The Not-So-Secret Garden: Six Houston Restaurants That Grow Their Own Grub

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In this week's cafe review, I take a look at Coltivare, the new restaurant from Revival Market's Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber. The small but alarmingly busy spot has been getting a lot of buzz not just about the unique Italian-inspired menu, but also about the ample backyard garden that supplies much of the restaurant's produce.

Back before the restaurant opened, I was treated to a media preview dinner at Coltivare. After trying a few dishes, I was taken into the backyard to see the garden. It was already dark, but in the light from nearby street lamps, I could see tiny buds poking out of rich soil.

Coltivare's public relations manager Geralyn Graham took me around the various raised beds, pointing out what each newly sprouting sliver of green would become. It was January and still quite chilly, but I could already picture how lush the garden would become under Houston's warm spring sun.

Flash forward to April, and Coltivare's back patio area is in full bloom. Vines snake up the fence surrounding the property and bushy mint plants sway in the breeze as cars speed down White Oak. Inside, the menu reflects the abundance of produce, as well as the seasonally rotating plants in the garden. There's no need to ask if something is fresh or where it comes from. You can see it with your own eyes.

Though Coltivare isn't a full-on masterpiece in my book just yet, the small restaurant has a lot going for it, and one of the biggest draws is that lovely garden. It's not the only Houston restaurant growing food on-site, however. Here are a few other eateries in town where the food is fresh as can be.

Haven Haven was one of the first local restaurants to receive praise for its use of ingredients grown on-site. Thanks to the dedication of chef/owner Randy Evans, the garden has evolved since the restaurant opened in 2009 to include 10 citrus trees in addition to numerous herbs and greens. There's even a stacked hive full of bees that produce honey for desserts and a few select dishes using pollen from the plants in the garden. A manager tells me they just harvested most of what was in the garden (carrots, radishes, cauliflower, lettuces), but they're getting ready to replant it with summer produce. Some of the herbs and veggies in the garden are also used at Cove, the raw bar inside Haven, but most of it ends up on tasting menus or special dishes at the Evans's restaurant.

The Grove The garden at The Grove isn't even on the ground floor--it's one story above on a second floor patio. The space, which is about 2,700 square feet, currently features strawberries and herbs like mint, rosemary and oregano, all of which make their way onto diners' plates at The Grove. There's even an active beehive in the garden, which allows the bees to gather pollen from the plants and chefs to gather honey from the bees. The list of specials at the restaurant is ever-changing to reflect what's ripe in the garden. Look for tomatoes during the summer and herbs, herbs and more herbs the rest of the year.

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Osteria Mazzantini The Italian restaurant inside the BBVA Compass building on Post Oak is still fairly new, but the garden out front is already flourishing. For months there have been herbs in the few beds around the patio, and this winter there were also carrots, radishes, turnips and kale. The new spring/summer garden was just planted, so in a few weeks or months there should be tomatoes, eggplant, okra, cucumbers and bell peppers. There's also a Meyer lemon tree that grows year-round, and, of course, thyme and rosemary, which find their way onto many plates at the restaurant.

Patrenella's Italian Restaurant Patrenella's has a backyard garden with eight plots, each of which is about 20 yards long and two yards deep. When I asked what's growing back there, owner Sammy Patrenella just started listing things. There are various lettuces. There are herbs: Rosemary, thyme, sage and basil. There are fruit trees: Pear, orange, lemon, lime, plum, cumquat, fig, papaya and olive. There's a special Italian squash called cucuzza that's sautéed with onions, garlic and marinara sauce as a house specialty. And right now, there are plenty of root vegetables like sweet potatoes, turnips, onions and leeks taking seed in an effort to reduce water use. "The heat is so bad here that if you miss one day of watering, the whole crop is ruined," Patrenella says. "We have to watch what we're spending on water, so we started growing more root vegetables."

Rainbow Lodge This place doesn't just have a garden. It has a grove. There are almost a dozen citrus trees on the property (Meyer lemon, Mexican lime and pomelo) as well as two separate gardens. Both of the spacious gardens are still tended by owner Donnette Hansen, who frequently appears in the restaurant's Twitter feel pulling up carrots or showing off freshly picked lettuces. The gardens change seasonally, of course, but I'm told the one closer to the restaurant currently has a wealth of summer tomatoes. The other one is in the process of seeing, so there should be plenty of fresh produce to order at Rainbow Lodge in the next few weeks and months.

Zelko Bistro Jamie Zelko has pioneered the Heights Honeybee Project through her restaurant, Zelko Bistro. The project takes bees that would normally be exterminated and relocates them to hives around town, some of which are on the Zelko Bistro property. The garden provides ample produce from several raised beds in a lush corner of the Heights, and Zelko herself can often be found out there tending to the greens. Depending on the time of year, the Bistro will be growing anything from tomatoes to spinach to beautiful red chard and purple frisee lettuce. There are even some citrus trees on the property, and based on photos the restaurant posts to Facebook, the trees are bringing in major hauls year after year.

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