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Blue Hill at Stone Barns -- Aug. 2008 report

(pictures can be seen here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/nyc/b...

I recently found myself in Pocantico Hills, NY. Not in the this-is-where-I-happen-to-be-on-planet-earth-right-now sort of way. Rather, I found myself in the sense that I was reminded what it is that makes food such a passion for me. More than just a restaurant, and more than just a farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a place that nourishes both body and soul as it shows you if not what the link between farm and table should be, at least what it can be.

When I first I took the short train ride up from the city last spring, I was there for the restaurant. I was there for food. But a walk around the grounds before dinner left me with a feeling I could not easily pin down. Something about the place just clicked for me on a fundamental level. Maybe it was the fresh, quiet air or the pink-and-purple paint in the sky as the sun set. Maybe I had eased right in to the slow pace of the ducks and cows I saw roaming the grounds. Or maybe, always my mother’s son, my green thumb was just coming out amidst this beautiful agricultural backdrop.

That first dinner was great, but I knew I would have to return for more, literally. My trip back would be about more than just food, and I would make that trip with, or more accurately for, my mom. Far too modest to admit it, she is a veritable encyclopedia of gardening. She’s also always quick to point out when what I think is new is actually just old again. The exchanges go like this: I come home, the prodigal son-gourmand, having squandered all my money in far-away lands. I tell her about the latest trendy, “cheffy” ingredients I’ve seen popping up on menus. She nods as she considers this thoughtfully. Then she smiles and informs me that she is growing those very things in our back yard and has been doing so since long before I was born. And didn’t I realize that? Needless to say, even before she saw the pictures from my first trip or an episode of Oprah that featured Stone Barns, it was clear that this particular farm-restaurant duo was the ideal place for this particular mother-son duo to celebrate her birthday this year.

We pulled up to Stone Barns around 10:30am. We were eight hours early for dinner. The Insider’s Tour — a backstage pass to the farm and restaurant led by the very capable Ellen Baum — would start at 11, but first we had breakfast from the Blue Hill Café. Pain au chocolat for the lady; a cheddar-and-chive scone and cherry focaccia for me. My kind of energy snacks before a guided hike around the farm. I can’t condense this incredibly cool, several-hour experience into one line, but I can tell you a bit about what we saw. I can also tell you how very highly I would recommend it to others. We saw animals — sheep, turkeys, chickens, pigs, and cows — making their happy homes in the pastures and barns. We saw fields and gardens and green houses with plants and flowers too numerous to name. In short we saw what makes this nearly self-sustaining, almost utopian place tick.

Lunch would also come from the café and would be eaten, fittingly, on the same ground from which it was harvested. The mid-day menu had heirloom tomatoes layered with local goat cheese on focaccia, chilled corn soup, and several other tempting items I would have happily ordered had dinner not been a few short hours away. Instead we got a few things — okay, everything — on their pay-by-weight buffet. Roasted beets lent their crimson hue to a tangy local goat cheese spiked with fresh dill. Blanched shell beans were tossed with shallots, scallions and a pistachio vinaigrette. Farro came dressed with a fruity olive oil and corn so fresh it was milky. And how could I forget the roasted carrot and potato salad, or the egg salad that came to us courtesy of the chickens we had just seen clucking around the coop? A single chocolate chip cookie and a cold glass of Ronnybrook milk put a cap on this simple but satisfying lunch. We spent a while longer there on the farm, sometimes exploring, sometimes doing nothing at all, but all the time realizing what a great day it had been and what a great evening it would be.

Later we stepped back into the restaurant, now dressed in our Sunday best. The hostess led us into the beautiful dining room we had seen empty that very morning, now full of smiling faces. We got a glass of Lieb Family Cellars Blanc de Blancs from Long Island to kick things off with some celebratory bubbles. Choosing what to eat was easy since during the summer about 80% of what the restaurant uses comes directly from the farm, eliminating the need for a traditional menu of composed dishes. Instead, you see a list of the incredible bounty of ingredients that chef Dan Barber and his crew have gathered on that particular day. Then you simply choose the number of course you want, sit back and enjoy. But while I love such surprises, my mom sometimes does not. Which is a roundabout way of saying that she’s not such a fan of some of the strange things I eat. Imagine our delight when the staff listened so closely to each of our likes and dislikes that it would turn out to be as if the kitchen was cooking a meal customized just for us.
Not listed as part of the eight-course Farmer’s Feast ($125) were a slew of amuses-bouche that would soon flood our table. At times, the staff could scarcely find room to put the plates down — a very good problem to have — so we just had to keep eating. Such is life. The first few bites included a melon slushie with coppa; and small tomatoes and yellow squash skewered on a wiry “fence”. and Any drink goes down smoother with a pork chaser, I think, so the melon slush was a nice start. And the tomatoes and squash were the first of many fruits and vegetables we would have that night that had scarcely been manipulated by the kitchen. Clearly, they had confidence in the natural flavors that were coming out of the ground there.

Next we had little melon and watermelon balls dusted with black pepper. some warm bread and butter, a crusty, country-style sourdough and a puck of soft, unsalted, respectively. Apparently Blue Hill’s resident charcutier Adam Kaye had been MIA for a little while, but they still scrounged up a nice selection of cured and smoked Berkshire pig for us, much to my delight. We had saucisson sec, mortadella, lonza, and a cute little block of heart and liver terrine sandwiched between chocolate wafers. All were quite good but the terrine was especially memorable for its strong, unadulterated liver flavor. When I gave this description to my mom, she noted that she was not suffering from an iron deficiency on that particular evening and she politely pushed hers my way. The tomato “burger”, though, was far too good for my mom to sacrifice. In fact, that tiny sweet bun holding a mound of tomato confit made her smile so big I was worried she might trick me — “Hey, look over there! A relatively obscure chef nobody in the room besides you would recognize!” – and steal mine as well.

A skewer of eggplant wrapped with pancetta, rolled in sesame seeds, and fried was proof that even in fancy restaurants, there’s something satisfying about food on a stick. The inside was warm and creamy while the meaty exterior provided a bit of crunch. That was followed by “face bacon”, their poetic name for rounds of crispy cured and smoked pig head meat. And the last (but not least) of the fruits of the Fry-o-lator were some potato chips threaded with sage, and deep-fried chard leaves. These all tasted so good that I momentarily considered asking if they could just deep-fry the rest of our dinner.

Sticks of warm flat bread came with salted butter and fresh ricotta (each from the chef’s family’s farm in the Berkshires), and an amazingly smooth eggplant puree. To season any of the above there were tomato and arugula “salts” (dehydrated tomatoes and arugula each ground to a fine powder and mixed with salt). We dabbed at the somewhat bland ricotta, then quickly dispatched the very good butter, only to find we had actually saved the best thing for last. The eggplant puree, especially with a touch of tomato salt, stole the show for me.

Our first actual courses arrived and my mother had the Tomato, watermelon, mozzarella “cloud”, bacon, while I had just a touch of Plate Envy. Her dish had fat wedges of both wonderfully ripe fruits, a warm piece of fresh mozzarella with bits of basil in it, and a cool, thick blob of mozzarella-flavored foam she dubbed the “cloud”. A basil-spiked vinaigrette tied it together and a crown of bacon topped it off. Under normal circumstances, my mom is a generous woman. With this plate in front of her, alas, she did not share.
I don’t mean to imply that my dish — Bluefish with paddlefish caviar, tomato, pig’s ear vinaigrette — left me unsatisfied by comparison. Far from it. A small block of raw fish sat on slice of heirloom tomato so thin it was translucent. The briny paddlefish caviar provided the salt and the vinaigrette gave these fresh and light flavors a bit of depth. Diced bits of pig ear added to an otherwise traditional vinaigrette were responsible for the unctuous, gelatinous texture in my mouth.

A younger guy came by with a large wooden tray full of heirloom tomatoes. More than a dozen kinds, many of which I had never heard of before, save the green zebra, pineapple, and persimmon varieties. My mom’s eyes lit up and I was pretty sure she was thinking the same thing I was — perhaps we should pry the tray out of this guy’s kung fu grip and run for the hills. Oh, wait. These are the tomatoes we’ll be eating in a just a few minutes, you say? Well, in that case…

Pretty soon that tray was replaced with Tomatoes, grilled stone fruit, tomato sorbet, purslane, stracciatella. This seemed a perfectly fair trade to me, since this dish was wonderful. The sweet grilled nectarine and peach segments accented the slight tartness of the tomatoes, and those warm fruits served on top of the cold sorbet made for some really enjoyable temperature contrast. (I’m also pretty sure my mom asked me twice: “Did you taste that sorbet yet? Wow!”) And see, I haven’t even mentioned the creamy strands of torn mozzarella yet. Yeah, I think you could say this was a good dish.

You could also say the next one — Celtuse with yogurt, pine nut butter, yogurt foam — was the standout course of the meal. Who would’ve thought I would be so enthusiastic about a variety of lettuce, especially one that exhibits characteristics of that other oft-maligned vegetable, celery? The knobby root of the vegetable was served raw, simply shaved into ribbons that had a refreshing, almost watery crunch reminiscent of celery. The leaves, meanwhile, were wilted and served warm on a slate tile smeared with a thick, Greek-style yogurt and a salted pine nut butter. Each component on the plate sang a nice tune of its own, but the combination of them all was symphonic.

Next my mom had the Corn ravioli with tomato and basil sauce. She didn’t say a word for the next several minutes — the woman was focused — but “summertime on a plate” was how she eventually summarized it. I quietly wondered if autumn were already on its way, as she had used a piece of bread to dispose of every last morsel of whatever season had been set in front of her.

Meanwhile, I had a glass of riesling (Weingut Günther Steinmetz 1994 Mülheimer Sonnenlay Spätlese) that proved an exceptional match for the Hudson Valley foie gras, roasted peach. This was a simple ode to the Moulard duck, a species whose highest calling is achieved in a few ounces of its buttery liver. The warm chunk of roasted peach here was sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The wine, fruit, and foie made for a very happy combination.

The next edible show-and-tell brought eight different types of heirloom beans, one of which my mom immediately identified as Cherokee Trail of Tears beans (she’s grown them before, of course) and all of which came with enthusiastic explanations. Enthusiasm about beans — these guys clearly like working here, I thought to myself. As a diner, you definitely feel that. And I, for one, really appreciate it. In any case, the dish that featured those beans — Soft-cooked Blue Hill farm egg with heirloom beans, chorizo broth — was quite good. The runny yolk added viscosity to the thin but flavorful broth. And the beans, cooked until tender but not mushy, were delicious.

A very close contender for the savory highlight of the meal was the Blue Hill Berkshire pork chop, belly and boudin blanc, eggplant puree. The Berkshire breed is, simply put, a pig that is raised to taste like a pig. It bears practically no resemblance to the plastic-wrapped “other white meat” at the local grocery. This pork chop was cooked to a rosy pink on the inside and it was certainly the most tender and flavorful such cut I’ve ever eaten. The belly had a crispy top layer of skin that gave way to thin layers of meat and fat stacked on one another like playing cards. And the boudin blanc was nothing short of incredible. The texture was almost like custard, and it had an intoxicating mélange of spices I later found out included nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, coriander and white pepper. I wondered who was happier — those pigs feasting outside or the diners feasting inside? I think we were both winning.

My mom’s first stomach (i.e. the non-dessert one) was getting full, but we only had one savory course left: “New World, Old World” cheeses, some classic French cheeses paired up against their artisanal American counterparts. That night’s match-ups were Sainte-Maure vs. Hoja Santa and Brillat-Savarin vs. Andante Dairy Minuet. Unlike the Beijing olympic games, America won both events here. I generally prefer cheese unadorned, but the accompaniments — Blue Hill honey comb and pickled ramps — were tasty even if the stale, lifeless walnut bread was not.

The first dessert was a knockout — Roasted apricot, blackberries, lemon verbena ice cream, elderflower gelee. The apricot in particular almost defied description. It was hot, sweet, soft, and sour all at once. The stewed blackberries were also warm, in contrast to the cool backdrop provided by the ice cream and gelee. This dish was also the first indication that pastry chef Alex Grunert makes a mean batch of ice cream.
Then came the Yogurt mousse, corn ice cream, huckleberries, corn sabayon, corn pâte de fruit. Corn hadn’t popped up in the savory side of the meal for me, so I was happy to see it here. I was starting to see that you don’t simply eat this guy’s ice cream, you luxuriate in it . It is intensely creamy but immensely flavorful at the same time. Here was a cob’s worth of fresh corn flavor condensed into a cold mouthful. The mousse, the huckleberries, and the rest of the accompaniments were all a great supporting cast, but this dish was, to me, ultimately about the ice cream.

My mom is a chocolate fiend, but I had not clued the restaurant into her mania. So I was thrilled to see our waiter emerge from the kitchen with a candle in the Flourless chocolate cake, gooseberries, strawberries, ginger ice cream. She quietly made a birthday wish before blowing out the candle. I made a wish too, hoping the desserts would just keep coming. But alas, this brownie-like cake was to be the last dessert. It was rich and fudgy, and the tart gooseberries and the incredibly sweet little strawberries were delicious. But again, I couldn’t look past the great ice cream. I considered buying Chef Grunert a drink, and perhaps inquiring as to whether or not he has any unmarried daughters my age. But in the end I only asked for another round of corn ice cream, which was happily provided. With corn flakes, no less. I love that guy.

Floating around the room like a mobile garden, we had seen the tisane cart go by a few times, so we couldn’t pass it up. Our waiter snipped little pieces of every single herb — pineapple sage, chocolate mint, opal basil, eucalyptus, and probably twenty others I am forgetting — for us to smell before picking the combination we wanted for the infusion. I went with anise hyssop, fennel pollen, and lemon verbena. And I really enjoyed it, especially with a touch of Stone Barns honey melted in.

My mom had long since reached critical mass, so we asked for the mignardises to be boxed up. In addition to the plums, watermelon marshmallows, and passion fruit chocolate bon bons that were presented on the slate, they packed a few strawberry macarons with chocolate ganache, and they even gave us a jar of their strawberry preserves to take home. (I’m eating them on warm buttered toast as I type. I am happy.

)

A cab was now on its way, but in the meantime our wonderful waiter Adam chatted with us in the entryway. We talked of local goat cheese, composting methods, and the ways in which Stone Barns continues to become more and more self-sustaining. He was smiling, we were smiling, and something struck me. An intangible Blue Hill ethos was everywhere here. In the fields, the barns, and the kitchen, in the dining room and ultimately on the plate, you could feel it even if you couldn’t pinpoint it. To source ingredients here, the chef needs only to look out his window. It’s so simple.

Why, then, is this symbiosis of farm and table so rare? I wanted to ask Dan Barber this very question, but he was out of town that night (kudos to chef de cuisine Josh Lawler, by the way, for holding down the fort gracefully in his absence). Was Barber on vacation, you might ask? Nope. He was at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, of course, doing his part to counter those trends that champion technology over taste. Rebellious in their simplicity, people like Chef Barber and places like Stone Barns help ensure that, with any luck, the movement to lessen the distance between farm and table will continue to not only survive, but flourish.

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  1. What a beautiful post! My mouth is watering. I really need to stop procrastinating and make reservations!

    1. How much was this surreal experience? My guess: $475 per couple, including tax and tip. Certainly a reasonable question. Bliss has a price.

      9 Replies
      1. re: frequentdiner

        $385 total for the two of us

        1. re: tupac17616

          385 for dinner or also bfast, lunch and tour?

          1. re: jessheslin

            <385 for dinner or also bfast, lunch and tour?>

            haha...that's funny!
            I don't mind paying that much if it is a one of a kind experience. Per Se was a one of a kind experience for me, and I gladly shelled out the money.
            Blue Hill was just average for me. Nothing exciting or particularly magical about it. I think the premise is great, local, sustainable, yada yada yada, I just don't think his food holds up the final piece of the process. Too bad though, cause I think he's doing great things for the cause.

            1. re: sibeats

              You're right, BHSB is definitely not cheap. Funny that you mention Per Se, because that was our back-up. We actually turned down a table there that had freed up due to a cancellation, because we both thought Blue Hill would actually be the place my mom would enjoy more. She was really concerned about the amount of food that a meal at Per Se entails. Especially when they know you're celebrating and thus do a more extensive menu. It can get crazy. The price, too, would have been at least double BHSB, so in a way it's apples and oranges. (All that said, I do agree that the food at Per Se is on a different level than Blue Hill.)

            2. re: jessheslin

              just for dinner. i think it was about $50 more for the other stuff.

              1. re: tupac17616

                did $385 include the wine and dessert? or were you comped for one or both?

                1. re: frequentdiner

                  That price includes everything. I wish something were comped! :)

                  1. re: tupac17616

                    The amuse bouches were comps...and the jam they sent you home with.

                    Sounds like a divine meal, and I agree, sometimes you've just go to go for it... We've had two superb experiences there (albeit not with the new mandatory menu). Still remember that yummy field greens salad with that gorgeous poached egg, and dessert outside under the stars (with comped little chocolates and cookies for my birthday)

                    1. re: Nancy C

                      You're right, Nancy. The jam was definitely a comp, I overlooked that. Was a very nice, and very fitting comp, indeed -- my mother loves strawberry preserves! With amuse-bouches and mignardises, I think it's sort of a matter of perspective, but even though different tables receive different things for these parts of the meal, I still kind of consider it part of the farmer's feast package. I do think it's great, though, that they go the extra mile for birthdays such as yours and my mom's.