Blue Hill at Stone Barns: The Most Important Restaurant in America
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills NY 10591 (map); 914-366-9600; bluehillstonebarns.com
Must-Haves: Farmer's Feast, charcuterie
What You'll Spend: At least $185 a person with wine, tax, and tip (the Farmer's Feast alone is $125)
Reviewers and food writers like me often throw around words like gutsy, important, and groundbreaking with impunity, and the result is that these words have lost their impact. So at the risk of doing just that, I am hereby proclaiming that Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the combination working farm and restaurant presided over by chef and partner Dan Barber, might be, just might be, the most important and gutsiest restaurant in America right now.
Barber has taken the ideas of locavorism, nose-to-tail cooking, and farm-to-table to groundbreaking places, and in so doing he is laying the foundation for a truly different kind of restaurant-going experience with far-reaching implications. He's taken the Alice Waters–Michael Pollan ethos to a place no other chef has ever done, including Waters herself. And Barber has done so while elevating his food to an extraordinarily delicious plane. Barber has also elevated his game at Blue Hill in New York City, as SE:NY editor Zach Brooks pointed out recently, but if you want to get the full-on farm-to-table experience complete with squealing pigs and bleating sheep, you have to go to Stone Barns.
I say this after having eaten three meals at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the last month, each one more exciting than the last. You know you're not in your garden-variety bastion of haute cuisine when you drive up to the restaurant and pass sheep, pigs, beehives, and fields of green on the Stone Barns property on your way to the valet parking. It's only later that you realize you had been looking at the sources of your meal.
Your expectations are further confounded by the menu. Don't look for conventional groupings of starters, main courses, and dessert. They're nowhere to be found on the Blue Hill at Stone Barns menu. Instead you are confronted by this:
On the left side is just a list of all the ingredients Barber and his cohorts have at their disposal in the kitchen that day. The right side has a list of prices that depend on how many courses you have. Your server will ask you if there are any ingredients you don't want the kitchen to use in your meal, and after that you are in the kitchen's hands. Eating this way adds elements of surprise and a even a little drama to your restaurant experience.
The amuses bouche offer an immediate clue to what Barber is up to. A spritzer served in a tall shot glass has reisling, citrus juice, natural tonic water, sparkling water, and sweet sicily (an assertive chervil) tea. Its utterly refreshing flavor is filled with surprising twists and turns that wake up your palate in a fascinating way. Vegetables on a Fence are the best crudités I've ever had: impossibly fresh individual baby heirloom broccoli, hakurai turnips, and baby bok choy naked and unadorned. Then a single asparagus stalk arrives for each diner wrapped in pancetta and coated with crunchy white sesame seeds. The sesame seeds are another surprise for me, as I have always found that Barber's cooking lacked crunch. That is not a problem anymore. Mini asparagus burgers up the meal's cuteness quotient, but I have to admit they are sweetly delicious, thanks to the sweet pickles Barber mixes with the asparagus.
The charcuterie plate (it's optional but good enough to be required) features house-made (the charcutier is Stone Barns chef kitchen director Adam Kaye) coppa, prosciutto, kosher-style salami, creamy bologna, and a pork-heart-and-liver terrine that comes in a mini sandwich between chocolate wafers. It looks like a pork ice cream sandwich.
Face bacon, two wafer-thin slices of bacon sliced directly from a Stone Barns pig's head, is a porky, salty, crisp interlude.
Charred grilled snowpeas are just smoky enough, come with a little sea salt, and are not so vaguely Spanish.
A trio of spreads, salted butter and ricotta from made from milk from the Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires and whipped lardo made from the pigs you passed on the way up to the restaurant, are ridiculously creamy and tangy. They are served with two housemade salts--asparagus- and carrot-flavored--that were the only off notes I experienced here. The asparagus salt tasted like a failed health food store experiment, and these spreads are so delicious that they don't need the embellishment.
A dish of kampachi with pickled ramps, pig's ears, and rhubarb gelée represents where Barber's cooking is at right now. It's sweet, porky, and silky smooth at the same time.
Crispino lettuce, iceberg's illegitimate grandfather, comes with spring vegetables in a lettuce broth. It sounds like rabbit food, but in fact is shockingly deeply flavored and satisfying. This dish had me considering vegetarianism.
So did the next dish, what our server described as this morning's egg with pistachio and peas. The hard-boiled egg was meltingly creamy and dipped in panko, crushed almonds, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. By this time I have to acknowledge that Barber now knows crisp and crunchy.
You might end up with one or more of the following meat courses or not, depending on what's going on at the farm when you go.
- A pork tasting featuring loin, pig's ears, snouts, pork belly, and housemade boudin blanc
- A chunk of lamb's neck that is tender and lamby with a top slightly crispy layer served with just salty enough asparagus and fiddlehead ferns
- Sous-vided ever-so-tender Cornish Cross chicken breast (raised on-site) with a crunchy layer of skin served on a bed of pea purée and earthy morels came with a chicken sauce that is so chickeny that I finally understand what chicken is supposed to taste like
The truly interesting thing about eating a meal here is that even without any of the above-mentioned meat courses, you won't feel deprived of flavor, substance, or satisfaction. My wife correctly noted that this was the largest amount of vegetables and salad I had ever eaten at one meal in my entire life without complaint.
Dessert in June is currently is a medley of deeply flavorful strawberry and rhubarb concoctions whipped up by pastry chef Alex Grunert. The strawberries poached in honey with zabaglione cream and creamy farmer's cheese ice cream was full of intense strawberry flavor and were my favorite. But elderberry-steamed strawberries with sour cream ice cream were a close second, and a rhubarb-meringue-asparagus-ice-cream combination was also pretty swell. Pates de fruits, chocolates, and petit fours complete the meal, with the cherry on top being house-made yogurt marshmallows.
Eating at Blue Hill at Stone Barns requires serious eaters to put their faith in Barber and company. Trust me and trust them. They will deliver a meal so provocatively thoughtful and delicious you'll never look at fine dining the same way again.