Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Friday, November 6, 2009

There was something in the food...

A savory mélange of ethnic influences from the Mediterranean, Gaia promises a lovely dining experience prepared by soft spoken owner and chef, Eran Rozen who has nourished a twenty-year dream to open a restaurant.

Flanked between Adonia Tea House and the Fish Café on 41st Avenue at East Boulevard in the heart of Kerrisdale, the unassuming Gaia Bistro lives up to its name in its simple décor, pleasant ambiance and reasonably-priced peasant fare. It is comfort food that truly feels like a home-cooked meal.

Since first cooking for his Bar Mitzvah guests, Rozen has had a long love affair with food, testing his culinary mettle as a cook at several Vancouver kitchens and attending the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. He decided the time was right when he and his wife and business partner Naama chanced upon the location.

Aesthetically, the counter service and self-serve drinks fridge gives the impression that it is more of a lunchtime thing. However, the dinner menu stands alone and makes for a great family outing (there is a small kid’s corner), a unique, casual first date spot or a sensually-rewarding dinner for one.

The perfect meal opener is a pitcher of water flavoured with lemon, mint and rosewater or orange-blossom which is both refreshing and cleans the palette before the first bite. Rozen shouldn’t hesitate to scrap Coke Zero and bottled water from the menu as they are inferior beverage alternatives.

A sampling of teasing tasters: tabouleh with the punchy crunch of pomegranate, smooth and well-roasted baba ganoush served with warmed whole wheat pita, Greek salad with generous chunks of feta if the tomatoes are a bit pulpy. The chicken ragout was cooked to near perfection: the meat fell off the bone and the carrots dissolved.

Unquestionably, the best time to go is now as Rozen is getting creative with his alternating menu, travelling to the farmer’s market in Richmond to source organic vegetables and buying up seasonal and specialty items to use in a variety of dishes. What is most admirable in his approach is that in fine-tuning his menu, he lets himself be guided by taste buds of his loyal regulars, what he calls “the process of learning the customers.” Get in while the getting is good: as one of the only Mediterranean restaurants in the area, it is sure to have a waiting list in the coming months.

In honour of Rosh Hashanah, he used pomegranate.
Shawarma is marinated with pomegranate juice and a little bit of wine; fresh herbs and our sandwiches are also marinated with pomegranate. So for me, if it’s in season, I am using them everywhere. In about one month from now we won’t have pomegranate – it is so good, so healthy, he said.

The brick red and Dijon walls are decorated with striking photographs taken by Rozen in his photography career – a Bedouin woman making labne and two shots capturing the bustle of the Shook marketplace in Jerusalem – set the down-to-earth tone that Rozen is intent on creating.
That’s why we choose the name Gaia, she was the goddess of earth, the mother earth and that’s what we want to give the customers the feeling that they come into a family business, it’s a nice, cozy place, and the food is like that: you feel like you’re coming home, he said.

The future of Gaia could be a thriving community gathering place: an art gallery featuring Middle Eastern foodscapes, live music that accompanies the exotic food and spills out onto the sidewalk to those dining at the wrought iron tables and chairs.

But for now, his plan for winter is to delve into rich hearty ragouts and slow cooked casseroles and to concoct a window-steaming warm punch. He served a deceptively sweet Turkish tea whose only ingredients are apples and a cinnamon stick.

The item that brings people coming back is the Imam Bayildi, a dish that was presented to a Turkish Imam (sultan) in the 16th century that was so amazing it caused him to faint (bayildi). The dish is pan-seared eggplant stuffed with roasted vegetables and raisins with a Turkish yoghurt sauce.

Rozen has focused on providing a variety of gluten-free meals including a polenta dish filled with goat cheese, arugula, pear and honey; pan-seared pani filled with basil, feta cheese and fire roasted peppers.
We just ran out of it today, so I think tomorrow I’m going to make it again, Rozen said.

Gaia opened at the end of June and is open six days a week from 11 to 8 Monday to Friday and 9 to 8 on Saturday. They are also available for event catering and offer take out.

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