King of the Hill

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

*********    (nine out of ten)

Nestled in the Pocantico Hills near Tarrytown, New York, a mere 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan, lies an 80 acre, non-profit, sustainable farm named Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.  Once a part of the Rockefeller estate, it opened to the public in 2004, and guests are now invited to stroll among its fields and pastures, to gaze at the many varieties of livestock – chickens, pigs, turkey, lamb, cows, to name a few – and equally so, the expansive vegetable gardens.

Here are some pictures from our first trip to the farm, this past June:

In a year that brought about the arrival of the term ‘staycation,’ a 45-minute train ride is truly the most heavy lifting one has to do to partake in the wonder and country feel of Stone Barns.  Stone Barns is also home to, in my opinion, the best restaurant in the state of New York:  Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  Here’s why.

Up a brick walkway into the center of the four sided main barn, one finds the entrance to Blue Hill tucked in the far corner, an old wooden door disguising the modern dining room and bar just beyond the threshold.

The setting inside the restaurant just may be the most modern thing about Blue Hill as, entering the main dining room, there is a distinct California feel:  instead of wooden support beams overhead, there is modern brown steel; same goes for the small lights and railings adorning the walls.  In the center of the room, to add an element of drama, and to divide it somewhat, is a long wooden table which poses as a waiter’s station and usually has a lofty bouquet of flowers grown on the farm, distracting diners from the waiter’s work below.

With its beautiful setting and gracious staff, Blue Hill is already a unique dining experience; however, what truly sets it apart from the state’s other fine dining establishments is the most obvious element a restaurant can offer:  its menu.  Everything that is prepared at Blue Hill is fresh grown on the Stone Barns farm or on its sister farm in Massachusetts, with the explicit intention of either making its way to the diner’s plates, feeding livestock or for sale at the small market.  This is beyond locavorism, this is literally the purest form of farm-to-plate eating and what Dan Barber, the Blue Hill chef (and the 2009 James Beard award winner for Best Chef in the country), ekes out of these vegetables is a testament to both his craftsmanship as well as the quality of product.

What occurred to Christine and I at one point during our meal is that what sets Blue Hill apart is something contrary to both our times and the way most restaurants tend to lean: they are moving backward.  Not at all cutting edge or nuanced, the food at Blue Hill – from the sweet cream butter, to the fresh carrots with stems in place, to the brussel sprout leaves that are the greenest we’ve ever seen – is a love letter to things long since past and the way food once tasted in this country.  While grateful for how wonderful his food is, one cannot help but feel a pang of remorse for this bygone era, a time when the ingredients that are so often available to Mr. Barber now were once ubiquitous to everyone.  I applaud Barber for his nostalgia and, with tongue in cheek, his ability to capitalize on it.

Settling into an unusually comfortable seat at an equally unusually wide table for two, we are handed menus.  Of course, these menus are unlike any other.  On the left side of the menu there is a cavernous listing of what is fresh today, as in, right this moment; on the right side there are simply three options: the 8- or 5-course ‘Farmer’s Feast,’ and a cheese plate.  One cannot help but acknowledge that Barber, despite the traditional setting, is thumbing his nose at convention and in its place has manifested genuine curiosity from his patrons, causing diners to reconsider the idea of menus altogether with questions like:  Why do we limit the chef in such a way to begin with?  Are menus akin to asking Van Gogh to paint by numbers?

A sharp dressed waiter – they’re all sharp dressed – arrives, and at first we’re unsure if he is our primary waiter or simply someone assisting our waiter, as it turns out, they’re all primary waiters.  He asks if we have any food or allergy restrictions, we mention that we’d like to try the parsnips and that, if possible, we’d like to pass on the venison.  After prompting from him, we also pass on offal (internal organs/remnants).

Let the games begin.

First course isn’t so much a course as it is a bombardment of food in one- or two-bite packages.  This marked our third trip to Blue Hill and we are yet to eat something similar, even if it involves the same main ingredient or protein.  Presentation, however, is comparable on some dishes, for instance the vegetables ‘on the fence’ have turned into a restaurant trademark.  The raw vegetables, brined slightly in vinegar and conservatively salted to ensure the already strong natural flavors are that much more enhanced, arrive pinned atop a slab of wood that looks like a missing plank from a bed of nails.  With winter comes the need to rely on more root vegetables and tubers – carrots, parsnips, potatoes, etc. – and, much to our delight, as the soil turns colder the vegetables collect and conserve even more sugar, making many of the vegetables we had something easily passable for inclusion in a dessert.

Vegetables "On The Fence"

Along with the vegetables came such items as fried salsify – a thin, long vegetable, comparable in texture to a carrot – with pancetta and buckwheat; on yet another wooden block we were presented with various thinly sliced and crisped vegetables such as smoked Tuscan black kale, beet chips, and, in an amazing combination, a potato was sliced in such a way as to create a pocket for a sage leaf and then fried, marrying the two in a way that could only elicit recent Thanksgiving memories.

Another mainstay of the Blue Hill first course is the varying types of ‘burgers,’ mini burger buns surrounding a seasonal diced vegetable.  In June it was peas, in September it was tomatoes, and in December, marking the best ‘burger’ we’d had this year, it was chiogga beets.  These could be no normal beets though, they were abnormally sweet and melted on the tongue much too quickly.

Beet "Burgers"

Then came the house made charcuterie from the Berkshire pigs on the farm, and included: coppa (or capicola) on an Adirondack blue potato frittata, the frittata soft and moist, tasting a bit like a potato quiche, was perfectly matched – one not overpowering the other – by the aged, spiced ham; there was also sliced Tuscan salami and bologna, also from farm-raised pigs.

It was at about this point that a unique spoon was set beside each of our plates, it was very long and slender, its shallow business-end designed more to scrape than to scoop.  We soon found out its use.  On a flat, wooden serving board, we were presented with a meatless Hudson Valley veal shank, the bone held firmly in place by gripping teeth at either side of the board.  The shank was cut in half, length-wise, exposing its marrow along with a generous sprinkling of sturgeon caviar.  The spoon had found its purpose: bit by bit we dipped the spoon into the bone’s cavity, collecting small tastes of the rich marrow and the brackish caviar, fast becoming one of the most decadent, if not unusual, dishes we’ve ever had.

Veal Shank Marrow with Sturgeon Caviar

Remember, so far we’re yet to even catch a whiff of a ‘main’ course, of which we’re anticipating at least four.  We wouldn’t be waiting too much longer.  A grilled wahoo soon arrived with parsnips and brussel sprouts, both from the field.  What I remember most about this dish is that, for being barely cooked, the char on the fish resonated nicely, offsetting the sweet parsnips and the slight twinge of the sprouts.  It was not at all oily or fishy and the texture was perfect, the fish was at once firm but tender, the same could be said for the vegetables.

Grilled Wahoo with Parsnips & Brussel Sprouts

As further proof that what is about to be served was unearthed just that day, a mere 100- or 200-yards away, servers often present to the table, much like at fine steakhouses, the main ingredient in the next dish.  This next one was Christine’s favorite dish and, I’d have to imagine, an entrée unique to the mind of Mr. Barber:  a roasted carrot from the field, served whole on a dark slate ‘plate,’ with spiced breadcrumbs, a hint of cocoa and, to further embolden the flavor, carrot puree.  The essence of this dish is what all of our mothers are attempting, mostly in vain, to force into the carrot side dishes prepared every year at about this time.  This fresh-from-the-field carrot, for being essentially and simply that, was idyllic.  It was fork tender and yet not mushy, the breadcrumbs creating a type of crust and the carrot puree serving two purposes in adding to the depth of flavor and, well, keeping the carrot on the plate.  Christine was in heaven.

Roasted Carrot with Spiced Breadcrumbs, Cocoa and Carrot Puree (apologies for photo quality)

Sometimes one truly knows what he or she is tasting, it’s easy to pin point some ingredients and know what each is adding to a dish, and other times it’s simply anyone’s guess.  The next dish, delicious and enticing, fell into the latter category only because any attempt to identify what was supposedly in the dish fell to the wayside:  braised hake fish with fennel from the field, crispy squid and pig’s ear.  Coming on the heels of the carrot, we didn’t quite know what to make of this when it arrived in front of us, it looked quite appealing but that last ingredient lingered in the air for a few minutes after the waiter had left.  ‘Pig’s ear,’ hmmf.  Truth be told, there was no discernible way to tell what was the crispy squid and what was the pig’s ear, both were crisped and salty; but what does matter is how the texture of each added to the plate, balancing out the somewhat oily prone hake.  Once completed, Chris and I looked at one another in a similar fashion as we had at Eleven Madison Park recently after finishing some frog’s legs; we shrugged and noted that at least we could say now that we’ve had pig’s ears.

Braised Hake with Fennel, Crispy Squid and Pig’s Ear

Much like with the carrot, once the barren hake plates were removed, we were presented with a glass bowl in the shape of a bird’s nest containing that morning’s farm eggs, remnants of dried hay underneath for even greater effect.  In what has become a customary dish at Blue Hill, the next dish was a farm egg, laid that day – the farm boasts 1000 hens, each laying three eggs a week – with dehydrated vegetables and lentils in a lettuce broth.  Each time we’ve been to Blue Hill I’ve looked forward to this dish and this one came far from disappointing.  The yolk, thanks to the hens’ natural, organic diet, is always the brightest I’ve encountered and it immediately expands once broken, engulfing the other ingredients in soup-like fashion.  The dehydrated vegetables, only briefly soaked in the yolk, soon begin to puff only to disintegrate quickly on the tongue.  The vibrant lettuce broth was smooth and its texture only further enhanced with the yolk and the olive-green lentils.  This dish alone is worth going back for, just to see how it could possibly get any better as it changes every couple of months.

Fresh, Blue Hill Farm Egg, with Dehydrated Vegetables and Lentils in a Lettuce Broth

On to the meat! Squab, for its comparability to duck alone, is one of my favorite poultries, though I do try to overlook its relation to pigeon.  Its tiny body makes for a tightly wound package of bone, meat and fat, perfect for getting the most flavor out of such a small fowl.  At Blue Hill it was served sliced with pureed rutabaga with dates, cranberries and tat soi from the field, a leafy green vegetable akin to bok choy.  I love when meat of any kind is perched atop a puree like this (mashed potatoes are even better), I enjoy pushing my next bite through the puree and accompanying sauce, and, in this case, piercing a soft and very sweet cranberry.  The barely cooked tat soi, much like its leafy green brethren, added the appropriate bitterness, compensating for a flavor I was sure would come more from the cranberry.

Squab with Pureed Rutabaga, Dates, Cranberries and Tat Soi

It was at this point, after five main courses, that the lights began to flicker a bit.  I became certain that I’d miscounted and that we were about to start dessert…that is, until yet another steak knife was added to both sides of our table.  I started to reel a bit, but I pulled myself together while Chris, much to my surprise, was happy there was more and was rooting it on.  And then there was pork:  Berkshire pork with a stuffed squash and spinach from the field.  The quality of these meats is unmatched, the pork is so tender and lean, reflecting all the virtues of its organic rearing, while the stuffed squash (the ‘stuffing’ was more sage, incorporated into the squash) again allowed me to parade the meat around the plate, gathering up bits of this and parts of that.  As great as it was – and this is sad – I was glad the eating was over, at least momentarily.

Berkshire Pork with Stuffed Squash and Spinach

While the vegetables and livestock at Blue Hill Stone Barns so effortlessly translate into appetizers and main courses, since our first visit we’ve felt that if anything fell a bit short at the restaurant it was its desserts.  While obviously prone to creative license, I’m not sure the level of creativity needed in dessert making, coupled with such fresh ingredients, create the after dinner sweets one would expect.  This time, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that that was not the case.  Both desserts, a peanut butter yogurt parfait, which was light yet full of the earthy deliciousness of the peanut, and a chocolate and graham soufflé with prune ice cream, reached the level of decadence I’d been missing those last two trips.  Both were wonderful notes to end on, even if I was increasingly distended.

Peanut Butter Yogurt Parfait

Chocolate and Graham Soufflé with Prune Ice Cream

We had mentioned to our waiter when we had first been seated that this was our third trip to Blue Hill this year, as we were trying to eat with the seasonal changes, a fact that he seemed to check after asking us more specific questions on the dates of our reservations.  With coffee downed and the check cleared, he asked us if we’d enjoy a kitchen tour – indeed we would.  And so for the second time in three weeks, Christine and I made our way to one of the top kitchens in the country, where we found a clamor of suited waiters conferring with crisp-white laden chefs, all nodding and prodding.  Like at Eleven Madison Park, there was a job for everyone and everyone had a job: whole segments of the kitchen devoted to doing one thing well, be it plating that veal shank or the wahoo or the soufflé, everything was accounted for and precise, something so often overlooked or purposely taken for granted in such a casual dining environment.  Again, I couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

On the way out, we were met by the manager who asked for me by name.  He thanked us for our patronage and we chatted briefly on the aspects of the night’s meal and I asked when would be the best time to schedule our next visit.  He then handed me an elegant envelope with a piece of paper, he informed us it was that night’s menu, a unique gift as, other than the scribbled notes that Chris took, we’d have lost most memory of the specific ingredients.  We thanked him and left.  It wasn’t until we got home that, upon further analysis of the menu, we realized that it was Dan Barber himself who had encircled the ingredients in the evening’s dishes, and his note at the top read as follows:

“Come back for the next harvest.  See you then.  Thank you. ~ Dan Barber”

Indeed you will, Dan.

Post Script

A good friend of mine is a newborn pescatarian (essentially, he doesn’t eat red or white meat), and for months now I’ve been pleading with him to try the restaurant, to make the short trek north, explain his dietary restrictions, sit back and prepare to enjoy.  He thinks it would be a waste of time for someone with a limited palate.  I’ve assured him it is not, and that the majority of the menu items are vegetables as well as fish.  That the lengths this restaurant will go to make him comfortable and to appease his every whim, is unmatched and, consequently, worth every penny.  For those reasons, and for its freshness, serenity, service, style and, perhaps above all else, its commitment to sustainability and the diner alike, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is by far the best restaurant in New York, which makes it one of the best in the country.

After enough lobbying, and after hearing of this last visit and seeing the inscribed menu, my friend caved.  We’ll be going back with him in May.


The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: