A fresh-picked tomato means summer to many people, including Chef Bo Palker of Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro at the Westin Reston Heights.
"First one I ate this season was a 'chocolate stripe' with salt, still warm from the vine – maybe the best tomato I've ever had," said Palker.
Palker is growing his own tomatoes right on the restaurant patio, along with peppers, eggplants and a whole array of herbs. The tomatoes are used in salads, as delicious garnishes and straight from the vine to the plate.
Last year, two containers of tomatoes were so popular with Vinifera patrons that Palker decided to expand in a big way. This summer, 32 plants of over a dozen heirloom tomato varieties are situated around the patio. Some are still heavy with fruit; others are almost done for the season.
"This is a 'sun-gold', small but delicious" says Palker. He also points out a huge 'ox-heart' variety, nearly ripe and soon headed for someone's plate.
"This restaurant is all about quality and the freshest product we can find," he said. " You can't get much fresher than this."
The Vinifera staff has helped Palker tend and water the garden. Even the general manager has been known to stop and snip at the basil or lemon thyme to encourage their growth. Palker says their secret to a good growing season is "love and sunshine".
On a recent afternoon, Palker had a tray of tomatoes with basil in his onsite smoker, with wood chips. He planned to pair these smoked tomatoes with Kobe beef on the menu that evening.
"I like introducing people to new things. I believe that's the reason people go out to eat, to try something new." said Palker.
Palker is excited about three new trees planted in the Vinifera courtyard. A pomegranate tree and two apricot trees, with some babying over the winter, should produce fruit next year. Pomegranates and apricots should make to an inspired appearance on the menu.
After all the tomatoes and eggplants are harvested, diners can continue to enjoy the spacious patio, especially with the new fire pits. Vinifera holds wine tastings and "around the world" menus on a regular basis.