seattle restaurant industry. Their world now, she says, is “the best — it’s really amazing that Dre and I have made a life together, and a business together, and found a little island where we can express ourselves.
“We’ve embraced this community, and they’ve embraced us back,” Brower observes, which makes for a very fortunate hug.
Italian Tuna Salad from Chef Dre Neeley of Gravy
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (15 oz.)
1 English (or regular) cucumber, cut any way you like
About ½ small red onion, very thin-sliced
1 blood orange or any preferred citrus, peeled and sectioned or sliced
½ cup olives, pitted (Castelvetrano preferred)
1 big handful fresh mint leaves
1 can “nice” tuna packed in olive oil (4 oz.)
2 cups mizuna or any preferred greens
For the vinaigrette, combine:
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Combine all ingredients minus tuna and greens in a bowl, then toss with vinaigrette and let sit for half an hour. Add greens and toss. Place tuna on top of salad and serve.