Foodie Goodies from the Garden

Atlanta restaurants break out their green thumbs for a homemade spin on fresh fare.
Written by Jennifer Smith Williams

When is the last time you sank your teeth into a ripe, bright-red tomato? Wait, before you answer that, let me be more specific: When is the last time you pulled it right off the vine and let its salty, sweet red juices run down your cheeks because it was just that good?

Speaking of, have you ever tried the more than 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, or had the chance to taste them in a homemade, seven (give or take)-layer meal? My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

That’s exactly what the chefs at some our favorite savory spots are counting on. The growth of the backyard garden at many metro Atlanta restaurants started several years ago and has evolved into something that we “OTP” consumers have come to expect.

Backyard Bounty in Milton
Like the tin-roof, gravel lot and country feel of Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails, a Milton's
Crabapple neighborhood favorite, it’s that front porch and family dinner feel that makes this self-sustaining idea a success. Chef Derek Dollar came on board with Milton’s in 2009, when the garden was just over a year old, and started experimenting with a small crop of herbs and a few traditional homegrown veggies. With the help of expert gardener Peter Kohm, who started the crops as a curious hobby, the garden is now more than an acre of almost anything you can imagine.

“We’re truly seed-to-fork,” Dollar said. “The guests can enjoy a glass of wine before dinner and walk down here to the garden to see what looks good before they order.”

“We have more than 80 different kinds of vegetables here,” Kohm explained as he walked through the delicate herb beds, across the asparagus patch and the site for what will sprout carrots and potatoes soon. And those 21 varieties of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes? From a place that produced more than 200 pounds of the red (and green and yellow) jewels last year, expect one heck of a tomato pie this summer.

“The best thing we get out of this garden is hearing how much people like it,” Kohm said. “The fact that we get such good feedback is really rewarding.”

The Language of Delicious
Down the street in the heart of Alpharetta, La Casa owner Pasquale Cardamuro feeds his menu with the knowledge he gained growing up on the coast in Naples, Italy. His family was big in the restaurant business, so after culinary school he moved his talents westward. For Cardamuro, it’s not just a hobby — it’s about the culture behind cultivating your own food, and an emphasis on the value that growing something from a seedling to an entrée carries. Oh, and pinpointing exactly the difference in how much better it tastes when you do it that way.

“I like to start everything from the seed,” he said. “I plant the seeds in my garden at my house, and when they’re big enough, we bring them to the restaurant.” Those seeds come straight from Italy, a place he visits at least once a year to see family, friends and shop for produce.

Cardamuro is married with two teenage boys, both of whom like to cook, and the entire family can be seen having dinner together on most nights right there in the restaurant.

“It’s important for me to teach them how to cook. That’s my roots. My grandfather taught my father. My father taught me. We all do restaurants,” he said.

There aren’t that many original Italians in the restaurant business, he said, placing emphasis on the fact that at La Casa, they do things old-school. Meaning, he keeps his business running (or his garden growing) like they do it in Italy.

“Growing vegetables is my therapy. Food is my passion. So, we grow everything, all our vegetables, all of the herbs.”

Likewise, the sauces at La Casa are the favorites, whether the mushroom and shrimp sauce, the chicken piccata with spinach, or the special spare rib meat sauce that Cardamuro says is a regular on the family’s own Sunday-night dinner table.

Fancy Farm-to-Table Feast
Chef Robert Gerstenecker from Four Season’s Park 75 just made the move OTP, nestling his family on a huge plot of undeveloped land in Cherokee County. He grew up on a farm in Canada, so, naturally, the value in freshly picked peppers (and such) sits deep within his makeup; but it’s the resources that come from working with a big brand that gave him the ability to make a city scene into something reminiscent of farm-to-table.

The biggest difference between Park 75’s garden and the gardens out in the suburbs is the fact that it’s growing on the roof. And not just any roof — the roof on top of the five-story high terrace at Atlanta’s grand Four Seasons Hotel.

“It’s really hot up there, and there is a lot of reflection from all of the buildings around us,” Gerstenecker said. “But, that actually helps us. We can grow sweet potatoes and peppers really well, because they love the heat.”

“Broccoli is our magical vegetable,” he added. “And in the fall, we get the most pristine cauliflower. It’s just pure white and huge. We can always bank on the herbs, too — basil, mint, thyme, bay leaf. We bought one bay leaf tree years ago and it’s just so prolific, I’ve never had to buy [another]!”

Prolific also describes the success of the basil, all 300 pounds of it. You’d think they’d run out of ways to use it, but all of the herbs get to co-star in the lounge as well — muddled into seasonal creative cocktails every single night.

Currently, the rooftop hosts eight planters, all with a little something different, and all tended by a separate member of the restaurant staff. As a way of training their servers on the menu’s intricacies, it’s become somewhat of a continuing education program for the entire kitchen crew.

This year, expect to see eggplant on the menu, as well as bites from a row of fruit trees, including blueberry, apricot, figs and persimmon. And a classic you can look forward to seeing on the menu again is the stuffed squash blossoms with goat cheese and honey from the garden’s own beehives. That’s what you call a sweet homemade meal.

For More Information
La Casa
37 Old Roswell St.

Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails
800 Mayfield Road

Park 75
Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta
75 14th St. NW