I've lived in Houston for
22 23 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 2015 2016 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.
So the trouble with filling the gaps is that new ones keep forming. Houston isn't exactly stagnating when it comes to restaurants, and the past few years have seen tremendous growth in the breadth, depth and quality of places. Places I haven't been to, mostly. Big surprise, I'm sure. With a schedule that rotates around 12-hour rotating shifts, and all of the scheduling snafus and outright penury that come with having what's quickly turning into an actual brood, it's often hard to make the rounds, let alone make up ground. Of course, I've always preferred to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I choose to look at it as an ever expanding opportunity to find something new (to me).
New or not, our opportunities for non-DEFCON Dining are few and far between these days, so when we were gifted with last-minute babysitting a week or so before Valentine's Day, we jumped at the chance. I worked up a shortlist of spots I've been meaning to go to for some length of time (some new-new, some new-to-me), and my wife narrowed it down. In a bit of delightful kismet, she settled on Coltivare, which was my own front-runner.
Coltivare has been open for just over two years now. Depending on your perspective, that's either an eye-blink or an eternity. Regardless of your perspective, it's hard to argue that the place isn't firmly fixed in the pantheon of essential Houston eats. Before, I had only the good word of good people to go on. Now, I can agree intelligently.
At around 7:30 on a Friday, Coltivare was packed to the gills. Despite the slight chill in the air, even the garden in the back was full of would-be diners. That's where we wound up after supplying a name and a cell phone number to the host. Perched alongside one of the portable hitters distributed among the raised beds, perusing the menu by propane flicker and the twinkle of lights strung overhead, it was a rather romantic way to wait out a table. With a couple of drinks from the roving band of iPad-wielding waiters weaving through the garden crowd (an agave-spiked Last Word variant for me, a glass of the daily punch for her), the advertised hour and a half wait turned into something more like 45 very pleasantly passed minutes.
It also gave us time to go over the menu, in a somewhat vain attempt to narrow down our order. Coltivare's is one of those menus where each new line elicits an involuntary "ooh," running up a mental tally of "things I want to try" that runs perilously close to "screw it, one of everything." Our better senses prevailed, and we wound up ordering only slightly too much food, really only deciding on the final list in the moment of truth when waiter puts pen to dupe.
The cotechino hit the table first. Perched atop a tumble of small, firm lentils, two lengths of rough-textured sausage glistened with fat, blistered and blackened by a hard sear. That sear imparted an aggressive crust, crispy and satisfying. Inside, the coarse filling had a sticky quality, like rubbly meat jello. A buttery, savory-sweet squash purée rounded out the plate. A forkful of plump, perfect lentils, a hunch of that rustic and charming cotechino, and a swipe of purée hit a host of texture and flavor notes, changing depending on ratio. We fought over the last bit.
Between courses, a glass of pét-nat hit the table, after a roundabout trip stemming from my poor hearing and a bit of "Manhattan" confusion. It was heady and rich in the way you expect a decadent sweet wine to be, but dry despite, its gentle bubbles enhancing the perfume. We loved it so much I bought my wife a bottle for Valentine's Day (a 2013 Birichino, if you're wondering).
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Next up, cauliflower with pine nuts and raisins. I had a conversation with a friend recently, wherein he posited that cauliflower is an underrated vegetable. I countered that the once-maligned cauliflower has been having a moment in the sun for a while now, with either a fried or roasted version seeming almost de rigueur on many modern menus. Fad or not, I'm happy to see this. Cauliflower is delicious, and seldom more so than when treated to blisteringly high heat, finished with something sweet and something acidic. Here, it's flash fried, perked up with a vinegar punch and accompanied by plump little raisins for sweetness and tang in ideal balance against the frizzled, meaty cauliflower. Grace notes of resinous pine nuts and anise-tinged tarragon add both high and low notes. I roast a lot of cauliflower at home, frequently giving it similar treatment. I'm stealing this variation and claiming it as my own (kidding).
A deep bowl of casserecci with oxtail sugo and pearl onions was the closest we came to a hiccup, its stubby twists of pasta just a bit more firm to the bite than I might have liked. Other than that, the sugo was nuanced and bright where it could have been heavy, further punctuated by pickled pearl onions. It was rich and warming and comforting, homey but carefully constructed. That's a good description for most of the food at Coltivare.
We ordered a couple of pizzas, too, one a simple baseline margherita and a fancier number with brussels sprouts and pickled chilies. By this point, we were both about ready to tap out, and so only nibbled at the pizzas. Of the two, the livelier flavors of the brussels sprouts pizza took top honors, working very nicely on the light, almost springy base.
Dessert came in the form of a cocktail in the form of a fragrant, delicate semolina cake surrounded by a moat of boozy, tart, slightly funky syrup whose flavors called out bourbon, angostura and heady maraschino liqueur. The icing on the cake wasn't icing at all, but a wonderfully lively tumble of citrus supremes, bringing both acidity and freshness to the whole affair. It was a little touch that took an already swell dessert and amplified its best parts.
As we paid the bill, we were already planning on coming back, kids in tow or not. Coltivare is too charming a place, its food too well executed and at too much of a relative bargain, to let a little thing like kids stop us. We'll just plan on showing up early, or else hanging out in the garden. I'd be willing to wager the bar might even whip up something appropriate for a couple of adorable underage guests. Of course, that's assuming too many new gaps don't open up in the meantime ...