Restaurant Review: Blue Hill at Stone Barns

100727-blue-hill-2It took some doing but we finally summoned the courage to leave the safety of the city and head north into the wild country.  Specifically our destination was the Pocantico Hills and the storied Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant.  From the train station it was easy to get a cab to the farm.  As we wound up the drive of the farm to the entry I was immediately charmed.  The farm compound is outlandishly gorgeous.  Done in large stone, heavy timbers and slate, the buildings look from every angle like a manicured photograph of an idyllic farm somewhere in England or France.  Buildings as carefully detailed and well crafted as this are very few and far between.  A truly beautiful place.  Exploring the buildings, carefully tended gardens and pastures that make up Stone Barns is worth the trip alone.  But the greenhouses and little piggies would have to wait for another time.  Our main focus of this evening was dinner at Blue Hill.

Not having the foresight to book a table in the dining room well enough in advance, we hoped that eating at the bar would be an available option.  Initially, it looked like all the bar seats were already taken.  But through some sort of miracle that only super-professional and generous staffs can manage, we soon found ourselves seated and looking at menus.  We chose the five course chef’s tasting menu.  The fullest experience would have been the eight course dinner.  But in a foreign land as we were and concerned about return train times and babysitter attitude we decided that the five course dinner would allow us to experience most of the restaurant’s offerings without being rushed.  The big decision taken care of we settled in for dinner.  Having eaten several times at Blue Hill Restaurant in Manhattan (and the immense pleasure of working in its kitchen a couple times) we knew we were in for a treat.  Chef Dan Barber has become very well know for his sensitive use of seasonal vegetables, herbs and fruits.  So we were excited by the prospect of chef Barber having all of the farm’s varied and carefully grown produce right there at his fingertips.

Very quickly we found ourselves embarking on the unfolding culinary showcase of what the Stone Barns farm had to offer.  Our dinner began with raw baby vegetables, some lightly glazed in a brief brine, skewered on tines set into a block of wood, something of a trademark for Blue Hill.  We then got roasted cantaloupe shots to accompany slices of house cured ham and amazingly flavorful bresaola.  No need for forks with this course, the saline fat of the ham and beef tasting great on my fingers.  Next came a roasted veal bone split open to give access to the deliciously melted marrow and topped with American sturgeon caviar.  A minimalist take on the familiar surf and turf.  At London’s St. John their famous roasted bone marrow is served with a lemony parsley salad and sea salt to cut the fattyness of the marrow.  Here the salty caviar doesn’t so much cut the taste of the marrow as it does accent it, opening up the taste of it in your mouth as if blown in on an ocean wind.

Things really picked up with the next course, a salad of garden vegetables served with dollops of yogurt.  The varied amalgamation of vegetables was amazing, the several beans lightly cooked and tasting nicely ‘beany’, the different tomatoes sweet and juicy orbs of acid zing.  The yogurt was light as a cloud, more of a foam than a cream, it’s soured tang marrying wonderfully with what we were told was a cantaloupe vinaigrette.  Also delicious.

My memory is failing me at the moment as to the exact order but I am pretty sure the next course we were served was Blue Hill’s current ‘farm egg’ dish.  A breaded egg, still soft in the center served on a delicious pool of multi-colored curried beans.  Sort-of a twist on two traditional British dishes, Scotch eggs and Indian congee.  That was our guess anyway.

We were next presented with a dish of poached lobster in a dairy-less corn chowder.  The lobster was amazing.  Cooked perfectly.  And the corn, for having no dairy, tasted profoundly of sweet butter.  Olive oil we were told.  Bathing the lobster pieces in the broth tasted like Summer by the sea in a bowl.  But why go dairy-less in the middle of a cow-filled farm?  Was this just a show of technique and execution?  Whatever it was it was delicious.

The course following might have been my favorite.  Duck breast and beets.  A very pretty composition on the plate, the duck was two slices cut from the breast, seasoned beautifully, the skin seared to crackling perfection.  This was presented with beets two ways, small roasted beets with leaves still on and long twisting slivers of raw beet, all marinated in a raspberry vinaigrette.  The dressing accentuated the inherent sweetness of the beets and all combined with the duck in a wonderful salty-sweet richness.

If the duck was my favorite of the evening, the final savory course was a very close second.  Presented as grass-fed beef with ‘milk and carrots’, this dish was a cow-lovers dream come true.  Three slices of beautiful beautiful beef, prepared sous vide to a soft rosey done-ness, seasoned and then quickly seared to give the edges a slight tooth of salty carmelization.  This was served with a sauce made of tender chunks of carrots simmered in milk.  The sauce made slightly sweet by the carrots, it was a simply delicious adornment to an almost flawless piece of beef.

The dessert course was roasted corn ice cream which I really enjoyed.  It was served with a rectangle of cake… was it a corn cake of some sort?  Not sure.  But it was very good.

The one other thing to note is that we were drinking wine from Blue Hill’s ‘By the Glass’ list.  The first rose on the list was a nice beginning in that it was crisp, dry and not very sweet.  I find many roses to be way too sweet for me to enjoy.  So this was a nice wine to start with.  But the big standout for us turned out to be the Hirsch Vineyard’s Blue Hill label pinot noir.  I had been disappointed with pinots a lot recently, most too thin and one-dimensional, but this wine changed my mind.  A really great aroma, the way wine should smell.  And a taste that opened up in the mouth.  And just for the record, we did not know that the Obamas has a bottle of Hirsch when dining at Blue Hill last year.  ’Great minds’ evidently.

The entire Blue Hill staff was delightful.  Not only accommodating our spur-of-the-moment arrival but also very generous with their time, making us feel immediately welcome.  Everyone was knowledgeable about the food and wine, easy to talk to and readily available to answer our questions.  One of the captains even escorted us to a quick peek into the spacious and beautiful Blue Hill at Stone Barns kitchen where chef Barber was overseeing everything.  One of the nicest spaces to cook in I have seen in a long time.

Overall our evening at Stone Barns was simply terrific.  The farm compound itself is gorgeous. It made me -briefly- desire to live in the country and grow beautiful vegetables.  If a farmer’s life looked as rustically modern as this I think I could enjoy it, regardless of the distance from good pizza.  And the food… well, the food was wonderful.  Chef Barber and his Stone Barns team are crafting some seriously good food out there.  Our dinner was spectacular and one which we will remember as among the best we have had.  The little extra effort needed to get to Stone Barns is definitely worth it and a trip that we will surely make again.  Soon.

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