At Mandolin Organic Garden, Ahmet Erkaya shades his eyes from the gleaming afternoon sun. He walks towards a young cranberry hibiscus plant and rapidly pulls a leaf from the vibrant violet-red herbage. He eagerly hands it over for me to sample. "He's completely obsessed with this plant," says his wife, Anastasia Koutsioukis.
The leaf has a shocking, clean, potent citrus flavor.
"It's served with single-origin Cretan extra virgin olive oil and a touch of fresh lemon juice. And a sprinkle of salt," says Erkaya.
Simple ingredients -- fresh ones, at least -- don't need anything else.
Three years ago, the couple opened Mandolin Aegean Bistro, the Buena Vista eatery known equally for its fresh fare and dainty setting.
But, on its menu, there are a couple of words that you will never find. These include "local", "farm-to-table", or "farm fresh". You won't see the lineage for the lamb or for the tomatoes printed anywhere, either. Erkaya and Koutsioukis prefer if ingredients speak for themselves.
"We are not a chef-driven restaurant. We are an ingredient-driven restaurant," says Erkaya.
It's a method that has brought them much success. In August, Mandolin expanded with an additional indoor seating option. In early October, the restaurant launched this garden project named the Mandolin Organic Garden.
"In my Greek grandmother's house, we always had a garden. Farm-to-table wasn't a trend. It was just the way we ate," says Koutsioukis.
The couple worked with local company, Ready To Grow Gardens, and transformed what was once an empty lot into a blossoming haven for leafy greens. The garden -- organized by coral rock beds -- is located behind the restaurant, with an entrance on NE 43rd Street.
They planted vegetables from seedlings and used organic fertilizers, as well as sustainable methods for irrigation. So far, the garden features a variety of greens and herbs: spinach, kale, mustard leafs, arugula, dill, oregano, Spanish tarragon, zaatar, and more. They also planted tomatoes and eggplant. Soon, they hope to add peppers to the mix.
"Miami is so fertile and sometimes it is taken for granted," says Erkaya.
But the couple appreciates the quality and importance of truly fresh produce. The greens are offered as weekly specials, such as an organic salad for $12. Erkaya harvests every other day (usually Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) and the salad is only available on the day that greens are harvested.
With the garden, the couple hopes to plan community efforts that will educate neighbors, family, friends and patrons about the importance of growing organic produce.
They also have plans to expand beyond Mandolin. The couple will be opening another eatery in 2013. Located on NE 2nd Avenue and 45th Street, the restaurant will be a Florida seafood shack named Poor Man's Lobster.
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"It'll be very different from Mandolin. Still very family-oriented, but with a focus on Florida and local fish like with grilled grouper sandwiches," says Koutsioukis. The signature dish will be, in fact, poor man's lobster.
Until next year, specials offered at Mandolin will feature test-runs for the menu at the new seafood eatery. These include offerings like butterflied Tiger shrimp, with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Like other dishes created by the couple, the motto will remain the same: simple and subtle, but always fresh and delicious.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.