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Rooftop Garden Party

Cookbook author Gail Monaghan has created a lush garden overlooking Manhattan's gritty Meatpacking District. Her friends come to enjoy the views, the breeze and—on this balmy summer day—the food.

They say that space is the ultimate luxury in New York City, but, in fact, open sky and a patch of greenery are Manhattan's rarest real estate. Throw in a river view and you've got enough to make any would-be Trump jealous.

With her extraordinary roof garden, Gail Monaghan has all these things in abundance. But Monaghan, who has edited cookbooks for Stewart, Tabori & Chang (and is herself the author of Perfect Picnics for All Seasons, with a dessert cookbook in the works), is too generous to envy: She's constantly inviting friends over, urging her delicious food on them and sharing her recipes.

It helps to know that Monaghan first moved to this far west section of Greenwich Village, near the Meatpacking District, more than 25 years ago, long before glossy new towers punctuated her expansive view of the Hudson River like exclamation points. Back then, the area was industrial and seedy; in winter, transvestite hookers would warm themselves over burn barrels. But over the years, the neighborhood has improved, and Monaghan's apartment has improved along with it. Slowly, she's created a remarkable urban garden that's ideal for entertaining.

The roof contains virtually all the attributes of a classical English garden, even "rooms" of different character and mood. There's a bower with a garden swing, a bench by a bed of herbs, a large central sunny space, even an espaliered apple tree. But rather than being spread out over acres, the multilevel garden is contained within a few thousand square feet, and the traditional garden walk becomes more a matter of up and down than forward and back.

By using vertical space so ingeniously, and by placing pots up high, Monaghan has created a garden that seems far larger and lusher than it actually is. Nasturtiums cascade from railings and window boxes, and roses and flowering vines climb up columns and across pergolas. Monaghan has planted only hardy trees, including junipers and white pines, that can withstand the strong winds off the river. Many of these have been pruned high, to evoke the umbrella pines of Tuscany and to maximize those killer river views. Herbs such as lovage, marjoram, lavender, thyme and tarragon fill every remaining patch of space.

From spring through mid-October, Monaghan entertains outdoors at least once a week. For large groups, that means a buffet on the roof. She also has seated dinners for as many as 10 in the plant-filled courtyard close to the capacious kitchen. "But often enough," she says, "the gods are against me and it rains. Then we just hustle the food inside."

At a recent lunch, the gods were on her side, and she was able to serve an Indian-themed buffet, one of her favorites, without incident. She began the meal with curried shortbreads, made with lots of butter to offset the spiciness. Then there was salmon smothered in a marinade of tandoori-spiked yogurt that had been made ahead so the flavors could mellow overnight; and butterflied lamb, rubbed with Indian spices, including coriander and cumin, then seared and roasted to form a delicious crust. The pièce de résistance was moist yogurt cake with a crunchy sugar-citrus glaze, which even the modest hostess admits was "spectacular."

Monaghan so enjoys her urban retreat that she has sold her summer house in the Hamptons. "I only have to go upstairs to enjoy sun and sky and water," she says. Indeed, as the sun sets over the Hudson and the air fills with the scent of lavender and buddleia, it's hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Michael Boodro, the former editor of Garden Design, has written for Elle Decor, House Beautiful and the New York Times Magazine.

Published August 2003
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