Photographs by Julie Bidwell
Above left: Polvo with parsley whipped potatos and salsa verde; Right: Sea bass with littleneck clams, shrimp, and seasonal vegetables
Those who travel to Portugal rave about the food and wine, especially the stellar seafood and first-rate vintages from Douro, Dão and Alentejo. At one time the country was more of a culinary best-kept secret. Recently, Portugal has been in the limelight, having more restaurants awarded Michelin stars last year than any other country in Europe. So it’s fortunate for Greenwich that we have our own Portuguese chef who now has two restaurants in town. Chef Rui Correia, who is a regular guest on the TODAY show, opened Gaia last year, just a block up the Avenue from Douro, his first restaurant here.
What distinguishes Gaia from its popular big sister, Douro? The seasonal Mediterranean menu has an emphasis on seafood (though meat and vegetarian dishes are represented, too) and it changes regularly. Where Douro is high-energy with a sometimes noisy bar, Gaia is sophisticated and understated—a spot where you can enjoy your dinner conversation. If you’ve ever found yourself shouting, “I can’t hear a thing in this place” and then felt embarrassed for sounding like your mother, you’ll appreciate the acoustics at Gaia, which has a minimalist modern décor with light wood paneling on the walls and long birch logs embedded in the ceiling. This intimate setting was a relaxing place to catch up with friends on a recent Friday night.
As we mulled over the menu, our server brought over an amuse-bouche of cucumber rounds topped with hummus and excellent green olives and feta along with heavenly grilled bread with a hint of garlic. Chef Rui’s creative approach and attention to detail were evident in many of the dishes we tried. A refreshing panzanella salad, for instance, was much less bready than the standard, with bright greens, micro-thin radish slices, chopped cucumber, green olives and very tasty tomatoes for what was early in the season, as well as parmesan crisps and just a few croutons. Octopus has become trendy lately, but the signature polvo appetizer here trumps other versions—super-tender seafood seasoned with pimenton (a smoky paprika) and served over mashed potatoes, and a salsa verde with microgreens dressing up the plate. Lamb meatballs are served in a stainless skillet with a garnish of mint and a sprinkling of pignoli nuts over a bed of yogurt sauce. These savory morsels made us wonder if we should plan a whole meal out of appetizers. In fact, we decided to order another starter, a special that evening, of pickled pork belly. Though tasty, this was our least favorite app because the flavor of the pork belly was eclipsed somewhat by the vinegar.
Since we had tried and loved cataplana during a vacation to Portugal, we had to order it here. Chef Rui’s modern take on the seafood broth-based entrée involves lots of colorful vegetables and South American shrimp, a hearty portion of sea bass and a few snippets of little neckclams (I wanted more of them, but that’s a personal preference). Seafood bolognese is a must-order, an unusual dish with a slightly sweet sauce made of ground octopus, calamari and shrimp as well as celery, carrots, onion and garlic all over a torchio, shell-shaped pasta; a half order with a salad would make a perfect weeknight supper. The other table favorite was the chef’s spin on Surf and Turf, with short ribs, grilled octopus and shrimp and a polenta cake with pineapple salsa, a bold departure from the average meat and seafood pairing. Even the salmon entrée managed to surprise us; it’s paired with zucchini spirals, crispy chickpeas and sweet cured tomatoes and a smattering of feta.
Portions here were plenty hearty, and we really had no business ordering dessert. However, we succumbed to the siren call of affogato, a blend of ice cream, cookies and chocolate mixed together in a low-ball cocktail glass and paired with a shot of espresso to pour on top. The indulgent dessert of Valrhona brownie and fried banana and Nutella also made it to the table. We ended our dinner beyond sated and in agreement that the food was top-notch. The restaurant seems to echo the homeland of its chef: a gem that’s well worth exploring.
355 Greenwich Avenue, 203-900-2234; dourogroup.com
The Port & Tonic is the hot drink right now at Portuguese resorts and Gaia’s take with white port, tonic, fresh mint, lime and orange makes the perfect aperitif.
Though the menu changes frequently, some of the most popular mains include the seafood bolognese, grilled dorado with roasted cauliflower puree and crispy vegetable, Portuguese fried chicken (made with tempura) and Mar, a mix of lightly charred seafood with roasted potatoes and a squid ink sauce.
Every fall Chef Rui and his wife, Dana, offer guided food and wine tours of Northern Portugal where travelers meet winemakers and local chefs and visit some amazing restaurants.
Tuesday – Thursday: 5–10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 5–10:30 p.m.
Sunday: 5 – 9 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday: 12 –4 p.m.