The Food at Coltivare Is Almost Worth the Wait
Coltivare's pepperoni pizza is like a cross between your delivery pizza guilty pleasure and a wood-fired Neapolitan pie. Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Coltivare: A Closer Look."
The wise philosopher Will Smith once said, "When you create art, the world has to wait." Nowhere in Houston is that more true than at Coltivare, the four-month-old restaurant from Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera of Revival Market.
Much has been written already about Coltivare's hip no-reservations policy, which at times has led to waits of two hours or more for one of the 60 indoor seats and 30 patio seats in the small but bustling restaurant. Even though it's been open since January, people still line up outside the door at 4:45, braving the elements and the traffic whizzing down White Oak to get a table right when the doors open at 5.
I've never been one of those people huddling on the narrow sidewalk as tantalizing smells spill out of the brick building. I'm not that smart. I'm also not smart enough to call right when the restaurant opens to put my name on the waiting list. Instead, when I eat at Coltivare, I show up around 6:30 or 7 and put my name on the list in person before fighting my way through the crowd and into the fresh night air. And then I wonder what the hell to do with myself for the next hour and a half in a largely residential neighborhood devoid of nearby places to hang out and pass the time.
The long lines remain a bit of a mystery to me, since I've found that not everything on the menu is a surefire hit. True to its name — "Coltivare" means "to cultivate" or "to grow" in Italian — the new space still has some growing to do, some maturing, some ripening. But more often than not, I find my wait is worth it.
I continue to be drawn in by the divine simplicity of Coltivare's spaghetti with cracked black pepper, aromatic and rich olive oil, and a generous serving of finely grated parmigiano that melts and combines with the oil and bit of water in which the pasta was boiled to create a sauce so clean yet so pungent. The fresh noodles have just the right amount of chewiness, and the cheese coats each strand entirely, making the pop of pepper between your teeth all the more surprising as the subtle heat floods your nostrils.
I keep coming back for sautéed backyard greens — lettuces that are indeed grown right in Coltivare's backyard — seasoned with salty cured anchovies and topped with toasted bread crumbs. The bitter greens, which I believe were chard when I first tasted them but which change based on seasonality, take on a mildly fishy flavor that's mitigated slightly by the crunchy bread crumbs and rich olive oil from the sauté pan. The dish is exquisite in its modesty.
My stomach rumbles as I relive my first bite of Coltivare's pepperoni pizza, a dish that almost didn't make it on the menu save for a friend of the owners suggesting that the menu was lacking "a guilty pleasure, take-out-style pizza that you want to eat when you're drunk." I will delight in that pizza drunk or sober, thanks to the crisp, spicy pepperoni from Revival Market and the thick, doughy crust that is, indeed, reminiscent of a delivery pizza, only baked in a wood-burning oven and composed of higher-quality ingredients.
By the time I've carefully considered every dish I want to order, the wait for a table is usually over. A text from the hostess alerts me that there's an opening, and it never takes quite as long as her initial estimate to be seated with a drink in front of me. In spite of the fact that I've spent the past 45 minutes or so dreaming of specific dishes I must order again, every time I glance at the menu anew, I find something different I'm dying to try.
Go behind the scenes of this week's review in our slideshow, "Coltivare: A Closer Look."
The defining feature of Coltivare isn't the wait. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. What makes Coltivare so special to me is the 3,000-square-foot backyard garden that provides much of the produce for the restaurant and the link to Revival Market, where most of the meat on the menu is cured.
When I first visited Coltivare back in January before it opened, the planters in the back were just starting to sprout. Tiny bright-green leaves were just bursting forth from the rich black dirt, and dining there at that time felt like a promise of spring. Now that the unexpected freezes and cold fronts seem to be behind us, the garden is in full bloom, spilling over the fence along White Oak, tempting passersby to pick a sprig of mint as they walk to their cars.
This mint — some of the loveliest I've ever seen — finds its way into a number of cocktails at Coltivare, which opened as a BYOB establishment but now skirts the Heights's designation as a dry neighborhood by offering diners a "club membership." Essentially, you provide your ID, sign a piece of paper and you're good to go. Weber created the cocktail program with an emphasis on aperitivos and digestivos, including an entire section devoted to Fernet, a bitter, licorice-laced liqueur beloved by those in the bar and restaurant industry. In my mind, this is Weber's way of paying it forward to his buddies, many of whom populate the bar on their off nights.
The restaurant itself has quickly become an industry hangout as well, due in part to the owners, Weber and Pera, but mostly to the food, which showcases Houston produce and Houston sensibilities with an Italian slant.
But even though the industry and food critics have largely embraced it, I've had my issues with the restaurant. I was disappointed recently to discover that the kitchen has been attacking some of the dishes with perhaps too much enthusiasm. A salad of wood-grilled leeks with pancetta, Parmesan and a poached duck egg sprinkled with oregano suffered from an overabundance of salt, and I felt my tongue tingling (and not in a good way) with each bite of the aggressively salted salad.
Mussels stewed in garum, an ancient Greek and Roman fermented fish sauce, and blended with capers and garlic achieve an ideal texture — neither chewy nor gritty — but they, too, suffered from a heavy hand with the salt shaker. Pancetta, Parmesan, capers and garum are already salty to start with, and perhaps the recipes need some tweaking to take that into account. Or maybe the restaurant is counting on selling more cocktails, as I found myself very thirsty throughout the meal.
Still, Coltivare shines for me where the pizzas and pastas are concerned (save for a bafflingly undercooked bowl of duck ravioli) thanks to the restraint with which they're devised. Nothing is superfluous, and everything contributes to the dish as a whole, particularly on a Yukon potato and oyster mushroom pie, softened with funky taleggio cheese, then brightened with a hit of rosemary.
Fettuccine with gulf shrimp is set apart from any other fettuccine and seafood dish I've ever had by the mixture of chile oil and orange zest that makes the plate tantalizingly almost sweet — the orange tricks your mind initially before your tongue adjusts to the smoky chile and the bitterness of the orange zest, then revels in the bright parsley and soothing shrimp and bread crumbs. As with the spaghetti, the pizzas, and the small dishes made with backyard herbs and greens, it's an ideal blend of adventure and simplicity.
I rarely order the proper amount of food at Coltivare. It's always far more than my dining companions or I can conquer, and even so, I generally end up missing the entrées altogether. It's a shame, because the whole wood-roasted fish is a winner, regardless of the accompaniments, which change regularly. It's presented on a large platter, posed upright as if it swam straight into the oven and wound up getting cooked in place. As with most of the menu, the fish selection depends on the fresh catch of the day.
A pork roast dotted with clams and served atop a bed of polenta and crumbled sausage has a wonderful smoky flavor, but the clams feel extraneous, as they largely take on the flavor of the sausage, which itself might be a bit much when paired with the pork. In this instance — and there are very few of them — the desire to incorporate unnecessary ingredients seems to have trumped the chefs' usual discipline.
And so I return again and again to the simple riff on cacio e pepe and anything from the verdant garden. And in spite of the fact that not all of Coltivare's dishes are where I'd like them just yet, I continue to wait in line — sometimes up to two hours — for another negroni cocktail and another pizza with that unusually fluffy crust. I wait for the opportunity to dine among fellow food lovers and to share an evening with the shrubs and vines rapidly reaching toward the sky in the now lush backyard.
Coltivare is still new, and it's quite an impressive spot for its youth. I can't say what other chefs, writers and diners have and proclaim that the restaurant is one of the best things to happen in Houston dining recently. I have no doubt that it could get there. But until then, I'll keep waiting.
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