Gaia Bistro on South Pearl is a true gathering place
Gaia Bistro’s arepas make a delicious addition to any summer meal. See also: A closer look at Gaia Bistro
After years of watching our porches rot and rebar poke through the driveway, I find myself in the middle of a big landscape project. To some, this might be the stuff of dreams. We're picking out plants, buying mulch, putting gardens where the gravel pit of a driveway used to be. But for me, it's worse than that dream where you show up at a meeting in your birthday suit. I know there will be a day when I can enjoy coffee under an umbrella, surrounded by petunias and shrubs and pretty walkways, but it won't be anytime soon. And until then, I — like seemingly half of Platt Park — seek shelter at Gaia Bistro.
The place has been a magnet since it opened on South Pearl Street in 2006, not just for families who push toddlers on red plastic cars and park them (cars, not toddlers) outside the gate while they eat, but for high-school girls out for brunch, seventy-year-olds celebrating birthdays and decades of friendship, and everyone in between looking for reliably good food in a comfortable setting.
It's not just Gaia's shady, flower-filled patio that's comfortable. The interior, with tables spread across several small rooms in a meandering 1880s Victorian, manages to feel peaceful even on busy weekends when there's a wait. One recent weeknight it was a bit too peaceful, in fact; we had the place to ourselves for most of the meal, until a mini-rush arrived right at closing time. To the credit of the kitchen — helmed by chef Chelsey Burkitt — everyone was accommodated, and the lone server seemed not irritated, but relieved. (More business = more tips.)
Dinner, which was added five years after Gaia opened, may be slow at times, but brunch is not. Brunch is the meal of the moment, with restaurants that historically shunned eggs now cracking the morning away. But Gaia carved out this niche for itself years ago, and despite increased competition from restaurants like the Universal, Squeaky Bean and Beast + Bottle that weren't even around when it first opened, Gaia still attracts a loyal brunch crowd. And for good reason.
First, there's the spiced pumpkin bread, which arrives in a basket while you look at the menu. After having been nicked a few bucks for rice or bread at other places recently, the gesture feels gracious, an extension of friendship. Accompanied by one of the press pots that, if you arrive on the early side, seem to be keeping half the restaurant awake, you could almost make a meal of the bread. But then you'd be missing the eggs. They come tucked on a sandwich with sage sausage, scrambled or whisked into quiche; even better are the baked eggs, scalding from the oven and flavored with chorizo, cheddar and onion. The roasted poblano stuffed with ham and scrambled eggs is the culinary equivalent of a Bloody Mary (and, yes, that's available, too); the fat, blistered pepper wakes up your tastebuds, and not just because of all its smoke and spice. Brie makes a surprising appearance where you'd expect Monterey Jack, pulling you from the Southwest to France in the space of one bite.
France is where you'll stay if you order one of the restaurant's fourteen signature crepes. Most are made with buckwheat flour, creating what the French would call galettes de Sarrasin, with the heartier, earthier flour cut with an equal amount of all-purpose flour. At home I like to tilt the balance more toward buckwheat, but these are good, too: a milder foil for assertive fillings like duck sausage with Mornay sauce, salmon with capers, or creamed spinach with artichoke hearts, eggs and Swiss. Brie makes another appearance in the best of the lot: chicken with bacon, Brie and apple butter, a blend of savory, smoky and sweet that I could eat on every visit.
Made with organic white flour, the five dessert crepes are moist and eggy, reminiscent of popovers, only flat, not puffy. Co-owner Jon Edwards imported the crepe pans from France, but many of the fillings that spill out of the folded (not rolled) batter say "Hi" rather than "Bonjour." The simplest, a sugar-dusted version, boasts cinnamon, a spice we Americans love and the French love to hate. Ditto for the peanut butter with bananas and honey, which is all Elvis and no Edith Piaf. Common ground might be found in my favorite, a crepe dripping with lemon-scented ricotta and warm blueberry compote.
Because it serves brunch, not just breakfast, Gaia also offers a large selection of sandwiches, soups and salads. Some, like an olive-salad-shy muffaletta and a pair of fish tacos with seared fish cut into unappetizingly fat rectangles on flour, rather than corn, tortillas, found their way into a takeout box...and later the trash. But others we couldn't resist, including a salad with warm, ancho-crusted goat cheese, walnuts, herb croutons and a mound of mixed greens.
At night, that salad would make a nice, light dinner when paired with the Colombian corn cakes known as arepas, topped with pulled pork, faintly sweet ancho-tomato jam and goat cheese. One evening, a tank-top-wearing twenty-something ordered just that, nibbling at the open-faced appetizer-cum-main while gushing details of her recent trip to Spain, making me jealous of both her trip and her meal. Having had the crispy cakes before, I know the only drawback to the dish is that it doesn't come in an entree-sized portion.
On nights when you arrive at Gaia famished, it's better to start with the arepas and move on to the Berkshire pork loin with cherry chutney and curried farro, or the jerk-like Caribbean chicken with jalapeño-spiked mango salsa, plantain chips and rice and beans. At a time when more and more restaurants are swapping out entrees for small plates, such full-bodied dishes may come off as a bit retro. But maybe meals at Gaia are like the old Victorian (and, one day — I hope — my in-process cottage garden): not retro, but timeless.
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