Monday, March 24, 2014

Dinner from the garden, in the garden

The crack of a snow pea pod, cool and refreshing, started the evening at Coltivare. There was a vibrant, acidic pesto made from the tops of the carrots that were the snow pea's companions in this simple but excellent snack, but this particular bite was pesto-free. Like well made barbecue (an odd analogy, but one you'll come to expect from me), vegetables this fresh and well cared for need not be smothered in things to provide flavor; they stand on their own. There was the occasional brush of a carrot through the pesto, much like the dance radishes made through cultured butter and salt on my last visit, but it only enhanced these treasures from the Coltivare garden.

As I sat on the patio watching a member of the kitchen staff walk to the garden to pick some herbs that may have ended up on my plate, I couldn't help but think of how much our city's culinary landscape had progressed. Five years ago, I'm not certain a place like Coltivare could survive in Houston, much less garner the attention that would cause the infamous wait times for a table that seem to be the biggest criticism of the restaurant. For those wondering, I arrived on a weekend evening at the five o'clock opening time and the restaurant reached full capacity around 5:45, though tables seemed to turn over at a good pace.

The growing Coltivare garden. Snow peas and carrots with carrot top pesto. Grilled broccoli salad.(all photos courtesy of my wife, who is a much better photographer than I)

This was my second visit to the small, Italian-inspired place in the Heights, the first since they got their liquor license. I imagine customers not being able to bring in multiple bottles of their own wine lessened the average meal time, and the quaint patio added space for ten additional tables. Coltivare's wine list is growing and the cocktail list is well thought out, employing the same Italian inspiration reflected in the food. My wife ordered a Park Slope, which consisted of brandy, an Italian vermouth, and lavender bitters. I chose the Ava Crowder and would be lying if I told you that decision wasn't made in part due to my affinity for the television show Justified that inspired the drink's name. It consisted of bourbon, amaro, sorghum vinegar, lemon and bitters. After taking our first sips, we decided a swap was in order. Ava Crowder was a bit too sweet for my taste, and the Park Slope a bit too bitter for hers. Both drinks were well executed, though my personal preference would have been for a bit less lemon in my original drink.

The menu at Coltivare changes frequently with season and product availability. We decided on a dish of mussels cooked in garum, garlic and capers and a grilled broccoli salad that our server informed us had just been added to the menu. It consisted of pickled kohlrabi, pecans, croutons and Brussels sprout leaves. The mussels were fragrant and flavorful, and the garum added an unexpected depth to the dish. I did, however, regret that we had not ordered any focaccia to dip into the broth (this problem was later rectified by pizza crust). The broccoli salad was tremendous, with the brined kohlrabi offering a great contrast to the grilled texture of the broccoli. This salad was equally as impressive as the fennel salad I loved on the first visit. Coltivare shines with both its use of vegetables and straight-forward approach to maximizing their flavors. The flash fried cauliflower dish that has received a great deal of praise certainly delivered on this night.

Mussels garnished with parsley

We chose to skip a pasta course this time in favor of pizza. Many claim that Coltivare serves the best pizza in the city right now, and for good reason. Their crust is unique, thick and hefty, flying in the face of the Neapolitan craze that is sweeping the country. The first pizza I tried at Coltivare had lemons, olives and goat cheese, and while interesting, didn't quite deliver the wow factor for which I'd hoped. I felt the crust was a bit too thick, which robbed it of a chance to crisp up in the oven and withstand the weight of its toppings. There was no such problem on this trip. The crust was a perfect thickness, with a slight char. The toppings this time were slow roasted duck, squash puree, pickled red onions, sorrel and pesto. I am not sure if the chef was a bit heavy handed with our pie in particular, or if it was by design, but the pesto was the dominant ingredient of the pizza, relegating the duck to supporting actor status and the squash but a nice piece of set decoration.

Cauliflower with pine nuts, raisins and tarragon

While still not ready to profess my love for their pizza, what separates the Coltivare menu from so many in the city is its delicate balance of creativity and restraint. Chef Ryan Pera seems to know which risks to take and when to take them, tinkering with spice, sweetness and acidity until a dish has reached its full potential without becoming muddled. A small bowl of well pickled, spicy gairdiniera pickles may not seem like a revelation, but how many restaurants have such confidence in their product to present it in such pure form? The Revival Market team was part of a wave of culinary talent that began showing this city what could be achieved with commitment to ingredients and respect of their origins, and they have continued that vision with this restaurant. The future is bright for Coltivare, and the city's dining culture is better for it. It was and is worth the wait.

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