Name: Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Address: 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, NY, 10591
Ph: 914 366 9600
Chef: Dan Barber
Hours: Wednesday – Saturday, 5:00pm-10:00pm. Sunday, 1:00pm-10:00pm
The centrepiece set the expectation.
Lush green plants hung at odd angles in mid-air, looking as though someone had pressed pause on an explosion in a garden. At once this floating scene was simple, surprising, beautiful and exciting, while evoking the feeling of a moment in time.
And inside the cavernous former barn of a dining room at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, every plate of food continues along these same lines. For over four hours I was presented with a procession of dishes of deceptive simplicity, most of which were surprising, and all of which were delicious.
Take, for example, a small slice of brioche with a quenelle of spinach marmalade and a pot of ricotta. An incredibly simple dish, to be sure, except that the quality of the cooking and the freshness of the ingredients took it to another level. The bread was impossibly light, made from a house-ground heritage grain called Red Fife. The ricotta was fresher than most people are used to these days, made an hour before service from cows milked that morning. It was unbelievably creamy, only to be cut by the slight bitterness of the marmalade.
This was an example of innovation by looking backwards, of creating surprise by doing things in a way that a lot of people would never consider. And it tasted incredible.
Chef Dan Barber and his team have lucked out, having all the resources of Stone Barns at hand. This 120 year old farm from the Rockefeller estate, about an hour outside of New York, is dedicated to sustainable agriculture. With a giant greenhouse, six acres of constantly rotating vegetable crops, and a significant range of livestock, the kitchen gets an abundance of absurdly fresh artisan produce to choose from. And they use it well.
At a restaurant where the only choice on the menu is how many courses you want to eat, I am always going to go for as many as possible. In this case, that was twelve. On top of that the evening starts with a series of one or two bite snacks, of which I had around 15. That’s a lot of dishes, and they came out of the kitchen at a frenetic pace, but a number of them stood out.
Some stood out for their freshness, like a range of raw baby vegetables began the meal, demonstrating the quality of the produce. Snacks made with beetroot, including a mini-beet burger, beet sushi, and beet yoghurt each highlighted the sweetness of this wonderful root.
Others were notable for the way they got around the fact that it was only just past winter, such as a slightly sharp preserved asparagus with the mellow smoothness of smoked egg yolk. A parsnip that had been overwintered (left in the ground over winter so the starches turn to sugar) is then slow roasted while being pressed with a brick to create a meat-like feel to the vegetable.
Some stood out for the depth of flavour that was put into such a small bite. A tiny sliver of house made bacon, cured from face meat, was salty and crisp, while a rich, fatty pate of pork liver was sandwiched between dark, bitter shards of chocolate. And a sweet crab ball served on a piece of lettuce came with an intensely grassy sauce made from plankton.
Some dishes were surprising in their absolute simplicity, such as a small crop of pea shoots, still growing in a sod of dirt, delivered with a pair of secateurs. You cut the shoots off and wipe them through some lemon dressing.
Even more extreme is a dish of goose egg pasta served almost plain. I was blown away by the courage of this dish, but the confidence in the quality of that core ingredient. And it was outstanding pasta, with the extra robustness from the goose egg. Simple and exceptional.
While a large emphasis is placed on the vegetables, they don’t do badly on the meat front either. This was most notable in a quite basic slice of slow cooked pork. Now, I have eaten quite a lot of pig in my time, but this was possibly the best piece of pork I have ever had. And it wasn’t to do with the way it was cooked, although that was exceptional too. It was to do with the type of pig it was. It was an Ossabow Island pig, a heritage breed descended from Spanish pigs that were released onto a tiny, near-uninhabited island in the 16th century. They are small pigs, their meat soft, dark and rich. It was a revelation of a dish.
Desserts were less memorable, but still done well. A trio of sorbets made from vegetables – carrot, beetroot and celery – showed how arbitrary the line between savoury and sweet is. Some apple, grilled over biochar and served with almond and smoked rice ice cream had that taste that only comes from fire. I was allowed to go out and look at the incredible barbecue, which meant that I took that wonderful smokiness away with me on my clothes.
Wine pairings were chosen well, with some interesting matches made by a passionate and knowledgeable sommelier. The service was incredible smooth, with dishes coming out at a quite frenetic pace throughout the evening. Sure, it was expensive, with food, wine, tax and tip costing in the vicinity of US$460, but it was worth it. This was an amazing experience, delivered by highly skilled professionals.
The next morning I took a tour of the grounds at Stone Barns, getting to see where they grew the vegetables and house the animals. It’s quite something to be able to see exactly where your food has come from. To pick from the ground fresh over-wintered spinach, the same type that the night before had been braised and served with soft-cooked egg. I saw the geese that gave the eggs for the pasta, a number of beautiful, fat pigs, and the crop of greenhouse grown pea shoots that those I’d eaten had come from.
Stone Barns is a playground for people who love their food. From the beginning in the fields through to the end product coming out of the exceptional Blue Hill kitchens, everything is in one place.
That allows for something exciting to happen. This was, for me, one of the most surprising and delightful dining experiences I have had. I was smiling throughout the meal, and for a long time afterwards. And really, what more could you ask for?
This was one moment in time that I’d love to freeze.