Spring is the best time to eat at Coltivare in the Heights

There’s a good moment in time at Coltivare, the rustic Italian restaurant with its own attached vegetable garden. It’s about now when Houston’s growing season produces the last of our cool season greens and herbs and strawberries and radishes, paired with early spring favas and snow peas.

It’s a season written in a myriad of shades of green and some deep reds. Until a recent Sunday supper, I had forgotten the cool, dizzying thrill.

Once the pandemic curtailed my dining out, I still managed to make a few visits to the patio of this Heights staple that is one of my favorites. But these were random incursions, not suited to the moment. The food wasn’t as substantial as it had once been, it seemed to me. I stopped craving this place like I once did.

Or so I thought, until I forked into a fresh, crispy tangle of arugula and chicory discreetly dressed in citrus. It was what Coltivare regulars call “strawberry salad”, which appears with the berries in winter and lasts until spring. I always thought the combo sounded risky until I sampled it and realized the berries impart a tart zing instead of a heavy sweetness.

These berries had a lively conversation with the salty goat cheese, nutty sunflower seeds and pleasantly bitter greens that seemed to have been pulled from Coltivare’s flowerbeds minutes earlier. There were little surprises along the way: a twist of lemon here; a crunch of snow peas there.

coltivare

3320 White Oak, 832-203-7890


Equally uplifting in its calmer way was the side of snow peas, mint and ricotta. It arrived on the table as a snowy piece of soft cheese applied to a bowl filled with shiny, mint pea pods. So simple. So good.

Then there was the artichoke dip, a reimagining of the clichéd American favorite that’s usually a cheesy mud. Not here: the creamy feta base was fizzing with salt and flavor; fruity olive clustered at the edges; radish slices, pea pods and favas provided crunchy textures, while chunks of chervil added their sweet aniseed note. Yeah, there were bits of marinated artichoke hearts going back and forth, but the total effect was that of a spring garden on a plate.

Best of all, the artichoke dip came with the nuttiest, crunchiest slices of crusty bread to scoop it up. Managed to catch a couple to take home for breakfast the next day. If Coltivare sold them by the bag, I’d come running.

So here are the thrills of the meal, shared with friends around a table on the covered terrace, with a view of the green geometries of the vegetable garden. It was one of those occasions where the view, the air and the food seem to fit together into a seamless whole.

With the highs came some lows. The seafood ravioli was lovely, but the filling was unpleasantly ragged and a little too dodgy. I foolishly ordered an overloaded bologna pizza which never clicked for me. Why didn’t I opt for the simpler, veg-centric versions, which I’ve always loved here?

And what had happened to the spring of Coltivare’s unusual pizza crust? The exterior seemed to have hardened and stiffened. His soft bounce seemed to have run away.

I’ve encountered mysterious bugs like this all over town for the past few months. I still wonder if the stress of the pandemic has taken its toll on the once cohesive kitchens, whether in terms of supplies, manpower, or general exhaustion. My own concentration isn’t as sharp as it used to be, so I’m not unsympathetic. We’re all scrambling to get back to some version of normal.

Either way, Coltivare’s service remains smart and personal, and their spring desserts were just as smashing and seasonal as ever. A rich, buttery crostata topped with roasted strawberries that wrote an intense finish to their season.

And OK, rhubarb doesn’t grow here in zone 9 – trust me, I tried – but that cool weather stalk still says spring, no matter where you live. So I was delighted to come across a crispy meringue that had been made with legume water instead of egg white, topped with a racy splash of rhubarb sauce.

Electrifying stuff, the best dishes of which have always been at one of Houston’s most seasonal and local restaurants.

alison.cook@chron.com