March 23, 2019
A GASTRONOMIC JOURNEY AT BLUE HILL AT STONE BARNS
Part 1: The Farm. The Animals
Before coming to Blue Hill at Stone Barns (hereafter BHSB), I had read an article by Eater’s previous Editor-in-Chief Bill Addison about his exhilarating experience at this restaurant. In his December 5, 2016 testimony, Bill had declared BHSB to be the best restaurant in America at that time. Later, my fellow foodie friend NJ (@eatingwithnj on Instagram) proclaimed the dining destination as one of his two favorites in the USA. Given that NJ is an experienced globetrotting gourmand with refined culinary and sartorial taste, I knew I had to check out BHSB sooner rather than later. So with a reservation secured, I rode the train from Grand Central Station to Tarrytown, NY for most of an hour. A ten-minute taxi ride took me the rest of the way, to a large expanse of land consisting of a working farm (i.e., the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture), a café, a giftshop, and indeed, the famed restaurant itself.
On that particular Sunday, BHSB had a full schedule replete with various educational activities such as meeting the sheep, lamb, and chickens, collecting eggs, and learning about seed propagation and planting. Before dining, I had already decided to embark an optional, self-guided farm tour. I’m glad. In fact, my dining partner that day, Matthew Kwong, and I were so enthralled with our farm visit that we asked the restaurant’s general manager if we could delay our meal by thirty minutes in order to see more of the verdant farmland. With our request granted, we happily trotted off to explore more of the vegetable field, apiary, and woodlands. So even if you come only for the food, I would highly recommend doing the walking tour to get a true appreciation for the fruits, vegetables, and protein that will shortly land on your plate.
After two hours of taking in the luscious, pastoral views, the metaphorical equivalent of a tasting menu for our eyes, Matthew and I sat down ready to eat. This was our sumptuous experience…
BHSB is a restaurant with no set menu. In fact, there is no menu at all. Only a small booklet titled “FIELD and PASTURE”, which details the produce and farm products available for each month, sits on your table. You quickly realize a menu or even the provided guide is really unnecessary because you’re now in terrific hands with the very knowledgeable and competent staff here. The meal is designed to be a journey, more or less determined by your particular allergies and dietary restrictions, your likes and dislikes, and even your level of appetite for culinary adventure. You can think of this meal as a three-part act: snacks, mains, and dessert using seasonal produce (ours was late Winter/early Spring).
Part 2: The Snacks
The meal started with an incredible procession of delicious snacks that stretched on for literally two hours. After awhile, I lost count of the actual number of mini courses we received.
Part 3: Main Courses
After the innumerable and delicious amuse-bouches, we finally came to the main courses. First up was products from the sea. This was incredible seafood!
The next course was a celebration of grains: rye, malted barley, pea purée, sprouted oats, mushroom gelée, malted wheat, and puffed quinoa.
A burrito using a thin slice of kohlrabi as the tortilla shell and filled with swordfish, ham hock, and bean guacamole. It was accompanied by a small bottle of habanero hot sauce to deliver the flavor of the pepper fruit without the heat. Additionally, the burrito was served with a tapenade made from the bloodline of tuna. This is the kind of burrito only BHSB could get away with serving while also making it delicious in the process.
At this point, with constant smiles betraying our unfaltering exuberance in the meal thus far, one of the cooks invited us on a field trip outside. This portion of the tasting menu became the perfect opportunity for BHSB to showcase their no-waste philosophy on food. Our guide showed us how animal bones were recycled and turned into charcoal which are then used to grill meats. Much like the tomato skins that were dehydrated and pulverized into a tasty seasoning for the popcorn snack, even “waste” products here have a second life.
While this next dish certainly doesn’t look very attractive, it was downright delicious! Believe me, you probably haven’t eaten pork (or pork fat!) this great until you’ve tried BHSB’s pastured swine (i.e., belly, leg, and loin). But, surprisingly, the real star was the innocuous-looking mound of polenta on the plate. One bite and my palate registered a corn flavor so stupendously powerful and sublime that all memories of youthful summer days spent eating corn on the cob were rendered both majestically meaningful…and then utterly meaningless in comparison to this singular experience. This was the kind of corn ancient civilizations would have found worthy of deification.
The savory courses took a slight pause at this juncture for bread service. It was so wonderful that we ended up taking turns drinking the buttermilk liquid. No waste, right?
To prepare us for the next course, our server brought a beautiful presentation to our table: a metal stand whereby root vegetables dangled from strings, seemingly mummified behind a substance that appeared to be wax. The vegetables were actually enrobed in beef fat and allowed to ferment to enhance its natural sweetness.
Our server later returned bearing three plates for the final savory courses. The first was veal pastrami, spinach heart, and pastrami sauce. The second contained beef marrow bones. The final plate was parsnip and beet steaks. (NOTE – The quality of the photographs from this point onward suffered as a result of the natural daylight fading away.)
Part 4: Desserts
The first treat was a snow cone offered with three types of maple syrup. The increasingly darker shade of each sweetener represented a 50% reduction of the sap each time, resulting in a more concentrated flavor. The second dessert dish contained candied walnuts, hazelnuts, pickled rhubarb, candied ginger gelée, and pickled Asian pear and peach. The final dessert consisted of ice cream and granita with an assortment of toppings.
A variety of honey-based petit-fours brought the dessert portion came to a satisfying conclusion.
Part 5: The Juice and Tea Pairing
While BHSB did not have a non-alcoholic pairing, their beverage director created one for our party. This was simply the best concoction of juices and teas I have ever tasted at any fine-dining restaurant. Even for those who normally order cocktails or the wine pairing, I would wholeheartedly recommend trying the non-alcoholic beverages here. They are simply marvelous.
Part 6: Final Thoughts
My dining experience at BHSB was somewhat of a culinary mindbender. The meal was an epic five-and-a-half-hour extravaganza that left me dazzled and utterly convinced I had just eaten the best food in the last three years. There is one main reason Chef Dan Barber and his amazing staff won my mind and my heart. The meal felt less like a tasting menu, where the usual luxury ingredients are trotted out at predictable intervals, and more like a gastronomic exploration where the buildup of each successive snack and course transformed me into a proponent of BHSB’s thoughtful food philosophy. To eat here is to understand that the entire Blue Hill operation is practicing unparalleled husbandry in the finest sense and living up to the credo of extracting maximum flavor while producing minimum waste.
In recent years, the farm-to-table concept has generally become a cliché, a platitude rendered essentially moot by the somewhat well-meaning—if not entirely well-intentioned—profiteers who absconded with the label long ago in hopes of appealing to a mostly ill-informed mass. Chef Barber’s attentiveness to the soil as well as his affirmation of what it can produce reminded me once again why the movement is still important and its goals can still bear meaning. For that reason alone, I would boldly claim that every true, hardcore foodie should make the pilgrimage to Pocantico Hills to eat at BHSB. This is quintessential food, not just as nourishment for the stomach but more importantly, as education for the mind.