Outdoor Eats

The Battle of the Rooftop Salads

Photo: Jonathan Nesteruk/New York Magazine

Forget about chef’s counters, science-grade immersion circulators, and CombiMaster ovens. Today’s ultimate restaurant accessory is the rooftop garden, which can function as a marketing tool as much as an on-site produce aisle. Although not every restaurant garden is on a roof (see Riverpark), and not every rooftop farm is above a restaurant (see Brooklyn Grange), it’s safe to say that every chef with a garden connection will flaunt it with a signature plate of greens, especially at the height of the growing season. Here, then, our assessment of five takes on the rooftop salad—the freshly snipped symbol of this locavore moment and expression of big-city terroir.

This story appeared in the July 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

The Seed: An early adopter, Vesta started buying from urban gardener Ben Flanner three years ago at Greenpoint’s Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, then followed him to Brooklyn Grange.   The Plot: Seven stories above bustling Northern Boulevard in Long Island City, the commercial farm’s acre expanse is lined with Rooflite, a “green-roof growing media” made of compost and porous stones that’s lighter than regular topsoil and engineered for both water retention and good drainage. (Flanner planted a second rooftop, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, this past spring.)   The Plate: The greens change throughout the season; currently, chef Michelle Vido dresses a buttery mix of red- and green-leaf lettuces with a bracing red-wine vinaigrette. While you can’t fault the freshness, some textural contrast and a few herbs wouldn’t hurt.   Rating: 3/5, Beyond your basic “spring mix”   $10; 21-02 30th Ave., Astoria; 718-545-5550
The Seed: Seventeen years ago, the always prescient, remarkably trendsetting Eli Zabar built a greenhouse on his 10,000-square-foot Vinegar Factory roof because he was disappointed with the quality of off-season tomatoes.   The Plot: In the late nineties, Zabar’s use of controversial pressure-treated wood for his garden beds outraged some concerned that preservative chemicals might leach into the soil. According to a spokesperson, Zabar has recently installed new beds made from untreated wood.   The Plate: Chef Benny Lazo goes the minimalist route with a simple but elegant heap of prepubescent mizuna, arugula, mustard greens, and tatsoi.   Rating: 3/5, Beyond your basic “spring mix”   $12; 1413 Third Ave., nr. 80th St.; 212-717-9798
The Seed: When construction halted on the second planned Alexandria Center tower next door to their restaurant, partners Sisha Ortúzar and Jeffrey Zurofsky transformed the so-called stalled site into a 15,000-square-foot modular farm.   The Plot: About 180 plants grow in recycled milk crates filled with soil from a Long Island composting company that’s enriched with roasted cocoa-bean husks from Mast Brothers Chocolate, making for the sweetest-smelling mulch imaginable.   The Plate: A fourteen-ingredient boutique blend recently included Ruby Streaks mustard greens, feathery bronze fennel, and pickled Chioggia beets, resulting in a salad so beautiful it made you want to fling off your shoes and run barefoot through it. A restrained hand with the Champagne vinaigrette lets all that plant life speak for itself, though a quibbler would say there’s a bit too much going on.   Rating: 4/5, Beautiful and bountiful   $11; 450 E. 29th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-729-9790
The Seed: Partners John Mooney and Mick O’Sullivan spotted Tim Blank’s futuristic Tower Garden contraption in Orlando and had him install 58 vertical aeroponic planters on the sixth-floor roof of their restaurant’s Greenwich Village walk-up.   The Plot: In a soilless system, plants are irrigated every twelve minutes with a nutrient-rich solution and lowered down to the basement kitchen via bucket and pulley. Instead of pesticides, predatory mites and spider wasps are released to counteract leaf-eating larvae.   The Plate: Mooney has always offered a rooftop-greens salad, but last summer he assembled this Bibb-lettuce wedge by special request from a regular and added it to the menu. Pliant Bibb, with its unexpectedly crisp heart, makes a good substitute for iceberg, especially when crowned with Benton’s bacon and a classic blue-cheese-buttermilk dressing. Our only cavil? Not-quite-ripe cherry tomatoes, picked before their time.   Rating: 3.5/5, Beyond your basic “spring mix”   $10; 141 W. 10th St., nr. Waverly Pl. 212-414-2355
The Seed: Inspired by his parents’ Tuscan orto, or vegetable garden, and also by Ben Flanner’s work at Brooklyn Grange, owner Carlos Suarez tapped Flanner to design the new restaurant’s rooftop garden.   The Plot: Twenty-five different herbs, vegetables, and flowers planted in Rooflite soil (see slide 1), with two beehives on the way. Chef Wade Moises and his scissors-­wielding staff harvest the crops daily and, if need be, run upstairs to replenish the produce bin during dinner service.   The Plate: A sprightly mélange of flavors and textures including everything from baby arugula to zucchini blossoms, nicely dressed in a lemon vinaigrette.   Rating: 4/5, Beautiful and bountiful   $12; 18 Greenwich Ave., at 10th St.; 212-647-1818
The Battle of the Rooftop Salads