Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blue Hill at Stone Barns (food, MomVisit09)

For a guy like me who's lived in big busy cities all his life, the food at Blue Hill has always struck me as exciting. The ability to bite into a simply seasoned raw tomato and get a taste that makes you wonder about what you've been eating your whole life is eye-opening. While there is a Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan, we decided to make the trip up to Westchester and go to the real thing. We arrived at Penn Station only to realize that the Metro North left from Grand Central. Oops. Luckily I budgeted enough time so it wasn't a big deal. A Metro North ride to Tarrytown followed by a relaxing, scenic taxi ride got us to Stone Barns with time to spare.

We didn't have much time to look around but here we are on the way to the restaurant.Inside the restaurant is a large center table where they make final preparations and cut the bread. The service was knowledgeable and friendly. The servers were enthusiastic about the available produce and how the produce got to the tables. The runners were ok. The menu options are a 3 course prix fixe, a 5 course tasting menu, and an 8 course farmer's feast. I wanted to make sure we got all the small dishes, so I asked if I needed to supplement the farmer's feast, but our server assured us that all the small plates come with the farmer's feast. I also asked that the meal focus on local animals rather than seafood. My view is that fresh flash-frozen seafood can be shipped anywhere around the world, but that animals should be eaten freshly killed. I didn't come all the way to Stone Barns to eat Maine lobster.

The procession of small plates/tastes began with a shot of chilled corn and verbena soup. Since most of the food here is about the ingredients, there won't be a lot of taste and texture matches to write about. In the end, the best description that I can give of the food is that it's exactly what you'd expect, but fresher, more flagrant, and more flavorful.

Fresh vegetables from the farm. Simply dressed or seasoned.

Tomato burgers. There's a lot of tomato throughout the meal.

Summer melon balls with black pepper.

Eggs and potatoes. I could eat a ridiculous amount of these.

Skewers of summer squash with homemade pancetta and covered with sesame seeds.
Butter, ricotta, and tomato salt. I put too much of the tomato salt on my bread and was coughing for a while. Now I can see why eating a spoonful of cinnamon is impossible.

Charcuterie. Lonza from the loin, coppa from the leg. Flavorful without being salty.
Tomato tarts on top of tomato water gazpacho. The tomato water was really refreshing. One of the great things about the way things tasted that evening was that just when you thought something would be too sweet or too sour, it would stop just shy of going too far.

Now onto the first of the eight real courses. Smoked tomato soup with a fried oyster, slice of mushroom, and american sturgeon caviar on top. Even though we've already had a lot of tomato, the smoked tomato soup was yet a different flavor.
Late summer fruits and vegetables with purslane and yogurt. This was probably the best dish in terms of mixing and matching flavors. The beans were wonderful, and the yogurt brought in all together. My favorite bite was one that contained tomato and watermelon.

Speaking of tomatoes, the server brought over a collection of their tomatoes to show us and talk about the tomato blight of 2009. While nowhere near the maximum crop they could have gotten because of the blight, they managed to get a bunch of tomatoes that were protected by being grown in greenhouses. Look at the different varieties! One of them, the jersey devil, looks like a red pepper.
Once it became dark outside, it became very dark in the dining room. You'll have to excuse the photos since flash was not allowed. I understand the dim lighting and the candles and everything, but there's romantic, and then there's squinting. I am not a fan of dining rooms that are too dimly lit. This was the egg dish. In the summer season, their 1200 hens lay about 1 egg a day. When there's less light out, they average about 3 to 4 per week. The hens are not cooped up and are wheeled around the grounds. This dish had an egg, black trumpet mushrooms, and tomato marmalade. The TLC for the hens comes out in a yolk that is especially rich.

The first of our three meat courses is a dish of chicken breast and thigh from a whole cornish cross hen roasted with sassafras, orange thyme, and dill flower. The chicken was served with lima beans and chicken mushrooms. Being from Hong Kong, I grew up eating fresh chicken. This was some of the tastiest chicken I've ever had. Perfectly moist with crisp skin. For those who say that many things taste like chicken, this does not taste like chicken.

This was berkshire pig parts with whole beans and almonds. The beans and almonds were quite nice. One of my pork pieces was a little dry. In the end, I felt that this was a dish that I could get at a lot of places in Manhattan.

The last savory course was slow cooked neck of lamb with mountain magic tomato (more tomato!) and an eggplant mash of some sort. The lamb was flavorful, and the neck was a wonderful combination of tender meat, melty fat, and occasional gelatinous texture.

Before the dessert courses, I decided to take a little walk outside to the patio. Having been in the city for so long, breathing in the fresh night air was really nice. It was also nice to look up into the sky and see lots of stars. I could have sworn I heard "baaaaa" from somewhere in the field, though it was too dark to see clearly.

It got too dark to take decent pictures of the desserts, but there were two dessert courses. The first was concord grape puree with anise gelee and fromage blanc sorbet. The second was blackberries with a wheat cake and fruit seed (I think that's what I heard) ice cream. The wheat cake was really interesting with whole grains in the cake texture. Everything was finished off with petit fours including the usual suspects of macaroons, gelee, and chocolate.

I asked our server which time of the year was the best to come, and she started going through the seasons and gushing about all of them. In the end, it depends on which season's ingredients you prefer, but there will always be a great fresh selection here. It was fun watching her being all giddy as she talked about all the wonders of the different seasons. The meal itself was about 375 with t/t including a glass of pinot noir and a coffee. I highly recommend this place to everyone if you can get a reservation, but especially to people who have never had the chance to be out and eat in the countryside.

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