Farmhouse: Roof to Table

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My heart was thumping into my chest bone as I grasped for the next rung. Then the next as my feet trailed behind. One at a time, I thought.

There was no stopping.

Outside of the restaurant, the night was still and the eclectic mix of music piped through Farmhouse’s speakers was replaced with the incalzando tempo of my heart in my ears.

Why did I ever watch Vertigo? I really should work out more.  Are my hands normally this moist? For my biography, is this considered adventurous? Was that my last meal? These are the thoughts that race through your brain as you climb a ladder into the heavens at 9 o’clock on a school night.

Maybe it was the Farmhouse-brewed Free Priscilla cider talking–or maybe one of the four other beers–but after a five-course tasting and Midwestern beer-paired dinner at Farmhouse, I had the great idea to ask Chef Mansavage if I could see their rooftop garden. Joined by my girlfriend, Ghost Guest food blogger Amanda Topper and her friend, the four musketeers slinked out to the roof. Chef gave us tips on climbing the ladder and warned us to be extremely careful. All three women remembered they left their ladder climbing shoes at home just after they placed both feet on the first rung. Luckily for me, I dress like a color-blind high school math teacher and wore gym shoes. Which one was the brave musketeer?

I looked around and didn’t see any flower crosses or wreaths you spot on the side of a highway. Up I went joining Chef on the roof. The lights of surrounding buildings illuminated the two rows of planter boxes. I rubbed the leaves of herbs and smelled my fingertips; I snacked on stems of marigold plants. Chef Mansavage shared how herbs and plants were used in the five course feast and what a huge advantage it is to have all this fresh produce at his disposal. There is something magical, intoxicating and rebellious about being on a roof. As you may have surmised, I am not writing this from the roof of 228 W. Chicago Avenue. I survived the ascent and descent. As poet Miley Cyrus sang, it is all about the climb.

Chef Mansavage joined owners TJ Callahan and Ferdia Doherty earlier in the evening to describe dishes and share the origin of the restaurant and ingredients. One of the common threads was the importance of local sourcing and knowing where your food originated. Shrimp was grown in Indiana and marigolds came from the roof.

At Farmhouse, everything comes from somewhere and they know exactly where that somewhere is. TJ hails from Boston and Ferdia from Ireland. How do those two paths cross? As TJ tells it, he was managing a chain of Irish restaurants on the east coast and connected with Ferdia to assist in marketing efforts. Both men eventually established roots in Chicago thanks to their wives. TJ and his wife Molly McCombe moved to Chicago when she attended Kellogg for business school. Ferdia met Nora Gainer at an Irish pub in River North, proving it is possible to meet women in River North. TJ and Ferdia reconnected and opened Farmhouse.

TJ and his wife now own a farm, restaurants in River North, Evanston and a soon-to-open location in Lakeview.

The Food

Standouts for me were the chilled melon soup, rainbow trout and ice cream sandwich. The unifying thread through all dishes was contrast via juxtaposition. All dishes showcased local produce and protein. Chef explained after the meal that he loves creating challenging dishes that require technique. Each dish was also paired with a beer from the Midwest. I am by no means an expert on beer, so I can’t comment extensively other than I liked the cider, 3 Floyds Calumet City and Deminimus Mandarina.

The first course toyed with salty (pork belly) and sweet (grapes and nut butter), as well as texture. This was paired with Free Priscilla, Farmhouse’s own cider. The cider is more like a white wine, than a sweet cider. Very tasty.

I am strongly anti-soup, unless I am sick. Chef’s melon soup may have changed that dogma. The sweet, chilled melon coupled with sparse, spicy njuda sausage. No words for that other than a Dickensian “MORE!”

This was my first time having trout and if I can make it as well as the team did, it’ll be popping up here soon. This was a textural combo for me. The tender trout and tomatillos contrasted with crunchy bacon and beans.

The short ribs and shrimp were a play on surf and turf. Luckily for me, my girlfriend doesn’t eat shrimp. My shortribs were a bit tough, but short ribs are incredibly challenging to cook. The corn parade in this dish was fun. They prepared corn five different ways in composing this dish. All of them tasty.

That dessert. Unlike my girlfriend, I am not a huge fan of ice cream and the feeling is mutual. But this final plate was the perfect topper to a solid presentation of Chef and Farmhouse’s capabilities to wow and conceive a menu top to bottom. The cake/cookies were delicious. So much so, I asked if there was a sleeve of them laying around so I could have a car snack.

Before calling it a night, we chatted with Kit of TheKittchen about her upcoming travels. Then, like a culinary Papa Christmas, Chef Mansavage appeared with a tray of the cookies. Act cool. Don’t eat the entire tray. Just take one. Make sure my biographer puts in something about my restraint.

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

Everything is all right (up on the roof)

-The Drifters