Blue Hill at Stone Barns, March 18, 2006
Pocantico Hills, New York
My first visit opened my eyes to what dining should be all about. This visit reinforced those first impressions and have made me a true fan of the concept as a whole.
I've described Blue Hill at Stone Barns in a previous review so I'll just stick to describing the day: the walking tour, the staff and of course, the food.
The first to greet me on this clear, blue-skied morning were several hundred chickens, that stayed relatively close to their mobile chicken coops that provided shelter, a place to lay their eggs and a source of water and feed. Here is a pic of the welcoming committee.
The facilities include the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a combination gift shop and educational center that used to house the property's horses; a two-story, glass-walled meeting center which once acted as a hay loft; the two silos which are still intact but have been converted into the world's tallest coat closet and a reading room dedicated to David Rockefeller; the kitchen and main dining room that used to house the cows; the private dining room that once acted as the manure shed; and the cafe and administration offices that were once the farm manager's onsite quarters. I arrived a good half hour before the tour was to begin, which happened to be the exact time the cafe opened. I took advantage of my good luck and ordered a cup of coffee and pain au chocolat. What stood out about the pain au chocolat was the denseness of the pastry and the occasional crunchy piece of chocolate, which to me suggests that they used nibs instead of a paste of some kind...this yielded excellent results. The coffee was good as well, but the milk was too cold and brought the hot coffee down to cooler temps a bit too quickly. Pictured below are some other offerings. They also had eggs layed that morning, some juices, sandwiches, salads and other lunch items.
Our first stop on the tour was the greenhouse. This structure, of an average size for most raised bed nurseries or hydroponic gardens, is unique in that it serves as a shelter for real-soiled gardens. The twenty or so different types of salad greens, carrots, fennel and other such produce looked remarkably healthy, tasty and bountiful. An impressive setup and one that I was thrilled to see...especially since the salad I would eat later was picked from this room earlier that morning. You can't get any fresher than that.
You can't really tell from this photo, but the dark shadows on the horizon or top of the rock wall are actually berkshire hogs, one of them is Boris, the resident stud, and a bevy of beauties digging up the underbrush looking for acorns or sunbathing. The pigs on this farm get to thrive in what is their most ideal habitat...the woods. The room behind that wood door was once a dairy storage. Today it houses most of the restaurant's extensive, varied and reasonably priced collection of wine.
Some of Boris' harem are seen here hanging out. Actually, these are probably his kids. Berkshire pigs, apparently, are well known for their temperate behavior to humans. These were as friendly as I guess they could be but one thing is for sure, these "babies" at about a few hundred pounds and only 10 months old or so, were huge. The shed that they are under is a winter shelter for them. Those little aluminum domes are sleeping quarters that these guys use at their own discretion in the cold winter evenings.
The kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is nothing short of extraordinary. Natural light in a restaurant kitchen is nearly impossible to find in NYC with the exception of Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center and perhaps a few others. The remakably clean space is massive and consists of multiple rooms. The first picture is of the garde manger area. The gentleman on the far right is the resident pastry chef. What you see the chef (closest facing me) doing is putting soft boiled eggs in an ice bath which he will later peel, encrust with panko and deep fry for our salads. They are amazing.
Between the garde manger station and the following picture is the fish station, where we were told that it takes the hands of two men to make one fish dish. One for the fish, one for the garnish. The same goes for the other protein dishes. The stations you see in this pic are from left to right, the meat/protein area, the vegetable area in the middle and what I think was the post-prep/plating area.
This is another pic of the vegetable prep area. The meat station is to the left.
There are quite a few chefs in this kitchen and as mentioned before, more than one often work on the same dish. Sous chef Adam Kaye tried to quote Julia Child in regard to this. The actual quote is: "It's so beautifully arranged on the plate - you know someone's fingers have been all over it." What he was getting at is that the most ornate dishes tend to have a lot of people involved with it...which he was using as a way to say that its best that most of the ingredients used at Blue Hill come from the property itself. He went on to explain that all of the cooks/chefs have at least one day a week where they themselves work on the farm whether it be to get the eggs from the mobile chicken coops or pick lettuce and herbs from the gardens. They are also responsible for clean-up. No night porters at Blue Hill, which makes for a remarkably clean kitchen.
The kitchen, it needs to be reinforced, is huge. This picture is a spice wall which leads to the receiving room that doubles as a fresh pasta making room. Beyond that room is an office and three walk-ins. The walk-ins were amazing. There was a fish walk-in, a mis-en-place walk-in and a protein walk-in, which today had half of a Berkshire pig hanging in it among other impressive meats. Next week they'll be getting an entire steer. Whoa.
Here is the private dining room. This looks out to the courtyard and some of the pastures as well. A lovely room that would be perfect for a party of 20. Jim Halligan (see below), a man of details, noticed the metal railing running dead-center below the wood beams and surmised that this was used as a manure cart transporter. Which makes perfect sense since this used to be the manure shed.
We were served an amuse bouche of fennel soup that all of us agreed was tasty but had more of a mushroom essence to it than a fennel one. The anise quality was lacking but still made for a tasty dish. It should be noted that the temperature, which really needs to be carefully determined for a soup served in a shot glass, was spot on.
The Greenhouse Winter Salad is much more than meets the eye. The menu says that it includes fennel, pistachios, apricots and this morning's crispy farm egg that I described above. But that was just the start of it. Mint, dill, bibb lettuce, frissee, deer's tongue, red deer's tongue (the vegetables) and probably a dozen other types of greens. No joke. The dressing was light and allowed the freshness of the greens to pop out at you. One of my favorite things about this salad is that when you put a fork into the salad, it grabbed a chunk of greens. There was no need for fussing around a piece of lettuce. These greens were so healthy and vibrant and firm that it would cling to the fork unlike what happens with lettuce is picked a week earlier and shipped to the restaurant. The wilting, however used to it we are at even top-notch restaurants, doesn't exist at Blue Hill.
Our entree was a trio of Stone Barns Berkshire Pork served with braised red cabbage and beets. Clockwise: two pieces of pork sausage, 2 slices of pork loin and braised pork belly with crispy skin and fatty fat still intact. This meal truly defines the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience. Everything was from the farm (fish is brought in daily, for example) and made on the premises. And the freshness couldn't be mistaken. I'm not a huge fan of pork loin, but this was fantastic. We got to see the pork loins before they were cut, and I must tell you that they were simply incredible looking. And they tasted great too...coming from someone that doesn't often care for it. The sausage was delicious and the pork belly was remarkably tender. The fat (I did eat some of it) was like eating a pillow and the rind was crispy, crunchy and frighteningly tasty. It goes without saying that the cabbage/beet "salad" underneath was the perfect accompaniment. My mother had something similar to this on our previous visit...but the pork belly was replaced with crispy bacon slabs. Delicious.
Dessert took a departure from the farm, which I suppose is acceptable...although a celery sorbet (see Wallse) or other vegetable-based dessert (see the Kabocha squash dessert at Annisa or the many desserts of WD~50). We were served an orange and blood orange "Citrus Tart" with ginger ice cream. The ice cream, served on top of candied ginger cubes had perfect texture and just enough ginger flavor. The candied ginger, though a bit of a cheating method, did bring an added texture to the dish. The tart was an appropriate use of seasonal ingrediants but the pastry shell was a bit difficult to cut through. It didn't break away easily...the only complaint I can find. The yellow, diagonal line on the dish was a citrusy, lemony sauce with vanilla bean that went quite well with the ginger ice cream but was lost when eating with the tart.
And last but by no means least, my new friends, from left to right: Fred and Pam Mittleman and Jim and Pat Halligan. It was a pleasure to sit with these fine folks and share in conversation about food, travel and the different experiences living in the metropolitan area.
I was able to make a reservation for some time in April and I cannot tell you how excited I am. Hopefully the ramps will make their debut by that time. If you haven't been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns...make sure that you do. It's truly an experience worth making the time for. Bon Appetit!