Blue Hill at Stone Barns – NY
Dan Barber is a god. Did I just say that out loud?
I can’t help it. There can’t be enough praise heaped on the man or his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And I just don’t mean the food, but the entire philosophy behind it. What can be more gratifying than sitting down in front of a plate of freshly-picked greens sans pesticides or dining on veal that enjoyed a happy life lolling on the grass and grazing on clover? To quote Chef Barber, “The most ecological choice for food is also the most ethical choice for food … and almost always the most delicious …”
Unfortunately, ecological and ethical do not always equal easy. Such commitment requires intimate knowledge of how and where ingredients are produced. Today, it’s nothing new for top restaurants to partner with local farmers to ensure they get the freshest ingredients. Blue Hill goes one step further with its vertical integration of the food chain. Its kitchen garden is one most cooks will envy, a half acre greenhouse adjacent to the restaurant featuring rows and rows of specialty greens. The grassland which makes up the rest of the farm is the stomping ground of heritage breed pigs, poultry and sheep. At some point, all these will end up on some lucky diner’s plate.
Stone Barns is a poster child for “pasture-based farming”, a concept popularized by Michael Pollan in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma. The premise is that raising multiple co-dependent species together is much less taxing on the environment and to the species themselves. Animals roam the grounds freely and their waste feeds the land that grows the grass and vegetables that feeds both animals and diners. And so the cycle goes on, letting each specie do what comes to it naturally, without the need for pesticides, anti-biotics or other man-made “productivity” interventions.
We arrived around twenty minutes before our two o’clock lunch reservation, just in time for a quick refresher tour of the grounds. I was eager to see the animals so I hurried down to the tarp-covered area. My husband chalks up this strange fascination with barnyard animals to a “deprived” childhood as a city girl.
Well, it looked like the henny penny’s were busy socializing that Sunday…
… and this Berkshire pig was rooting away in cardboard scrap heaven, totally oblivious to the many fans busily snapping pictures of it. Despite such brutish behavior, it somehow still managed to keep its coat so clean and shiny.
Given the gorgeous weather, I would have been happy sitting on one of the picnic benches enjoying the more casual Blue Hill Cafe’s selection of salads and baked goodies, but since this was a special day, we ate inside the restaurant.
After we were seated, our waitress pleasantly informed us of the Sunday lunch format — i.e. no ala carte menu. Come to think of it, there was no menu. Instead, we were presented with a book that listed the ingredients in season on one side and the price of the four course meal on the other. We were told the chef would custom tailor the meal for each table, omakase style.
The meal started off with a trio of amuse bouche:
Fennel Soup with a distinctive anise flavor and a chicken stock base.
Beet Burger with Parmesan and Wheat Tuiles. Very whimsical. I liked the beet giving the burger that “rare” look. The “buns” were sweet and reminded me of macaroons.
Lanza, a cured pork loin made from one of Blue Hill’s own, and venison salami.
After the little bites, our waitress stopped by with two types of salad greens piled on a slate tile. She quickly mentioned that this was not for eating, but just to give us a heads up on what to expect — mache and bordeaux spinach from the greenhouse. She also explained why it was the best time to eat them. Apparently, greens are sweetest right after the first frost because their reaction to cold weather is to convert starch to sugar. I’ve eaten at steakhouses where the waiter shows you your slab of porterhouse before it is grilled, and at chinese seafood restaurants where the server presents you the live grouper from the tank before it is steamed, but I’ve never seen vegetables treated with such respect. They’re usually the supporting cast in a meal. Not so at Stone Barns. They’re right up on there on the Blue Hill marquee, sharing star billing with the Berkshire pork and Rabbi Bob’s veal.
Beet and mache salad with homemade yogurt and pine nut dressing. The thin round disks were still-crunchy raw beets marinated in a vinaigrette while the cubes underneath were cooked beets at their sweetest. I loved the contrast between the two dressings. The yogurt was light and smooth like buttermilk while the smear of pine nut on the other side was rich and gritty.
Homemade gnocchi with Osaka purple microgreen and mushrooms. They were like buttery mashed potatoes shaped into small crescents.
Rabbi Bob’s veal with bordeaux spinach and a rutabaga date purée. Very minimalist cooking and presentation, with the still-pinkish veal sitting on a pool of demi-glace.
Caramelized lady apple with toasted oat ice cream. The oats reminded me of pinipig, toasted grains of rice used as topping in many Filipino desserts.
After lunch, we went back to the greenhouse to pay homage to the plots of soil that produced the greens for our meal.
Mache has many aliases, among them “corn salad” and “lamb’s lettuce”.
Not just your generic kind of spinach but “Bordeaux” spinach.
Aside from the plants, the greenhouse was also home to a pair of very rotund rabbits. When they saw me, they briefly hid in the covered parts of their cages. Don’t worry. Thumper and his companion aren’t food. When I asked the caretaker if they were also meant for the dining room, he looked at me funny before confirming they were pets.