Uncommon Ground's Garden Of Eatin', Up On The Roof

I have long been engaged with the Good Food movement as a consumer, an early adopter of Whole Foods' predecessor in the Washington, D.C., area 20 years ago and a frequenter of farmers' markets in that city. Since moving to Chicago last year and deciding to try to develop a second career as a food writer, I have already met people who are doing remarkable things to encourage people to eat better and to eat more locally grown foods.

This week, I had the pleasure of chatting again with Dave Snyder, who tends the pioneering rooftop organic farm at Uncommon Ground restaurant, located on Devon Avenue on Chicago's far North Side.

You'll be hearing a lot more from me about Dave and other folks who are making Chicago greener (and tastier), as I am planning to develop stories about urban agriculture that hopefully publishers will buy and run. But I wanted to use my Cooler on the Lake Shore blog to at least introduce you to the very cool things they are doing.

The container garden that Dave Snyder manages atop the old converted building at the corner of Devon and Glenwood received certification in 2008 as the nation's first organic rooftop farm. How can you have a rooftop "farm," you ask? There is no doubt that this stretches the definition, but the problem is that the government doesn't have a certification program for organic gardens. So the owners of Uncommon Ground went through the same certification process as would an organic farmer in the middle of central Illinois farm country -- even though they measured, and their growing area amounts to about .015 of an acre.

The whole set-up is supported by a specially-built structure of steel beams, because if you put tons of dirt in wooden planters on an unsupported rooftop, it is liable to end up crashing into the basement. Seriously, do not try this at home.

You don't have to be a "foodie" to look at what they are doing up on the roof and think it is beautiful, an oasis in the middle of a city neighborhood. You just have to have an appreciation for nature and watching things grow.

Lettuce is in season...

Tomato plants are growing nicely...

And there are chili peppers and herbs that are doing well despite the abnormally hot and dry June we've been having. They even have beehives producing honey for the restaurant's use.

If this was just a feel-good project to persuade people to eat their greens, it would have merit. But Uncommon Ground also is an excellent restaurant -- Matthew Holmes, who has a distinctive handlebar mustache, is the head chef -- that locally sources most of the ingredients that it can't grow itself. If these people told you to eat your peas, you would do so happily.

On Wednesday, I attended Uncommon Ground's first rooftop dinner of the summer. A lot of what they served might have been good for you, but it wouldn't be confused with the traditional perception of "health food." Appetizers included a variety of house-made sausages, and toast with sliced radishes and boquerones (Spanish white anchovies, and a revelation, because I generally loathe the overly salted kind sold in tins and jars in stores).

The salad consisted of Little Gem lettuce with pole beans and pickled ramps. (Ramps are very strongly flavored wild onions that once grew prolifically in this region, and legend has it that "Chicago" is derived from an American Indian word for "stinking onion." Please spare me your sarcasm.)

The main course was roasted leg of lamb, served with roasted vegetables (fingerling potatoes, green onions, artichokes)...

And fresh porcini mushorooms, which are humongous.

Dessert was local cheeses -- a blue, a cheddar and a gouda -- with Michigan cherries and strawberries.

Obviously, I can recommend Uncommon Ground as a place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And if you want to get up close and personal with the rooftop garden -- and get to meet Dave Snyder yourself -- there are tours on Wednesday mornings at 11. It will cost you $10, but you'll get 10 percent off your tab if you stay for lunch.

[Correction note: The area of the rooftop farm is .015 of an acre. The original posting had an additional zero (.0015). Math isn't my strong suit.]

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