166 Gertrude St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Tue-Fri 6pm-10pm, Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm (Wed-Sat from January 2020)|
|Features||Degustation, Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||042 278 3449|
Ah, the tasting menu. It's been an unstoppable force at the pointy end of dining for the past decade. But for every great one out there, plenty seem to miss a central point. Invariably the five to 15 courses of a deg will tell you what the chef can do. But more than that, they are supposed to tell you who they are. Gaea, a tiny degustation-only restaurant in Gertrude Street, is in this respect a success.
Here's what we know about Gaea's chef-owner, Mo Zhou, on paper. He hails from Henan in central China, moved to Australia at 18 and has spent the past decade working in the kitchens of Attica, the Press Club and Vue de Monde.
To prep for Gaea, much like fellow Attica-expat-turned-chef-restaurateur Peter Gunn, of Ides, he ran 30 pop-ups around Australia and China, with no two menus the same. To keep some of that spontaneity alive, he completely changes Gaea's six or eight courses ($95, $125) every month.
Having now eaten two of those menus, here's what I infer about Zhou from his plates. He is ambitious, and finding both his voice, and his feet, but he's definitely walking a clear line.
You'll notice his seasonal, forage-loving skew from the second you walk into the tiny room and see the fridge packed with colourful preserved blossoms and other vegetables, mid-ferment.
That room was previously Berlin-influenced diner, Messer. The boxy, plaster-spackled space has been smartly sub-divided into a specialty coffee cubby up front, operated by Zhou's partner, Alicia Feng, during the day, allowing Zhou to work the formula of serving his avant-garde, Chinese-inflected menu to just 12 souls at night.
Zhou has not chosen the path most trodden, and there are perks to that. I can guarantee you'll be in for surprises. I won't guarantee they'll all be surprises you love. The first menu featured a dessert of smoked hay-infused ice-cream and charcoal sauce, with a schmear of jammy Victorian lemons being the only classically "food" themed element.
It was subtle, and interesting, but came at the end of a non-stop festival of intellectual dishes heavy on seafood, umami, ferments and techniques, that took more than three hours to work through. I put Gaea on the backburner to see what would happen when Zhou relaxed. I'm glad I did.
In one month, Zhou's self-conscious first steps have become strides. He's hired more help to give your dinner momentum. He's bringing the interesting, and the obscure, but not at every single course. Dinner breathes. So you can, too.
My second round, already a thing of the past for you, began with a flurry of pretty snacks including a Chinese-style fried pancake that will be a regular feature with changing notes. This time, cime di rapa both filled in for spring onions and was a spread, tasting of pure green.
Abalone liver enriched a mellow luxurious cream for swiping up with spicy, crisp mizuna leaves. A just-seared chicken heart was impaled on the sharpened twig of the pink peppercorn tree that donated the meat's fruity, fiery seasoning.
Whatever dishes are on your menu, expect an environmentally conscious ride. One night I ate a dice of retired dairy cow, nested inside shells of roasted onion.
Another, a dish of radish and eel, every bit of both used: the smoked fillet luxuriated in a buttered bone stock reduction with a frosting of fresh and pickled radish for crunch, and the eel's skin-turned-bubbly-cracker on the side, piped with its own pâté with a salty preserve of radish leaves.
Complex? You bet, but it's worth noting dishes can be intensely subtle too. Zhou's palate is incredibly light. Sometimes that means great things, like when a tangy, briny bowl of diced chilled mussels, cocooned in tart sorrel blankets releases peachy notes, derived from a preserve of the fruit blossom.
Other times, you might feel like I did eating the rainbow trout fillet washed in a foam topped with elm pods – like your earth-bound palate is missing something.
That can, and will be polarising. Ditto the extremely esoteric small producer drinks list, priced to match the obscurity of the bone dry Georgian aladasturi red, hailing from the coast, or a nutty, almost caramel aged sake that matches the smoked eel dish. But that is OK. Gaea is so personal and particular it won't be for everyone. Good on it.
Who it is for are those who appreciate tactile stoneware plates, spindly cutlery and silky smooth wooden paddles.
It's for those who want to see what sustainable-prog-Oz-meets-Asian looks like (one night it was braised kangaroo tail topped with paper-fine raw roo slices and wild garlic, finished with dashi stock like wild Aussie pho).
It's for those who want to see a chef's heart beating on a plate.
Vegetarian On request.
Drinks An extremely esoteric, non-interventionist drinks program.
Cost $95 or $125 for six or eight courses respectively.
Pro Tip: Be aware this is boundary-pushing cooking with risks and rewards.
Go-to Dish: They change every month, but pancakes and bao will remain.