Order a mojito before dinner tonight at Daniel's Restaurant, and a staffer will slip outside for sprigs of mint to muddle with simple syrup.
Mint plucked to order is part of Chef Daniel Johengen's efforts to serve his guests the freshest possible herbs. Each morning before Johengen makes the 20-mile drive to the restaurant, he shops through his backyard herb garden, cutting handfuls of chives, sage leaves and whatever else he needs for dinner service.
"The stuff you're getting from a purveyor is good," Johengen said, "but they're going to be the best right when you pick them."
Johengen's cozy Hamburg restaurant is one of a growing number of eateries taking the ultimate step in using local produce. They're taking advantage of Western New York's summer season by growing their own ingredients, often only steps from the kitchen door.
"The chives I picked this morning are going into a sauteed soft-shell crab with a garlic-caper-chive butter, and the pink peppercorn-chive beurre blanc with my halibut," he said. "Sage I picked yesterday is marinating a pork loin with garlic, and black pepper, to be grilled and served over white beans with a chorizo date vinaigrette."
Time between field and plate is hardest on herbs. However, the flavorful plants also don't need a lot of attention and can thrive in a small place, so they provide the best return on kitchen staffs' limited gardening time.
"The herbs are really not much work," Johengen said. "The chives have been there 15 years. You cut them down in the fall and they come back with the spring," he said. Today, they still provide all the restaurant needs, about one pound weekly. "Thyme I plant every year," Johengen said. "It's a little work in the spring, but then you have fresh herbs all summer."
You can't beat the flavor of heirloom tomatoes prepared while still warm from the afternoon sun, said Mansion on Delaware Executive Chef Jennifer Boye.
The four-star hotel has one of the most elaborate kitchen-door gardens in the area, roughly 240 square feet next to the building, with more than 50 varieties of edibles, Boye said.
There are six varieties of heirloom tomatoes, five basils and four mints. There are edible flowers like marigolds and Johnny-jump-ups for salads, and a rose bush whose petals are used to produce a delicate rose syrup. There's even a fig tree.
"We try to incorporate them into every menu we create," Boye said. The garden, outside the windows of the inn's ballroom, supplies organic decorations as well as edibles, she said.
"We'll pick a bunch of pretty, fresh herbs and put them in small vases around the table with antipasto displays, so we almost have a marketplace type feel," Boye said. "The aroma really gets people talking. They realize it wasn't stuck in a plastic bag for a week."
There's a gardener who comes by once a week, but it's mainly watering and harvesting duties for the kitchen staff, she said. "Our gardener has taught us how to pick so that we get the most out of it -- if you only cut two-thirds of the way down, you'll help the plant thrive," Boye said. "So we get the most out of these plants during the season, many turns."
Across the border in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Chef Jason Parsons of Peller Estates Winery Restaurant writes his daily menus to highlight the offerings of a garden that's about as big as eight parking spaces.
"We kind of write the menu around what's in the garden," said Parsons.
There's literally a dry-erase board in the kitchen where the gardener lists what's ready today. "The guys know that whatever's on that board we can harvest," said Parsons. "If we've got baby carrots out there, but they're not on the board, they're not ready and we won't pick them."
That enables the kitchen to take advantage of a seasonal moment, as Parsons did in changing an asparagus risotto to an herb and squash risotto last week. "The reason is we have so many herbs -- we've got chervil, parsley, tarragon -- so we're chopping all those herbs and throwing them right into the risotto."
Parsons' restaurant, which has earned four Canadian Automobile Association diamonds, serves its chef-selected tasting menu to more than 60 percent of its guests, Parsons said. "They have no idea what they're going to get; they just sit down and say, 'Cook for me.' "
That frees up the chef to give diners the best he has, even if customers are unfamiliar with an herb. "I have a bit of a fetish for chervil," Parsons said "That's one of the ones that when you stick it in the fridge, it goes soft, it wilts. But when you go outside and chop it down just before service, put it on the plates, it's amazing."
Restaurant chefs who have a chance to grow their own herbs do so for the same reason passionate home cooks do -- the difference comes through on the plate, he said.
"When you get herbs and stick them in the fridge for two days, they're good," he said. "But when you pluck an herb straight from the garden and serve it, it's completely different -- crisp, fresh. It's intense."
Taste is the main reason, but cost is a factor for smaller kitchens, like Daniel Johengen's. A few leaves of sage or a handful of thyme can make a dish sing, but restaurant suppliers only deal in bulk amounts, he said. Rather than let the rest wilt in a cooler, restaurant gardens provide a convenient pick-as-you-go alternative.
"It's real hard to buy two sage leaves," Johengen said. "Even at Tops or Wegmans, you'll have to buy 20 in a packet." A purveyor has good thyme available, he said, for $12 a pound. "I don't use that much," he said. "A pound of thyme would rot."
At Merge Restaurant on Delaware Avenue, there's no room for a garden plot, so its kitchen's freshest herbs -- rosemary, lemon balm, basil, mints and more -- come from nearby planters and pots.
But the ultra-fresh herbs and vegetables have the restaurant owners pondering the possibility of more. "We want to have our own greenhouse eventually, so we can grow a bunch of our own produce," said Merge co-owner Eliza Schneider.
The restaurant's menu emphasizes raw, vegan and vegetarian dishes, so freshly snipped herbs are important to her. "It's very different from something that's been shipped across the country and mass-produced," she said. "It's got good energy in it. Anyone who knows food can appreciate the difference."
The fresher, the better. "If you've ever grown your own tomatoes, you can just taste the difference, when you take a bite out of it when you've just pulled it off the plant. It has all the growing energy in it, and it just tastes real."