I just recently celebrated a birthday–Happy Birthday to me! I’m definitely not in the camp that chooses to hide or downplay their birthday. I say life needs as many reasons to celebrate as possible, so milk the obvious occasions for all their worth!
This year’s birthday was lovely and brought many good things–several of which I hope to write about soon. That said, I thought I’d take the chance to do a #ThrowbackThursday post and look back at last year’s birthday weekend, because it was truly a bucket list moment and I never got the chance to write about it. (Works, studies, move, craziness, etc.) Our move from New York was starting to look imminent and Greg, beyond wonderful husband that he is, asked if I had to choose one restaurant off my endless NY to-do list for a last full blow-out dining experience what would it be? The answer, hands down: Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
You usually have to book your table here ages in advance and we were already late when we started trying several weeks in beforehand. It initially seemed like non-starter. I put my name on the waiting list and I tried pulling strings through friends with connections, but it just wasn’t happening. Then, the Saturday of my birthday weekend a call came early in the morning. There was an opening off the list for Sunday! Our schedule was immediately cleared.
What makes this place so incredibly unique is the extent to which the idea of full-circle farming has been carried out here. There has been no shortage of coverage on Chef Dan Barber or the amazing things that are being accomplished at Blue Hill. (If you haven’t seen the Chef’s Table episode on Dan Barber, I highly recommend going straight to Netflix right now. Actually, you’re probably going to have to clear some time to binge watch the whole series.) So yes, it’s been covered, but I’ll go ahead and add my bit in: it’s a truly special place.
Blue Hill, the restaurant, and Stone Barns, the farm and agricultural center, are separate entities but work closely together. (Blue Hill does also have a NYC location.) Moreover, the Stone Barns Center offers a full slate of activities and tours of their facilities and grounds to the public to demonstrate what they do. And what these two places do and collaborate on is think about food and how it’s grown and tastes down to the minutest details. Not just raising the right kinds breeds of animals and varieties of produce, but how they interplay with everything else on the farm down to the soils, their compositions, pollinators, water, everything. If you need fertilizer for the soil, breed chickens. But then the chickens need to cared for properly and healthfully and given the right feeds. Having a weed problem? Maybe the best way to take care of that is by bringing in goats that will tend to the weeds for you. Now we need to keep the goats happy.
(How about a chicky video just for fun?)
Tomatoes on the vine in the fields and in the restaurant, with a few other veggie friends.
Sandwich and Tartine from the Café and Grain Bar.
From here on out, I’m going to let the pictures do the talking . . . for the most part.
We started with cocktails in the bar, as their whole beverage program is quite wonderful.
Gazpacho snow cone
This dish was reminiscent of a tartare, but from tomatoes with basil seeds.
Food tongue twisters: Eggplant Egg, Egg Eggplant . . . or something like that
The menu here is very veggie-centric, but it's certainly anything but boring, as you can see from the dishes above. Vegetarians would not really be missing out by getting the vegetarian menu here. Meat is used sparingly, and to be honest, we didn't miss having large cuts and we're devout omnivores.
Of course, when meat dishes arrived at the table they were predictably awesome, and very much in line with a nose-to-tail approach to cooking. The dish above was all pork, showcasing all the textures that can be found in the pig's head. One cut had the texture of pork belly, while another was more like loin.
Even dishes that looked familiar were somehow new again. This was a peach wrapped in speck, but that peach had incredibly explosive flavor.
Part of the fun here, though, is the element of surprise and there were interesting tricks around every turn. Sometimes centerpieces were whisked away and returned on our plate, as in the two images below. In another course, you had to forage through the plate to find the delicious morsels, and in another instance, drippings from our table's candle became dressing for a dish.
A few dishes illustrated how specific and local you can get. The three schmears of butter here all came from different cows, and they all had their own unique flavor.
The restaurant has also worked with the farm in developing special strains of produce, as well as their own signature wheat, which is milled right there.
The brioche that was served to us as an example was spectacular, with hints of nuttiness and sweetness coming through from the grain. It got even better when served with fresh cheese.
Our meal even included a field trip–a romantic interlude in the, uh . . . compost room. It was actually, beautiful and totally geeky–I loved it. We got to sample a couple of different types of potatoes they've worked on, and heard about some of their innovations in sustainability and energy efficiency.
When run properly, a compost heap doesn't smell bad. For better of worse, I've now had the chance to stick my nose in several piles of compost and it's just like fresh earth. However, compost also gets very hot as it breaks down and undergoes its transformation, and they've been putting that heat to use in several ways. Pipes are run through the compost heap, which heats water that runs through those pipes. That heated water can then be used for many different purposes, without any added energy expenditure. You can also use the compost heap itself much in the way you might use an oven–wrap foods up and cook 'em right in there. Foods like those potatoes I mentioned.
A wonderful potato tart topped with grated egg enjoyed right next to the heap.
Greg and in the exceptionally lovely compost room.
I loved both the theater and the lessons learned throughout the meal. However, many courses shined through for their simplicity. While there were lots of fun tricks and showmanship, other dishes were presented practically unadorned. Nearly naked tomatoes or greens or radishes served perhaps with bit of dressing and maybe not even that, as if to challenge you to rethink everything you ever thought you knew about how that vegetable is supposed to taste.
When the dessert courses rolled around, I was ready to roll out of there, and actually took my petit fours to go because I could not eat another bite. However, among those final courses the one that sticks out the most in my memory, is this humble zucchini bread, because by God, it was the best zucchini bread I've ever had.
A few notes on the beverage menu. As much as you know I LOVE wine, given the meal's price tag there was not a lot left in our budget to lavish on the vinos. Moreover, this meal was approximately five hours long–it definitely required more than one bottle. I have to say that Blue Hill's somm, Charles Puglia, has put together a list that has really interesting option at every price point. He helped us find some legitimately cool things in the lower price brackets. For example, this Aaron Burr Cider–it had a hint of funk, was really refreshing, and paired readily across a broader spectrum of foods than most wines would. Given the huge number of courses (I lost count of the total), this is a big plus no matter what your price point. He also found us a beautiful 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon, which I curse myself for forgetting to photograph.
A few words of thanks before I go. When I got the call off the wait list, I messaged a friend I'd known from culinary school who'd been working at Blue Hill for some time, in hopes that I'd get the chance to say hi when we came in. Tara was the senior dining room captain, and ended up taking amazing care of Greg and I while we were there. She took what I'm sure would've already been a amazing experience and just hit it out of the park.
As it turns out, she was just about to leave to move onto her next chapter, just as I was about to set out for mine. She and her husband, then-chef de cuisine Michael Gallina, have since moved to St. Louis and are about to open their first restaurant, Vicia. They also have a pop-up concept called Rooster and the Hen. Definitely check them out if your in the area.
(You can also glimpse them both in that episode of Chef's Table I mentioned.)
You can also keep find my review for Blue Hill (as well as lots of other great eats) on the Zipkick app.