I showed up at Gaia Bistro 45 minutes early. It was a Sunday morning during prime brunch hours, when the wait list can top an hour and a half (or even longer, if Gaia's warm and well-meaning service is running slow, as it often is). Someone had to take one for the team if we wanted to eat breakfast before dinnertime — and since I'd suggested the restaurant, that someone was me. But I also had a selfish motive for getting there early. This was one of the last brisk mornings of spring, and most people were unwilling to brave sub-sixty temperatures to sit outside. Which meant that I could bundle up and grab a spot on the empty deck, enjoying the cold sunshine over a crossword puzzle, a steaming French press of strong coffee and a couple of fat slices of complimentary house-baked pumpkin bread, packed with nutmeg and ginger.
Gaia is housed in an old bungalow on South Pearl. The former living room and bedrooms are now painted in earth tones, softly lit, their nooks and crannies packed with wooden tables and chairs. But while those rooms are cozy and comfortable — especially in the winter, when they create a warm, welcoming haven — the best place to eat at Gaia is on the patio attached to the house or at one of the tables scattered across the expansive lawn. Now that summer has finally settled over the Mile High City, these outdoor areas will be packed on weekends. But on this cool Sunday morning, the deck was all mine. In a perfect world, I'd start every morning this way.
Gaia is the Greek version of Mother Earth, and that's who owners Patrick Mangold-White and Jon Edwards were channeling when they opened their charming eatery in 2006. At the start, Gaia was a breakfast and lunch spot with no liquor license — but it quickly attracted a legion of fans with a board filled with wholesome daytime options, including salads, sandwiches, a few variations on baked eggs and a substantial inventory of crepes, both savory and sweet. Many of the ingredients for these dishes were local, some even grown in the restaurant's backyard garden. Meats were procured from Colorado producers, baked goods brought in from neighboring businesses on Pearl Street. In January, Gaia finally acquired a liquor license and started offering dinner. At night, the menu changes over to a selection of appetizers and entrees, seasonal American bistro fare that pairs meat with fresh vegetables in a manner that suggests the kitchen is just trying to get out of the way of its good ingredients.
1551 South Pearl Street
Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Duck sausage crepe $11
Stuffed poblano (breakfast) $9.50
Shrimp salad $12
Baked eggs $7
Breakfast burrito $9
Potato and chicken croquettes $9
Roasted beet salad $10
Stuffed poblano (dinner) $10
Seared Colorado lamb chop $18
When we were finally seated that Sunday morning, jammed into one of the two tables in the back (and least charming) room, we fortified ourselves with more coffee and pumpkin bread while we waited for our breakfast. I'd ordered my favorite crepe, the duck sausage, and it was as good as I'd remembered. Small disks of the coarse, peppery meat had been folded into fluffy baked eggs infused with cheese and doused with creamy Mornay sauce, then draped in folds of a light, thin pancake, redolent of wheat and yeast and just enough sugar to complement its contents. We'd also gone with another breakfast standard, the stuffed poblano, which packed eggs scrambled with cubes of ham, tomatoes and gooey melted brie inside the sweet, earthy shell of a chile. The dish was small and light — unlike a few other vaguely Mexican items on the menu, including a massive breakfast burrito, exploding with eggs, soft potatoes and spicy chorizo and coated in earthy red chile — so we'd also gone for an entree salad. The blend of greens topped with fat pink prawns, lightly charred and tinged with lemon, and a pepper and pineapple chutney was fine, but I kept looking longingly at other, less boring breakfast dishes. Like the baked eggs, full of piquant chorizo and stringy white cheddar. And more crepes, some injected with gooey, chocolatey Nutella and brûléed banana, others with cakey ricotta and lemon and blueberry compote.
I like to linger over brunch, digesting the meal and drinking coffee until I'm ready to suffer a caffeine-induced anxiety attack. But the waiting crowd alone was enough to inspire anxiety, so we paid our bill and got out quickly, letting Gaia turn our table.
I don't feel the same stress at dinner, since Gaia's new, late hours have yet to become as popular. On the nights I've been in the dining room, I've seen just a few other parties — and that's a shame, because this restaurant is just as pleasant in the evening, the food just as simple and satisfying.
One stormy night a few weeks ago, a companion and I scored a window table. Nursing a glass of Barbera red wine, I watched residents of the Pearl Street neighborhood, hoods pulled tight around their faces, walking their dogs in the rain. Instead of the complimentary pumpkin bread, this time there were crusty slices of ciabatta from the nearby Pajama Baking Company, along with pats of tempered butter.
We started our dinner with the chicken and potato croquettes, which encased smooth, buttery spuds in a thick, golden crust. I'm all for fried globs of mashed potatoes, but I didn't find much chicken — and I was looking. We'd ordered a salad to counter the fried appetizer and got a mountain of garden-grown greens and sweet roasted beets, which painted the white plate pink. Tart goat-cheese crumbles gave the mix an edge — but unfortunately, Gaia didn't leave well enough alone. The kitchen had overdressed the salad, and an astringent balsamic vinaigrette covered the fresh vegetable flavors with sickly slime, wilting the lettuce and pooling on the plate.
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But after that disappointment, our meal went well. We'd gone for the night-time version of the stuffed poblano, crammed with plump black beans, tangy chopped tomato and purple onion, then covered with melted white cheddar and swathed with ribbons of tart sour cream. It came with a side of greens (these nicely dressed) as well as a ramekin of red chile sauce, with finely ground poblano and chipotle peppers adding shots of heat.
Good as that was, I preferred the lamb chop, seared a perfect medium rare and drooling juice (no easy feat, since chops often arrive tough and bordering on scorched). The bone-in cut, covered with a red wine sauce and fat blueberries that exploded on the tongue, came propped on a bed of couscous studded with peas and scallions. But the element that tied the whole dish together was the mint that was laced through the garnish and gave an invigorating bite to the heavier flavors on the plate.
We finished our feast with a massive hunk of dense chocolate cake from Vollmer's Bakery, adorned with some of the first truly ripe strawberries I'd had this spring — a reminder that summer was just around the corner.
I wished that summer was already here. Because if sitting on Gaia's patio with coffee and a crossword is the perfect way to start a day, whiling away a summer evening there, finishing a bottle of wine while savoring the last remnants of dessert, would be the perfect way to end one.