Gaia Cafe

(Grand Rapids, MI) For our "soft opening" review we chose Gaia Cafe for lunch. Located in the burgeoning foodie section of Grand Rapids (the Cherry and Wealthy areas), Gaia had been recommended to us by some vegetarian friends. We're always up for the unknown, so we ventured out on a brisk, grey January Saturday to hopefully discover our new favorite local restaurant...

He Fed:
You know you're in for a treat when it's tough (but not impossible) to find a parking spot outside a local restaurant known for good vegetarian fare, and all the tables near the front plate-glass windows are full. Just inside the wooden door, a narrow pathway wends past coat hooks on the wall, a circa-1970's cash register, and a sandwich-counter open-air kitchen right out of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. A whiteboard sign greets newcomers with "Please Wait To Be Seated". Servers dressed in half-aprons and kerchiefs scurry between kitchen and dining, loaded with platters full of lettuce and other veggie stuff. Although we arrive just after noon, the breakfast rush is in full swing.

We are ushered to our wobbly table (a folded napkin under one leg), next to the coffee station/hot sauce bar and given a photocopied menu, two double-sided sheets of paper folded in half and not stapled in the middle. On the cover is a rendition of some earth-loving goddess figure, which makes sense because Gaia basically means the earth as one, sustainable organism. Hippie alert! I furtively peer over my menu and see the tell-tale signs: thin, scraggly students with nagging coughs; local artwork on the walls, featuring bright yellow fields of wheat and weeping trees; and older couples with professorial attitudes. I think I spy a gentleman grading papers but he's actually perusing the real estate listings. Ex-hippie, probably, now yuppie, slumming it. Behind me, there is a table of ladies yucking it up and having a great time. The acoustics are loud but not as bad as some other places (I'm looking at you, The Winchester). My eyes slide back to the menu.

After a few minutes we begin to panic. The waitresses are rushing back and forth, but no one has checked in with us or poured water. I notice some of the other patrons helping themselves to the coffee bar (even going so far as to sweeten it with pure Agave syrup). Is this some sort of help yourself restaurant? Do we need to head back into the kitchen and place our own orders? Finally, a laid-back employee notices our perplexed glance and empty table. My heart rate subsides a bit; for a moment, I thought maybe we'd have to go pick our lunch in some subterranean terrarium and prepare it ourselves. "Anything to drink?" she asks. I inquire about something called Suicide Juice. "It's orange and grape extract, mixed with lemonade and a little bit of water." Sounds patently weird, so I order it. We also order a starter and our main lunch entree. Juliet heads to the coffee bar and pours us water. We wait patiently, getting comfortable and admiring the onion smells wafting from the kitchen.

We begin with a sun-dried tomato and artichoke dip that warned it would take an extra 15 minutes to bake. It arrives nestled between hearty slices of herbed focaccia, one of which I slather with the cheesy, garlic dip and taste. Transcendent! One bite cements it for me: this is the greatest vegetarian restaurant on the face of the planet! Each successive swallow delights me, until the first piece of bread is gone. I quickly begin work on another. About halfway through, my over-excitement abates somewhat. This dish is well worth the extra time, and something to seek out as a meal unto itself, but is it enough to declare Gaia the best? I have to rein it in, I tell myself. There is more to come and this is only our first adventure. Sadly, I set aside my little plate and await my entree.

Just in time, the Cuban Tempeh arrives. It is a huge plate of rice, black bean slurry, white cheese and tempeh, with fresh chopped salad and sour cream on the side. What is tempeh? It's fermented soy beans clumped together and baked or fried. And it is delicious! Now, most people who know me know I love spicy food, especially Mexican food. This Cuban Tempeh hits all those notes for me, with tongue tickling contrast between the creamy black beans and the not-quite-crunchy tempeh cake on top. I try a bit of Juliet's side of fruit salsa and that kicks the heat up one more notch. No need for the hot sauces stocked at the nearby coffee station! All sounds fade away as we both tuck in with concentrated gusto...

Minutes later we are both leaning away from the table, sated. Somehow, I managed to eat most of another slice of that bread, slathered with more dip. My tempeh is demolished and what is left is too little for the take-away box. "Is this your first time here?" our waitress asks. We both nod happily but just shy of food coma. "It's like a real European cafe right here in West Michigan. Although I've never been to Europe." She drifts back to the kitchen, carting away the remnants of our lunch, the same enigmatic cipher she was before we ever met her, however briefly. What was her name? Not sure. I don't recall seeing any nametag, but if I had to guess I'd say it started with a G.

She Fed:
Have you ever walked into a restuarant door and been tempted to immediately turn around and leave? That's exactly how I felt when I walked into Gaia. The entrance is awkwardly placed; we had to walk by a few oddly placed tables in the front, past a poorly lit deli case and up to the open air kitchen to wait for whichever waitress was available to seat us. Anyone who's ever read No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain knows that most kitchens are filled with a motley crew of individuals. Hardworking and talented to be sure, but also tattoed, pierced and probably at least slightly hungover. This kitchen was no exception.

In addition to the awkward entrance, there is no reserved parking for Gaia patrons, so it took me about 10 minutes of hunting around before a spot out front opened up. Anyone who knows me, knows I have the patience of a hungry toddler in a soaked diaper. I want what I want when I want it. So between the struggle for parking and the bizarre entrance, I was ready to turn tail and walk across the road to another of Cherry Street's many eateries.

That would have been an enormous mistake. I am so glad we stayed. We were seated immediately and given breakfast and lunch menus to peruse. A quick glance at the first made me wish we had skipped breakfast at home and come to Gaia earlier. Scrambles, omelettes, French toast and buckwheat pancakes...oh my. In addition to the menus, a wall-mounted chalkboard listed the daily specials including what fresh fruit you could have added to your pancakes. Yes, please!

Near our table there was a self-serve coffee bar, rows of hot sauces and other condiments and pitchers of ice water. One of my pet peeves is waiting for my ice water to be refilled; I drink a boatload of water with my meals and often find myself drinking Jeremy's while I wait for the waitress to notice I need a refill. So while the concept of a self-serve coffee or water station might seem odd to some, for a casual meal I think it's a great idea.

It took more than a few minutes for our waitress to arrive and for a few seconds, Jeremy wondered if the whole place was self-serve. We were definitely a bit out of our element and I think we both felt a bit uncool and middle aged. (I am sure our freshly showered faces and lack of dreadlocks, tats or bloodshot eyes belied us as "newbies.")

We panicked for naught and our waitress did turn up, returning promptly with our beverage order. When the sundried tomato artichoke dip arrived, I dove right in. It was garlicky and cheesy and smoky. But more so than the dip, the bread was freaking amazing. Addictive. I could have eaten the entire appetizer by myself and Jeremy's restraint made me consider it.

For my main course, I was torn between getting the soup of the day -- mushroom artichoke (two of my favorite veggies) -- and the "miso Caesar salad". The idea of a miso-seasoned Caesar intrigued me. And I did entertain the idea of getting the soup and a stack of those buckwheat pancakes. But in the end, I decided to go for the "BYOB." I have no idea what BYOB stands for at Gaia, but this dish featured black beans (really a sturdy, well-seasoned black bean puree), brown rice and a chopped tomato and romaine salad. The beans and rice were smothered with monterey jack and it was served with a side of sour cream, homemade fruit salsa and a few flour tortillas. For a little over a buck, I added a sliced avocado half to it.

My favorite part of eating at a Mexican restaurant is the rice and beans (and the guacamole) so the BYOB hit all those pleasure points. The bean puree, some perfectly cooked brown rice (chewy and firm, but not underdone), the salty melted cheese, a dab of sour cream and a schmear of avocado assembled and perched on my fork....PERFECTION!

The portions were extremely generous and I barely finished half of my plate. Not for lack of trying! Typically I do not take leftovers home, but when the waitress offered to bring me a to go carton, I couldn't refuse.

I should note that despite her late arrival, our waitress was attentive and friendly without being overbearing or robotic. She seemed genuinely interested in how we liked our food: Did we need anything else? Was it our first time here (I'm telling you, our wide eyes gave us away)?

The decor and the patrons (and the staff) are best described as eclectic. This is probably not the place to bring mom for Mother's Day, unless mom is a hippie or a vegan. But I would return to Gaia, and hope to soon, for breakfast, lunch or dinner anytime. Definitely worth it.

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