The abandoned restaurant near the corner of Travis and Congress was known for two things until recently: (1) Being completely and depressingly empty since Wasabi vacated the spot several years ago and (2) having one of the most beautiful patios downtown, with a grassy area covered by a quartet of bald cypress trees that held a spectacular view of Market Square and its historic clock tower.
"What kind of owner selects one of the most inviting locations in downtown Houston -- the corner pocket park setting at Congress and Travis, behind the clock tower at Market Square -- which is, or at least was, shaded by lovely mature trees, and then cuts down the trees?" wrote reader Robert James, who first alerted us to the denuding.
"Who does this?"
A quick trip over to the Batanga site reveals that the restaurant is getting closer to opening by the day. Brown paper over all of the windows mostly concealed a stripped down interior that's being renovated after years of neglect, and one wonders if perhaps the trees outside were neglected too. The two trees closest to Travis remain intact, but the three next to the restaurant have been completely removed -- stumps and all.
We reached out to owners Maya Fasthoff -- the blogger behind Restaurant Traveler -- as well as brother-in-law Brian Fasthoff and husband Hank Fasthoff, and Brian was quick to respond.
"We figured we would get some responses (good and bad) about the trees," Fasthoff said. "The main reason the trees needed to come down was pretty simple: We couldn't operate the patio as we wanted because of the root balls."
Bald cypress trees, which are native to Houston and the entire Gulf Coast, are known for their enormous root balls -- as Fasthoff correctly noted -- as well as their knobbly "knees," which shoot up through the ground over the lifetime of the cypress. "It does not lend itself to seating for tables and chairs at all," Fasthoff said.
The silver lining to cutting the trees down, Fasthoff claims, is that the building itself gets much more light -- although the patio itself will still be "in 80 percent shade almost all day."
"That should be great for those Texas summer days," Fasthoff said. In addition, he said, "it has really opened up the space and exposed some of the historic elements of the surrounding buildings."
As for the patio plans, Fasthoff is quick to refute any ideas that the space will become a "concrete jungle."
"While a portion of the patio will be paved for seating," he said, "we are also bringing in a ton of flora. There will be tropical plants and trees all along the patio, star jasmine for the fences, creeping fig for the walls and 30-foot timber bamboo to draw the eye up the beautiful historic wall that is between us and Char Bar."
"Some other plants include different varieties of palm, ginger, various tropicals and wild grasses. There will be a very large waterfall that spills into a koi pond on the Travis side of the patio. That portion of the patio's floor with be grass and walking stones. We will be bringing lots of up-lighting and ambient light into the patio to activate this long dormant corner. We are planning to install arbors for more sun protection and also to shield from the elements."
In addition, Fasthoff said, there are even plans for those knobbly knees now that they've been removed: "We also are re-purposing the cypress stumps and some old equipment inside as decorations and patio installations."
"We really feel like this corner is going to be one of the spots leading to downtown's resurgence," Fasthoff finished. Next door, OKRA's Charity Bar will be opening within the next few weeks, while three other spots -- a restaurant from a popular food truck operator and two bars from well-known Houston bartenders -- are also in the works on the same stretch of Congress.
"We are extremely happy to be here," said Fasthoff, "and will work very hard to make our little corner a great place to get away for all Houstonians, especially our local residents."
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For some like Robert James, it likely won't matter what the Batanga trio have in mind -- lush patio or not. The loss of the beautiful trees in a concrete-heavy downtown that's just now beginning to reinstall parks and other greenery along its streets is simply too much to bear.
"Have already scratched Batanga off the visit list and they haven't even opened yet," James stated. "Won't patronize a place with this kind of mind set."