Channelling older cultures through a restaurant name is nothing new to Melbourne. We have the Norse Lesa (“gather”), Cherokee Navi (“local”) and now we have Greek Gaea (“mother earth”).

Gaea, a petite new degustation-only diner on Fitzroy’s Gertrude Street, shares many of the same tenets we’ve come to know and love at Lesa and Navi; it’s small, imaginative-but-refined and riffs on European techniques fused with local ingredients.

“I like to showcase Mother Nature through my food,” says chef and co-owner Mo Zhou. “I forage a lot. Apart from my hay fever, I love this time of year because of all the things I can go out and pick.”

Zhou’s been cooking in Melbourne for the past 10 years. After ditching a business degree to become a chef, he worked as commis chef at Attica, chef de partie at Vue de Monde and sous chef at The Press Club. Last year he spent two months in Copenhagen working in degustation restaurants Kadeau and Amass. And over the past three years Zhou has also squeezed in about 30 pop-ups here and in Sydney, Seoul and different cities in China. But you won’t see any of the dishes from Zhou’s past on Gaea’s menu.

“If I do a dish, that dish is done and I never repeat it. That’s the joy of cooking. Over three years, I did 400 different dishes. And not a single thing is repeated.”

Zhou and partner Alicia Feng, who’s worked in training and sales at St Ali, have split the space that was formerly German diner Messer in two: Feng runs small daytime coffee nook Calère (Latin for “warm”), and Zhou heads up 16-seat Gaea.

The pair designed the rejig themselves and a builder friend put up some walls, repainted, and made the tables using wood Zhou picked out. Bunches of herbs and wildflowers hang along the walls and a vase of native flowers greets you as you walk in. Calère is to the left, serving filter and espresso coffee and a handful of pastries.

At Gaea, it’s tough to glean much from the menu alone, which comes as a six- or eight-course degustation (three courses on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays). Zhou lists only the main flavours of a dish, such as dandelion flowers and pumpkin, or roast hay, charcoal and Victorian lemonade. On the plate, the first translates to pumpkin puree, a little fermented pumpkin juice and dandelion flowers that have been brined for a few months then lightly charred and finished with a few fresh dandelion petals. The second is a dessert segue combining a jam made from lemonade fruit (a sweet citrus), pickled rose petals, roast-hay ice-cream and a charcoal-infused milk cream sauce.

The bao is the only dish that’ll stick around month to month, though with a changing sidekick. Organic grains are milled daily on-site to make the soft, pillowy steamed buns, which this month come with house-made pine-needle butter. Making the butter is a three-day process that begins with a mascarpone infused with pine needles that’s then churned into butter and seasoned with pine-needle salt.

“Pine needle is probably my favourite ingredient of the year,” says Zhou. “For three weeks every year the pine needles have bright-green tender top shoots that are edible and taste like the forest. Then they’ll turn hard and green and are no longer edible.”

Zhou is particular about the aesthetics of plating up, so he’s had crockery made by three local ceramicists; Brunswick’s Sticky Earth Ceramics; Andrei Davidoff, whose wheel-thrown clay plates have graced tables at Vue de Monde; and Tasmania’s Ridgeline Pottery, which has supplied Attica, Lesa, and Sydney fine diners Quay and Bennelong.

The drinks list is tight and eclectic, put together by sommelier Andrew Wyse (Etta). Choose from Fruits (wine), Cereals (beer and sake), Tonics (non-alcoholic), and Spirits and Digestives (as advertised). Most wines are available by the glass and cover both local and international drops as well as the full spectrum of biodynamic, natural and minimal intervention. If you’re up for a beer instead, try the spontaneously fermented Spontanbasil, a Danish brew that’s exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria as opposed to brewer’s yeast, which gives it a slightly sour finish.

Gaea
1/166 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
0422 783 449

Hours:
Tue to Fri 6pm–11pm
Sat 12pm–3pm, 6pm–11pm

Calère
1/166 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
0422 783 449

Hours:
Mon to Fri 7am–5pm
Sat & Sun 8am–5pm

restaurantgaea.com.au