Fitzroy's Gertrude Street is an utter roller coaster for restaurateurs. A year ago there were three new restaurants slated for opening, and two of them (Messer and Bistro Sousou) have since closed, while Hotel Electric by Tracey Lester is yet to be completed.
Undaunted, chef Mo Zhou and partner Alicia Feng have taken the former Messer site and cunningly cut it into two. By day, Feng and barista art champion Caleb Cha run a petite specialist coffee shop, Calere, in a sectioned-off cubby with seats spilling to the street, while Zhou, who has worked for a decade in Melbourne fine diners including Attica and Vue de Monde runs Gaea, a tasting menu restaurant for just 12 guests in the rest of the space at night.
The refit has smartly upcycled the spackled white walls, and turned some banquettes into little wall perches in the cafe. The main dining room is cosier, softened by padded chairs, sprays of wildflowers and a fridge full of Zhou's foraged blossoms and vegetables mid-ferment.
Zhou has prepared for the project with 30 pop-ups in Australia and China. His six or eight courses for $95 or $125 make serious noises. He's using beef from dairy cows, milling flour daily to make malty steamed bao that come with a butter infused with foraged young pine needles as the bread course, while the meat finale sees spatchcock steamed in a dough sarcophagus in a style familiar to Mornington Peninsula's Laura.
The ambitious action-packed carte, backed by an equally esoteric small producer drinks list, will change completely each month. Perhaps this big dream is what it will take to wake Gertrude Street from its funk.
Gaea is open Tue-Fri 6pm-10pm, Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm, 166 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, restaurantgaea.com.au