Imagine a swath of land with an aquaponic lettuce farm, heritage vegetable garden and apiary that shares space with a fish camp, golf course, tennis lessons from Olympian Liezel Huber and a gun club. Oh, and a 15th century chapel shipped from a vineyard in the Luberon region of France. What is this peculiar domain? Houston Oaks, which brands itself as a family sports retreat, but holds just as much appeal for the serious food lover.
The spot opened in the 1950s as Tennwood Golf Club, which belonged to Tenneco Oil and Gas Company and served as its worldwide gas control facility. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, a network of nuclear fallout shelters was built underground and members still get around beneath the club's surface via golf cart. Some of the space will be converted into wine caves soon, says marketing coordinator, Katie Park. Owners Marci and Steve Alvis, Terri and John Havens, and Kim and Chuck Watson turned the semi-private golf club into a private club in 2010. Now, memberships begin at $30,000 and go up to $100,000. But if you have that kind of money to throw around, it may be worth it just for the food.
A drive around the 1,000 acres of Houston Oaks feels like it is much further than 40 minutes from innermost Houston. Cows and goats graze near a patch of olives and other fruit trees. A bee or two buzzes out of the apiaries set up near the basil and lavender. Chef Jeffrey Baker, who began his farm-to-seed project when he was hired in 2014, was excited on Sunday night to have just harvested his first three gallons of honey, floral from the lavender and slightly spicy due to exotic varieties of basil and a passel of chiles grown just feet away.
It's all tended by gardener Jeanine Hopkins, who connects each day with Baker to harvest whatever herbs, peppers and other vegetables the chef desires on his menu. Lettuces come from the Sustainable Harvesters greenhouse, whose butter, oak and leaf lettuces are probably familiar to Kroger shoppers. The aquaponics company (a fusion of hydroponics and aquaculture in which plants are watered with filtered H20 fertilized by tanks of freshwater tilapia) also supplies several Houston restaurants with its live plants—8,000 a week. In the works: enough cattle to supply an onsite butchering facility.
All of this allows Baker to serve up some of the most resolutely locavore fare in Houstonia. At a recent dinner, he presented dishes including the above heirloom okra blossom served with mango-melon salsa and a trio of fire-roasted pepper sauces, all harvested onsite. A tomato Caprese was accompanied by an arugula salad illuminated with five different and highly idiosyncratic varieties of basil. Alaskan halibut, more or less the only thing on the menu that didn't once live at Houston Oaks, was served wrapped in crispy taro root and accompanied with a single charred cupid pepper and a pesto-marinated baby eggplant in a sea of green hyssop-wasabi sauce.
The meal at the Clubhouse Restaurant, the most formal of seven dining options at Houston Oaks, ended with a taste of the newly spun honey. A dense walnut Napoleon was filled with the stuff and sat in a sparkling pool of it, too. Freshly whipped cream served as a sweet anchor for a crown of echinacea and gerber petals. The result: I may not be taking up tennis, but the sustainable landscape at Houston Oaks has won me over.