Pocantico Hills, New York. Where’s that? For die hard foodies, it the home of Blue Hill at Stone Barns where Chef Dan Barber is helping to making the farm-to-table movement synonymous with delicious food. For TV junkies, it’s where they filmed an episode of Top Chef last season with the chicken, pig, and lamb teams. For me, I know Blue Hill as the restaurant that showed me how incredible the simplest ingredients can be when they are treated with respect.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is in a hamlet north of New York City, close to wooded trails and green fields of grass. The center grows it’s own vegetables and raises it’s own livestock and fowl, all of which make it onto the dinner table. The bucolic setting is drastically different than the location of it’s sister restaurant in Manhattan. There is no set menu at Blue Hill. Diners are presented with a list of the daily fresh ingredients, and once you provide your likes, dislikes, and allergies, they will create a meal for you tailoring it to your specific needs. It’s not all caprice though, the chef already has a base menu of what he wants to cook and will alter ingredients accordingly.
I immediately requested face bacon as I had read about it in Food and Wine Magazine’s March issue. Come on, any form of bacon should be a must have. The server looked surprised at my request but then smiled knowingly. With that, we made it clear we were game for anything they would throw at us.
First up was Vegetables on a Fence, fresh baby carrots and lettuce barely seasoned if at all but tasted sweet and lightly salted, all natural flavor elements of the ingredient. We were also served paper thin chips made of faro and another made of kale leaves. It made for a lovely salty snack, and would have gone well with a glass of beer and a football game. Next, a chilled shot of sweet carrot soup with elements of citrus. I was surprised to see soup served in this form because it was just like the ubiquitous shots of soup served as amuses-bouche when I was in Basque country but I had not seen anywhere else. Just as we were sipping the soup and savoring the sweet tangy taste, the fireworks started. Literally.
Asparagus stalk wrapped in pancetta and coated in sesame seeds, each impaled on a skewer, jutted out from a dark base like a fireworks sparkler. It was delicious and the sesame provided a lovely crunch. After that, the flood of amuses-bouche continued, and our jaws dropped at how good every bite was and how it just didn’t seem to end. There was a charcuterie plate of berkshire pork shoulder with two treatments, one cured and one boiled. The meat was marbled with fat and just melted in the mouth. Continuing with our homage to the pig, the face bacon arrived, thin disks of crisp skin taken from the head. And then tiny squares of pork liver pate sandwiched between wafer-thin chocolate squares.
By this time, the four of us were in different states of shock. I couldn’t stop giggling from the giddiness of how delicious everything was. Les was overwhelmed and not sure what to eat next, having been distracted by the charcuterie and the asparagus and still not having touched the face bacon . The Korean couldn’t stop saying “wow” after every bite and J, the resident carnivore, just sat there quietly devouring everything, even his vegetable nemeses.
And then just when we thought there was no more, they brought out deep fried baby trout, that you could bite from head to tail because the bones were so soft and the flesh so tender. And another shot of soup, this time, a icy tart blend of green apple and celery to cool us down because the four of us were halfway to the moon by this point.
Oh, did I mention the butter? Fresh butter from their farm in Massachusetts, along with ricotta cheese, and salts flavored with beets and carrots. All eaten with slices of caramelized onion and potato bread from Balthazar Bakery. I don’t know who Balthazar is and why he has such an old school name but I love him already. We were speechless before the main courses even started, managing only one syllable words and expressions.
I was not planning on drinking wine with the meal, but the amuses-bouche were so good that I started to miss it. I asked them to recommend a glass of wine that would go with the entire meal, which included seafood and heavy sauces. They brought me a glass of 2007 pinot noir (Vital Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Oregon) whose wildly intoxicating fragrance gave me a heady buzz before I even had a sip.
Our first course in the 8 course farmer’s feast was slices of fluke sashimi with baby bok choy and a lettuce vinaigrette. It was cool and refreshing. Up next was Greenhouse Greens & Herbs, with shaved asparagus. The asparagus flavor was so appropriately intense that Les commented she had never had asparagus this good until now. Mixed in the salad were pansies, mint, dill, parsley, pistachio nuts, and tiny bits of dried fruit (apricot) I think. No complaints from our carnivore as he mowed down the salad.
One of the charms of Blue Hill is that they like to show you the raw ingredients that go into your dish. The server brought out a plate of ramps, pulled from the field that day, which would be a central component of our next dish. The ramp is a member of the onion family and looks like garlic chives on steroids. The scent is more delicate but I could still make out the smell which made me shudder at the thought. Chives, leeks, scallions, my hated enemies. I thought about launching a protest against ramps with the chef but everything had been so delicious so far that I decided to lay down the weapons and acquiesce. I didn’t come to Blue Hill to dictate my meal, it’s against the concept of what they are about, and part of any dining experience is to maintain an open mind and palate.
So came the weakfish, also known as sea trout, on a bed of sauteed, tender ramps, with a sauce made from green garlic and another with purple onion. The flavor of the ramps was very similar to garlic chives, except it was more delicate in taste and scent. It paired well with the fish and the sauces, instantly erasing any misgivings I had about ramps. Not that I would ever willingly order ramps on my own but I’m happy to let them remain as frenemies.
Then one of our servers brought out a basket of eggs and described how they gather the eggs daily from their Rhode Island Red hens and when the hens are retired (nice euphymism), they also harvest embryonic eggs from the hens as part of the head to tail ethos. These are eggs that were never fully formed inside the hen and they take the yolks and cure them with salt and air unti they are firm and attain the texture of parmasean cheese. After that description, our curiousity was piqued and we had to ask them to incorporate it into our meal.
Eggs and bacon. Life can’t get better than that. The next dish was more eloquently called This Morning’s Farm Egg but at the essence, it’s eggs and bacon. THE BEST EVER! I know, I’m fawning but I can’t help it. It was beyond delicious. It’s a piece of home made bread covered with toasted pine nuts and what they call ramp marmalade, which tasted to me like butter with ramp puree. On top of that is a soft-boiled egg covered with a slice of house cured speck. Oh wow it was so good. The egg white was creamy like panna cotta. I cut into the yolk and it just oozed all over with its unctuous yellow goo. Do you ever get those moments where the dish is so incredible that you just want to dive in head first and swim around and never leave? Yes, this was one of those. If I could have coated myself with that yolk and pranced around in a tutu made from the speck, I would have.
The embryonic eggs were showcased on a pasta dish. House made ravioli, filled either ricotta or mild goat cheese, with field greens, crisp fiddlehead ferns, and more of that fantastic asparagus. Using a microplane, they shaved embryonic eggs onto the dish. It looked like a golden yellow parmesan cheese, but had a sweet, nutty flavor that was nothing like cheese. It just added to the earthiness of the dish.
Our last dish was also our only meat dish. Which was fine with me because the other dishes were so flavorful that none of us really missed having meat. No, not converting to a vegetarian anytime soon unless bacon is a vegetable. This dish was suckling pig, a loin and chop, with spring parsnips, pine nuts, and more asparagus. The meat was tender, succulent, and cooked perfectly.
As if all that was not enough food, they graciously offered us a cheese course before dessert which we politely declined. I love cheese but I wasn’t sure I could ingest anything else and couldn’t wait to try the dessert. I like to think that the staff loved us and our abundant displays of joy and stupor because they provided 5 desserts instead of 4 that was on the menu. I was in a state of numb euphoria by then so I don’t have much detail to go on. There were two chocolate desserts. One with chocolate and hazelnut ice cream and coffee bits. Another with a base of beet root cake and more ice cream. None of the desserts were sickeningly sweet and were well-balanced and seasonally apropos. There was a roasted pineapple dish with fromage blanc ice and greens. Yes, little baby greens. Sounds odd but it worked. I loved the parsnip and spelt cake with bergamot and ginger ice cream. And then, there was meyer lemon–candied meyer lemon where the skin had been candied and in place of the pulp was a meyer lemon gelee of some kind, paired with passionfruit and yogurt sorbet. Citrus nirvana.
And there was more. I know, I couldn’t believe it but I could stomach it. A dish of supremed citrus with milk jam (tasted like dulce de leche) with refreshing pink grapefruit sorbet. And finally, petit fours. Fluffy cinnamon marshallows, strong bourbon truffle, chestnut and meyer lemon macaron (love this), and candied hazelnut covered with cocoa powder. And that was the end.
Ours was the last car in the lot when we stumbled out of the restaurant still in various states of euphoria. As soon as the valet handed us our keys, he hopped into his car and peeled out onto the road like screaming banshee. Why anyone would be in such a hurry to leave this place is beyond me. I don’t have any good pictures from the meal as it was too dark but you can see some similar dishes from a more intellectual post about Blue Hill on Serious Eats by Ed Levine. It’s so hard to write about great meals like this because in reliving it, my mouth keeps watering at the thought. But wow, that was a great experience.