A buzzy new restaurant in Brooklyn is condensing today’s biggest food trends (farm-to-table, sustainability, no-waste) into a tiny backyard garden. At Olmsted, named for the famous landscape architect who designed nearby Prospect Park, chef Greg Baxtrom (formerly at Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and farmer Ian Rothman (the former horticulturist at New York’s Atera restaurant) have cultivated a self-sustaining micro-farm—complete with an aquaponics system in a clawfoot bathtub. Plus: The space transforms into an oasis in which to sip garden-fresh cocktails, every dish on the menu is under $24, and a donation is made to nonprofit GrowNYC for every meal eaten. Here, a look inside this clever kitchen garden.
Photography by Evan Sung.
Above: The restaurant, located in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, has a gardening history: The space was once a flower shop.
Above: Baxtrom and Rothman built the backyard micro-farm themselves. The garden is centered on a horseshoe-shaped pine planter surrounded by a perimeter of beds. “We wanted one area that was pretty and would display examples from the menu, and one area that could function as an annual rotation,” says Baxtrom. In the way that an open kitchen might provide a behind-the-scenes view of dinner being cooked, the central bed provides an up-close-and-personal view of dinner being grown. A wood stove in the corner warms the space on cool nights.
Above: Gardening in a Brooklyn backyard comes with challenges. To account for shade from buildings and trees, Rothman “identified the shady areas of the garden and chose plant varieties that are better suited for those areas,” including orpine, violets, nettles, ramps, hostas, and pawpaw, says Baxtrom. While there is a small shed for storing tools, the team has to cart soil and supplies through the restaurant to deposit them out back.
Above: The garden provides more than 80 varieties of herbs, vegetables, and other plants for dishes and cocktails on the menu. “We just planted our fall kale rotation,” Baxtrom says. “There is some standard stuff like mint and lemon balm, but also some fun, weird stuff our friends have dropped off for us, like wasabi and white asparagus.” The lemon balm is featured in dishes like a radish top gazpacho, while nasturtium leaves flavor a gin cocktail. (Check back tomorrow for the recipe.)
Above: A pair of quails, mascots of sorts for Olmsted, watch over the garden and provide eggs. A well-worn shovel is a reminder that this is a working farm as well as a restaurant.
Above: To transform the garden into an extension of the restaurant, Rothman and Baxtrom’s father built benches and tables that fit over the planters. The benches are permanently affixed to the beds, but the small tabletops can be removed and used by waitstaff as serving trays. With this space-saving innovation, guests can sit in the garden and enjoy a cocktail—or a cup of tea from the extensive tea menu.
Above: One of the more curious features of the garden is a clawfoot tub-turned-aquaponics system. “We found the tub under the Bronx-Queens Expressway during the buildout,” says Baxtrom. “We wanted the sound of running water in the garden, and somehow the idea evolved to having fish.” The team cleaned out the tub and installed a closed-cycle pump and a filter (“Nothing fancy,” says Baxtrom). The bath now forms a symbiotic and efficient system: The waste from the fish provides manure for water-loving plants, and the plants in turn purify the water.
Above: Watercress and other plants grow alongside crayfish. In another ingenious detail of Olmsted’s closed-loop sustainability system, the team feeds leaves from a tucked-away compost bin to soldier fly larvae which, when grown, are fed to the crayfish.
Above: During dinner, workers dash out to the garden to snip fresh herbs and leaves for the kitchen.
Above: Inside the 50-seat restaurant, a living wall overflows with non-edible plants, and may become an interactive food source in the future. “We have discussed a 2.0 version, like a strawberry or cherry wall,” Baxtrom says, from which guests can pick their own fruit to add to their cocktail.
Above: At night, with lights strung above the space and cushions laid out on the benches, the space transforms from working farm to trendy hangout. As the weather cools, Baxtrom and Rothman are preparing for their first fall and winter at Olmsted: The restaurant will install a hoop house and add heat lamps so diners can enjoy evenings in the garden even after the weather turns cool.
N.B.: For more restaurants with backyard dining, see Outdoor Dining at SF’S Souvla NoPa, Starry String Lights Included.