Rooftop Retreat, Organic Adventure
FROM GARDEN TO TABLE IN FORTY FEET
IF HAPPY EATS HEALTHY WERE A POP STAR, IT WOULD BE : TAYLOR SWIFT
Chef and nutrition coach Monique Costello takes locavore dining very seriously, growing most of the produce she serves in her semi-monthly supper series on her own rooftop. And what a rooftop it is! Costello and her husband scoured the city for the perfect home where they could create a dreamy dining space that feels at once extremely cozy and intoxicatingly expansive. You won’t notice that all the food you’re eating is good for you, and you won’t want to say goodbye to the view when you leave.
There are those moments in life when you find yourself at a party you never expected be invited to, in a place you can’t believe exists. Suddenly you’re in a living room in Manhattan’s West Village that can fit a baby grand piano, and does; or you find yourself aboard the yacht of an actual sultan, gazing out at the waves.
It’s not overstating the magnificence of Monique Costello’s rooftop to say that going to a Happy Eats Healthy dinner is one of those very moments. “We looked for a place that we could really make our own for so long,” she acknowledges when guests marvel at the lush gardens adorning every corner of the space, or sigh at the breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. “When we saw this spot, we thought ‘Finally!’”
There is one drawback, of course. The space is on the top floor of a fourth-floor walkup, though this isn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds. Especially when our hostess opens the door to reveal an exquisitely decorated open-plan apartment with a kitchen that would make any home cook green with envy. That’s where you get your first skyline view, from a giant picture window in the living room. If it happens to be raining (or pretty much any time during the months of November – March), this is where you dine when you come to Happy Eats Healthy, and that’s a treat in and of itself. The vibe is funky artist meets chic city slicker, with painted masks and wood carved animals looking on benevolently from their perches on walls and side tables as you sip a welcome glass of sparkling wine.
But it’s not raining today – indeed, it’s quite possibly the most perfect day of the nascent Chicago summer, and so we head up to the roof. Once there, it’s hard for any of our party to contain the superlatives bubbling up from within. “Fantastic”, “amazing”, “gorgeous” and “phenomenal” are words that get thrown around. There’s the marble-topped counter that conceals a sizable barbecue, and the “living room”, as Costello calls it, a snug configuration of patio furniture arranged under a pergola strung with twinkly lights. There’s the aforementioned row upon row of raised-bed gardens bearing fruits and vegetables destined for the dinner table and the somewhat dizzying sense that you are at eye level with the skyline. Even the traffic unspooling onto and off of the expressway four stories below adds a mesmerizing charm.
We aren’t only here to marvel at the fact that across town people are elbowing through crowds to sip $16 cocktails in spaces like this, however. After leaving our bottles of wine to chill on the bar, we cluster around a high-top table laden with appetizers that I notice my carnivore companion eyeing with some skepticism. There are satisfyingly crunchy homemade flax and seed crackers (that could easily be stocked in any number of aisles at Whole Foods) accompanying a loaf of walnut pate; smoky sweet grilled baby carrots streaked with tahini; dishes of juicy grapes; and a pot of tart, herbaceous pickled vegetables that it soon becomes apparent I am going to devour before anyone else has a chance to take a bite. In truth I have my own reservations about the walnut pate, as I generally do about vegetarian imitations of meat products. But these prove to be ridiculously unfounded, as myself and my co-diners take tentative, polite bites followed by far less tentative, far less polite mouthfuls that result in half the loaf being scarfed down before we are prodded away from the hors’ doeuvres for a tour of the garden.
As we wander amiably amongst her handiwork, cedar containers boasting everything from eggplant to string beans, herbs to edible flowers, Costello explains the trials and tribulations of gardening on a Chicago rooftop. There are the exasperatingly long winters, of course, but also voracious birds and high winds to contend with. She describes her methods in blithe, understated tones, leading me to imagine her as a gymnast with a green thumb, downplaying the difficulty of her triple flip dismount with a ¼ twist. The locavore nerd in me never ceases to be amazed at the immediacy of eating food that’s been grown nearby, and this reach-out-and-touch-me farm is as nearby to the dinner table as it gets.
So the food then! We receive “stick guacamole” and a succulent watermelon amuse bouche to start. Of the stick guac, a miniature skewer of avocado, tomato, jalapeno and red onion lent a surprisingly earthy twist by a black garlic topper, one of our dining companions comments “I could have ten more of those.”
Next comes a ridiculously attractive salad, the Blake Lively of salads, comprised solely of ingredients from the garden arranged on a plate under a swirl of verdant mint and parsley dressing with a savory goat cheese-stuffed zucchini flower balanced delicately on top.
We sample a pungent, gingery carrot soup offset with a streak of basil pistou that has all the guests slurping and scraping the sides of their bowls for the last few spoonfuls.
After a palate-cleansing tea-smoked lychee bite, the entrée that follows is a dense, flakey hunk of cod (“a little larger than I was intending to serve,” Costello allows “but when your fish guy gives you pieces that size, you’re not going to quibble!”) steamed in white wine and dressed with a kale lime pesto, a preparation that permits the sweet flavor of the fish to shine through.
I’m not a big dessert eater, but the berry crème fraiche coconut parfait with which Costello finishes off the night is exactly the kind of thing I’ll make an exception for. At some point in the evening the air has grown chilly, and our hostess re-emerges from the apartment with blankets for the thinner-skinned guests, myself included. It was a small-ish gathering on this particular night, and when the other couple who dined with us leaves, our cohort joins Costello at the bar to finish our bottle of pinot noir. She had moved to Chicago from Denver, we discover, where she’d run a restaurant for a number of years before a bizarre real-estate grab turned her business from bootstrap success story to unlucky bystander. After moving to the Windy City, she decided to take a cottage-industry approach, plying her trade as a holistic health coach by offering cooking classes and dinners in the apartment she and her husband had taken such care to renovate. The word “plucky” comes to mind when you talk to her, as does “resilient”. Her enthusiasm is infectious – in short, she’s the perfect person to convince your unwilling parent or overweight spouse to explore the wonders of walnut pate. I should know; I’ve been having food dreams about it since and emailed her for the recipe yesterday.
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