Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
One thing you certainly miss living in the city is seeing the stars at night. Sometimes it's truly a delight to get away from the orange hue of New York's night sky, even better when that diversion includes a superb meal. I recently joined a group of LA bloggers for a trip to Pocantico Hills, about forty minutes outside of the city for a visit and dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
We arrived in style in a rented minivan. Without a car, Stone Barns is not that accessible. Since we came directly from lunch at M Wells, we had several hours until our 5:30 reservation. Even with a brief drive through tour of Sleepy Hollow, there was still plenty of time to walk around the farm.
As cold as it was outside, the greenhouse stayed pleasantly in the 60 degree range. Currently the farmers had planted winter greens, mostly making mesclun salads and other heartier roots like carrots. Below is an image of the colorful Swiss chard. The farm offers a variety of tours on different topics. I wonder how easy it is to take a tour dressed as you would expect to explore a farm, then change to formal attire for the Blue Hill dining room. I can tell you that walking around the dirt and ice in dress shoes was not easy.
Even during the bitter winter, Blue Hill has a menagerie of sheep, Berkshire pigs and chickens. Although we were told by the manager that the farm is much more productive in the other seasons. In fact, only 30% of the ingredients were sourced locally during the winter, while the figure is closer to 70% in the summer.
We eventually made it to the dining room, still at least forty-five minutes early. No matter; due to the superior service, we ordered some cocktails and were taken to our table within ten minutes. They kind folks even matched our coat check to our valet so that as soon as we left the table at the end of the evening, our coats and car were waiting for us.
The Farmer's Feast is $135 for eight courses. There is a five course for $105, but the waiter insists that the same menu be selected for the entire table. When dining with foodies, there is no way we were going for anything less than the full experience. I was confused about the number of courses though. For one thing, the menu doesn't actually list any food. As the waiter mentioned, it is more a formality than anything. The dishes you receive is based on the availability of ingredients, food preferences, the timing of your reservation and your openness to offal. In fact, during our requested kitchen tour at the end of the meal, Executive Chef Dan Barber explained to us that we would've gotten pasta if we didn't express our welcomeness for exotic foods. When we left, I could see completely different dishes leaving the kitchen than the ones we were served.
Another thing that is somewhat misleading about the eight courses description is that the meal starts with a "Tour of the Farm," in which you receive several offerings of food created on site but they do not count as courses. Think of it as an extended amuse bouche.
Maple sap - Refreshing and light. The flavors of syrup are there, but just barely a hint. A true palate cleanser to whet your appetite.
Turnip, Carrot, Cauliflower - A light dusting of vinegar is all these vegetables needed. I saw them growing in the greenhouse. The presentation reminded me of a wall motif at a Fresh Choice or Soup Plantation.
Dried vegetable chips, Kale, Lettuce, Parsnip, Sweet potato - Terra chips anybody?
Mini beet burgers - One of my favorite little snacks of the night. Who knew that beets could taste so beefy?
Salsify, Panchetta - At this point, I'm still not quite certain what salsify is. It had the consistency of taro. I thought the chef went overboard with the sesame.
Pork liver, Caramelized chocolate - I have a complicated relationship with liver. Good liver dishes, like a heavenly foie gras are to die for, but bad liver just tastes of iron. This pork was so creamy that contrasted with the bitter chocolate, I got only the best tastes of liver.
Beef bresaola, Flatbread - I could have done without the crispy, thin flatbread. Just give me several slices of the air-dried salume and I'm good.
At this point, the waiter pushed a cart by demonstrating a few varieties of the greenhouse plants currently growing. I thought it was a nice touch to periodically bring attention to the ingredients that we were eating. I also thought it was a signal that the actual courses were beginning.
Farm greens, Cured goose breast, Egg yolk
You know at fancy restaurants when a team of servers will bring out a course all at once and place the plates in a synchronized motion? That maneuver is even more intimidating when they put gigantic triangular wedges of marble in front of you, making the table look like a stone pizza. The assorted greens were topped with an orange sauce that tasted like apricots. As a table, we had a hard time identifying the little orange glob that tasted like cheese but was creamy like butter. We found out that it was a specially prepared egg yolk.
Red Fife heirloom grain brioche, Ricotta, Mustard green marmalade
I didn't realize you could make marmalade from anything other than fruit. The mustard green marmalade was savory, but had the consistency of a spread, its flavor somewhat akin to chimichurri. On top of a fluffy, yet thick toast with a heap of warm ricotta made locally and a dash of black pepper, the combination would make an idea breakfast.
Considering there was no menu, technically all the dishes were a mystery. No, we weren't served charcoal. The waiter brought this tray out to explain how the farm makes its own charcoal out of different types of biomass to try to impart the flavors onto the food. He prefaced the next dish by mentioning how it had been hanging above the grill for eighteen hours cooking in its own skin. At this point, we were all salivating thinking of the Berkshire pigs we had seen earlier. I imagined an entire lechon style roast piglet brought out to the table.
Pea stew, Tapenade, Red cabbage puree
Okay, those are odd accoutrements to a roast pig...
Smoked tropea onion
Surprise! One of the courses was an onion. Yes, half an onion. Even paired with the three sauces and smoked for hours, it wasn't just an onion. I would've taken an Awesome Blossom over this.
Potato onion bread, Farm fresh butter, Fennel salt, Carrot salt
At last the bread came out. While the bread itself was nothing special, the carrot and fennel salts were intriguing.
Poached egg, Red Cardinal Spinach, Black truffle
One of my favorite dishes of the night, a pairing of black truffles with egg is always a hit. Even better, once the yolk spilled out, you could soak it up with the potato onion bread. While the truffle shavings could've been bigger, they were in adequate abundance to impart the earthy flavor.
Calf brain, Eight Row Flint corn Polenta, Red onion marmalade
Again with the savory marmalades. But as I can imagine onion jam, this one wasn't quite as odd. I wasn't distracted by the marmalade for long however, as this was the first time I tried brain of any animal. Lightly dredged and fried, the preparation was similar to the most common usage of sweetbreads. But the texture was so delicate and creamy that it fell apart in my mouth. Besides the texture, I don't recall any specific flavors of brain.
Finn Dorset lamb loin and rib chop, Pecan, Squash, Cranberries
As much as I love gamey meats, the sign of a sophisticated lamb dish is one that can counteract the gamey taste. Cooked well and dressed nicely, I was satisfied with this as my main meat course and the last savory course of the meal.
Yogurt, Green apple, Celery, Noble Sour vinegar
The first of the desserts was light and fruity. As I expected, the next one would be chocolatey and dense. If anyone has any experience with Noble Sour, I'd like to hear more about it. I'm contemplating buying a bottle after having this dish. Oddly enough, I think the vinegar may have been the primary source of sweetness compared to the other tart ingredients.
Chocolate brioche, Granola ice cream, Oatmeal hazelnut dust
Molten chocolate cakes are overdone. Yet, somehow a brioche just seemed especially appropriate for a "Farmer's Feast." I was more interested in the granola ice cream. It brought up memories of a bowl of granola, but had a rich and decadent texture.
Honey vanilla milkshake, Chocolate caramel hazelnut crunch
Lastly, the mignardises were especially refreshing. Just as starting off the meal with a shot of maple sap, the milkshake smoothed out my tastebuds after a variety of flavors. The crunch was reminiscent of a praline.
As one of the best meals I've had in New York, Blue Hill will be on my list again in the near future. Most promising is that their menu is constantly changing. I certainly want to come back again in the summer for their tomatoes and other local produce. And if I needed any other assurance that this was a good restaurant, we spotted Martha Stewart in the dining room.
Thanks to Kung Food Panda for the pictures!
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, New York 10591
They're only open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner and Sunday for lunch.