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Getting Fresh : The greening of a vacant lot in Pasadena: How the Parkway Grill started growing its own.

June 21, 1990|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Until recently, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the San Gabriel Valley was just a weed-strewn lot. It sat empty just off Pasadena's busiest street. Now it has been transformed into a culinary and environmental showcase, a tranquil garden amid the roar of traffic from the Arroyo Parkway. In its manicured planting beds an exotic harvest is just now reaching maturity, destined to grace the tables at the adjacent Parkway Grill restaurant.

When Parkway owner Gregg Smith leased the site in 1984, he also leased the vacant lot next door. The terms of the lease, he said, allowed the firm to develop the empty space to "its best use." Initially there was talk of building a Craftsman-style office structure on the site, but it never worked out. The lot on Marengo remained empty for six years.

"We are paying rent on all this--including the empty lot--so I thought we might as well use it," said Smith. The idea for a garden grew more and more appealing.

"I've been fighting since day one to get a garden on that plot," said Parkway chef Hugo Molina. "Now I feel very proud that this item or that is from my own garden and not something that's been sitting for a week in a warehouse."

Enter landscape designer Katarina Eriksson. The holder of a horticultural degree from Mt. San Antonio College, she has spent most of her eight-year career working with residential settings. "I've always wanted to do commercial farming," she said. "This is as close as I've gotten."

Both Smith and Molina were interested in making sure that the food was organically grown. Smith said he was motivated to use alternative gardening methods because of his customers' overall concerns about food safety and fear of pesticide residues on food.

To start, Eriksson laboratory-tested the soil to determine whether there were any chemical problems with the 4,000-square-foot plot. There weren't; its composition conformed with organic standards. "This is excellent soil," said Eriksson, who spends about 15 hours a week tending the plot. "It's clay-based and holds water well."

Eriksson doesn't use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. When problems with bugs, mold or weeds arise, they are treated only with naturally derived compounds. When she spots a harmful insect on a plant, she just picks it off.

Eriksson scoured 20 seed catalogues before finding the right mix of exotic food plants. They include, among others, six varieties of radicchio, purple basil, whirly bird nasturtiums, white carrots, haricots verts , red Swiss chard, tree tomatoes, radish pods and saffron.

Saffron, obtained from the crocus flower (a relative of the iris), poses an especially difficult challenge. Only the stigma, or pollen-bearing tip of the blossom, is used as a flavoring agent. That means thousands of plants are required to produce just an ounce of saffron, which can sell for as much as $200. But Molina insists that the fickle plant will grow in Pasadena, even if the production amounts to minute quantities.

Molina and Smith, who have worked together for 11 years, know their garden won't begin to fill all the restaurant's produce needs. Still they estimate that the plot, which will be fully operational by October, should yield at least one daily menu special as well as one or two key ingredients for other dishes.

One night there was a spectacular green salad with flowers and "drunken" shrimp that included five ingredients from the garden: rose petals, colorful pansies, chive blossoms, mizuna (a Japanese mustard green) and radicchio. Molina worked his way through the garden gathering all the greens and flowers only minutes before the dish was prepared.

"The garden gives us another incentive to do something special," he said. Molina, a native Guatemalan raised in a household that held local spices, fruits and vegetables in high esteem, also raises exotic herbs and fruit trees at home. His grandmother was an herbalist who used to teach him about the benefits of various plants. He can rattle off a dozen plant-based headache remedies.

"I grew up with all of these varieties," he said. "I like colorful items such as Chinese kale. And then there are the six varieties of radicchio we're growing. Most people only know of one type."

The Parkway Grill isn't the only California restaurant operating its own garden, but most such efforts have been in the northern part of the state. In fact, Smith said he was partly inspired by several articles detailing Alice Waters' organic gardening efforts for her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

"More and more, the ripple of organic is affecting most every marketplace in most every arena," said Robert Scowcroft, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers in Santa Cruz. "The values of (the Parkway's effort) is that it . . . is teaching people where food comes from, whether it be herbs or greens that customers are eating. It brings the food system closer to the consumer and that is great news."

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