Farm to table, local, sustainable, and organic are labeling terms that bombard our every food experience. And even if you spend the time to educate yourself on what is “good” and what is “bad”, confusion is inevitable. Good for me? Good for the environment? Good for the country? But there is nothing confusing about what Dan Barber has accomplished at Stone Barns, a center for food and agriculture. Simply put, the experience of dining at Blue Hill is a whimsically and intelligent reminder of how beautiful the connection between our farms and our food can truly be. Here, labels are not necessary.
I’ve mentioned before my fear of expectations. Hype is a growing symptom in the restaurant industry. A symptom that has doomed establishments before they even open their doors. Yet to say I was hyped in my anticipation to dine at Blue Hill would be a bit of an understatement. No problems here; my expectations were surpassed before we even exited the car.
Driving through the windy roads of the farm you get the first glimpses of the magnitude of Stone Barns. Cows grazing, vegetables growing, and farmers tending is the instant sign that this will not be your typical dinner reservations. We spent two hours roaming the farm snapping photos and pausing in awe of what we were seeing. Sure maybe I was a bit more pumped to see the varietals of lettuce where Em was a bit more excited to see the donkey and sheep, but it didn’t matter. Maybe we got lucky with the weather and the sun set, but Stone Barns felt straight out of a fairy tale.
When we made our way through the dining room to sit out on the patio for a drink (see the first pic above), I found my eyes darting in all directions to catch what was being served; more anticipation. But I know the best settler for anticipation: cocktails. A pickled ramp martini and a farm strawberry sangria were highlighted by crisp freshness perfect for the late setting sun; romance in every way, shape, and form.
As we finished our cocktails, we were taken to our table where we were greeted with the “menu”. At Blue Hill, choosing apps and entrees flies out the window replaced only by a list. A list of freshly available ingredients that will be crafted into a mix of small plates making up a five course or eight course feast excites as the very definition of seasonality. The majority of the food does come from Stone Barns. The rest to be supplemented by local farms, sustainable fisheries in Maine, and other Hudson Valley specialities.
A series of amouses fly from the kitchen each showcasing simplicity at it’s finest. Baby vegetable crudite that taste so freshly picked you are sure the added flavor is the earth itself. Sugar snap pea “burgers”, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and sesame seeds, and house made charcuterie continue to mystify as little bites pack more flavor than you ever thought imaginable. Surprisingly Em’s favorite, and one of the most interesting pieces to our meal was the pork liver mouse sandwiched by two thin wafers of bitter dark chocolate. If I told you it tasted like bologna would you think I was nuts?
Even with all this food, little did we know our meal had barely begun. Fresh bread served with farm churned butter and vegetable salts (beet, asparagus, and carrot) was good enough to eat forever. It’s a good thing I stopped after two thick slices because it would have kept on coming.
The first course, a medley of summer fruits and vegetables included the stand out grilled peaches along with a number of other perfectly plated bites of the early days of summer. Next came a gorgeous bowl of maine shellfish w/ english peas and sepia (a cuttlefish related to squid) garnished tableside with poppy seeds straight from the source. Third came a soft poached egg that creamed perfectly with a few more english peas artistically covered by rice paper embedded with flowers and fresh herbs. It was the only time we considered taking the camera out, but our noses and stomachs won out. Last of the savory courses showcased a cut of lamb I had never had before. The lamb’s neck was rich and gamey, but tender like a skirt steak to the point of ridiculousness. I could have had three more! Our meal concluded with a “peach melba”. A juicy sweet peach over a loose cookie topped with fresh berries and honey shaved ice.
Looking back at the meal, I can’t help but obsess over the simplicity. But even more so, the level of flavor achieved through this simplicity. And it’s clear that the chefs and the wait staff are more than the typical. They carry out their jobs in great appreciation of what the farm produces for them, and for us. They are knowledgable, friendly, and attentive almost to the point of absurdity. Although I can only imagine some of the folks they must attend to.
Blue Hill is like no other. At least not in this country. At least not that I’m aware of. For me, it was the greatest experience I could have asked for. My earnest appreciation goes to what Blue Hill stands for, and the elegant execution is inspiring. It may be a bit out of the typical “Friday night out” price range for most of us but I promise you it’s worth it.
Enjoy your 4th of July!