Over the weekend, my parents treated Dave and me (and my brother and his gf) to a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s uber farm-to-table restaurant.
It was my fourth time -- and by far the best. This was also the first time I had the Grazing, Pecking, Rooting menu (In fact, this is the only option. The shorter Farmer’s Feast is no longer available).
A couple general thoughts before we get into the play-by-play.
Dinner was an epic 29 courses and took four hours. We got there at 4:30, which seems like punishingly early. But, if you’re coming from NYC, that means 4:30 is the perfect time to start if you want to get home before midnight. Plus, the natural light makes for better photos.
Even my Dad liked it, which is a shock because he notoriously hates: small bites, long menus, expensive meals. This was all three and he loved it. Take note if your Dad is the same way!
Service is virtuosic, like all fine dining restaurants. Though here, the waitstaff is a little looser, part theater ushers, part sustainable farming advocates, part normal people-touchstones during a meal that is, after all, very long and somewhat studious. I was wondering out loud what Blue Hill at Stone Barns to-go would be like (they’d need a lot of containers… here’s one for the log, the bed of nails…), and one waiter overheard and chuckled along.
Speaking of theater, I found this to be is a little similar to immersive shows like Queen of the Night and Sleep No More. You have to give up control. You use your hands for 20 out of 29 dishes. You search for little breadsticks inside a thicket of decorative moss because someone told you to. Even the tables along the wall face inward, as if the dining room was a stage (which, it is).
A few disclaimers:
This is not a review. An interviewer once asked me if I ever wanted to be the New York Times restaurant critic (as Tia does in Food Whore). And the answer is…no. Sure, I love the idea of expense accounts, the power and platform. But I identify more with the chef than the critic. The two need each other, of course. But I’d rather be on the side of creation rather than critique.
Though we started early, it did get dark. So the lighting is not ideal starting at around course 18. Obviously I didn't use flash inside.
I stand by everything that's bolded (minus what's followed by a ?). But any other thoughts on ingredients and prep are just my (educated) guesses.
Ok, and let's get into...
1) Vegetables from the farm - white radish, tomato, boy choy, pattypan squash
An iconic Blue Hill at Stone Barns dish that sets the tone for the rest of the meal. You may indiscriminately throw these very same ingredients into your build-your-own salad (though they will be of a much lesser lineage). But these vegetables are meant to be considered. From the moment you pluck them off their nails, like artwork off a wall, your senses are on alert. Each bite was lightly slicked with a salty/sour vinaigrette. But it’s just a whisper. Enough to say, a chef was here.
2) Radish with poppy seed butter and poppy seeds
Another clue to what’s to come. An everything bagel in a bite the size of a large multi-vitamin -- the poppy seeds of course, plus the pepperiness of the radish, the creaminess of the butter. Ie: We might be eating veggies in ways you never expected, but that doesn’t mean you won’t recognize and enjoy these flavor profiles.
3) Tondo Scuro Di Piacenza Squash with shiso honey
Prepped and served with a slicer/corer, this was surely meant to conjure autumnal memories of dipping apple slices into caramel. The squash was subtle, a vehicle for the Julianne Moore of honeys, fragrant and mild, but with surprising presence.
4) Needles in a haystack (breadsticks)
This reminded me of this Alan Cumming story about how he accidentally ate dirt at a $5,000 Noma dinner. Who could blame him? These breadsticks were kinda cheesy, with a rustic grainy flavor (cotton : white bread :: tweed : these breadsticks).
5) Flaxseed sunflower crackers with cured egg yolk and bresaola
Depending on your frame of reference, these either tasted like cheez-its, the inside of a salty egg mooncake, or a cracker made by your raw foodist aunt.
6) Speck and peaches
The heat turned the speck into a savory shell, drying and concentrating what is already dried and concentrated. The char had equal billing with the speck and peaches, a technique that lives as flavor. (Note the charred bones on the bottom… more on that later.)
7) Forage - berry vines covering fennel and wild berry tarts
My mother “foraged” this for my side of the table, and I felt a little cheated, as if she blew out my birthday candle. But nevermind. These may look like traditional canapés, but they had a very outdoorsy flavor. Maybe because the berries retained their stems, a little wild greenness that complicates an otherwise classic bite.
8) Deep-fried sunchoke flowers
At first, you only get the tempura flavor. But it only takes a second to get the gestalt. Did you know that sunchokes are part of the sunflower family? And, what do you get when you take the artichoke flavor of a sunchoke + fat + nutty crunch?
A sunflower seed. This wasn’t like a tempura at all -- a vegetable covered in a batter. The batter and the main ingredient clicked into something unified, as sure as a handshake.
9) Cucumber rings and yogurt
Looks like carnival candy and was just as fun to eat. I think the cucumber was vacuum-sealed or something. This had a watery but thick toothfeel… as if eating a cucumber Chuckle. The yogurt was also really fun -- a powder that liquified upon touch. I may have dipped my fingertips into it multiple times.
10) Pig heart pastrami
The opposite of cooped-up chicken or a wobbly-legged lamb. This muscle works every single day...until it doesn’t. In turn, it tastes purposeful. I can appreciate this, but heart just isn’t for me. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Walking Dead (we’re catching up before Season 6 starts).
11) Ham sandwich
What’s not to like? Silky ham with slightly melted lard on a textured, rough cracker. Not sure what the green is, besides the aesthetics of lichen simulcritude. But my guess is that it’s some sort of tomato essence wash. (When we went in the kitchen, I saw a cracker with a red wash.)
12) Brussels sprouts with charcoal mayonnaise
These stalks were slow-roasted with some goodness (possibly just olive oil and salt?). Great. Then you slice them off with a mini-sickle. Fun. Then you dip them into a umamied-out charcoal mayo. Fantastic.
Plus, you have to appreciate dishes like this that amp up the interactive element. You need some sort of action to break through the monotony of chain-eating.
13) Tomato burgers
Another classic and one of my favs. Tomatoes are slow-roasted until they are thick, jammy, and very sweet. The “buns” are buttery like a brioche, but pop like a wafer. This whole thing is like a savory macaron. More please!
14) Pork pate with chocolate
This was very rich and smooth with the slightest whiff of funk. A micro-crisp of chocolate added a welcome bitter tonic.
15) Tomato, hyssop and horseradish
This looked like a beef tartare, but it was all tomato -- boiled, softened and skinned. You could go down a rabbit hole thinking of the origins of this dish. Is it an ode to Ferran Adria’s tomato tartare at el Bulli? Or is Dan Barber riffing on the classic recipe: horseradish instead of whole grain mustard? Or is he riffing on tartare and tartar, sauce made with horseradish? Or maybe because they just taste good together and are in season. Who knows.
16) Farmer’s cheese with plums and bone marrow
This looks runny, but was actually pretty firm. A nice somewhat Asian riff on a caprese, with sesame oil instead of olive oil, plums instead of tomatoes, watercress instead of basil. I still don’t know where the bone marrow is, but my guess is that it was used to fortify the cheese, much like cream fortifies burrata.
17) Swordfish and corned beef burritos wrapped with cilantro and daikon (?), blood lime tapenade
Not much to look at, but a delightful and simple surf and turf using somewhat humble proteins. Seasoned daikon did double duty as a receptacle and pickled crunch factor (I feel strongly that pickled crunch is the sandwich X factor).
18) Herb-charred string beans and snow peas with apricot yogurt and flowers
Another one of my favs. You know how cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower) transform into addictive savory/sweet bites when roasted? This had a similar effect, but even more profound (possibly because the beans inside contain more sugar).
19) Potato pizza with tomato, mushrooms, beets and cheddar foam
Delightful. This tasted like a real pizza, but one that was given the Roger Rabbit villain treatment: flattened to a literal crisp. You don’t miss the carby bulk or the heavy cheese or the meat for that matter. Everything I love about pizza is here.
20) Beet and pork hot dog on a whole wheat bun, served with beet ketchup and fermented apple mustard
Two-thirds in, we went on an excursion to the outside patio. The sun was setting. We ate hot dogs, drank beer, warmed up next to a volcano-like grill. It was kinda perfect. I’m not sure how much beet was in this hot dog (certainly enough for color, but beyond that, I’m not sure). But it was pretty delicious either way.
This is also when we started getting pretty full.
And, remember those blackened bones in course 6, the speck and peaches? They’re carbonized out here--bones, corn cobs, crab shells. It’s a little morbid (that’s the Walking Dead-head of me talking), but I can appreciate the 3-dimensionality of the nose-to-tail-to-bone ethos.
21) Berkshire pork with grapes and apricot fig pudding
This was my dad and brother’s girlfriend’s favorite. Meat! Crispy pork skin! Perfectly distributed fat! But by this point, we were kinda trained to expect (and enjoy) vegetables (hot dog field trip notwithstanding). My favorite parts of the dish were the grapes, mixed with that sweet and irony blood pudding.
22) Barber Farm sourdough with cow butter, lard, and fennel salt
Thick and chewy and a tiny bit rubbery, in a good way. Both spreads were great. If they served the bread course at the beginning of the meal, people would most certainly gorge on it and spoil their appetite for the rest of the meal.
23) Tromboncino squash, beet bolognese, Malabar spinach
Here we got a bit of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns manifesto. This is the tromboncino squash. Though it grows abundantly, people rarely eat it and many regard it as purely ornamental. But at Blue Hill, a plentiful vegetable like this becomes the centerpiece while something that is not so plentiful (meat) is used more as a condiment.
I think this was cooked sous-vide. It had a flavorful density, almost like asparagus.
24) Honey and barley cake with almond blossom tea
Light and malty. Might look like a cheesecake, but it was much airier. If the tea looks like hot water, that's because it practically was. It had a very ephemeral quality to it, a breeze from the herb garden and then it's gone.
25) Blueberries, milky oats, chestnut
A crowd-pleaser, with a pb&j vibe (note all the cozy references in this meal: bagels, cheez-its, pizza, hot dogs and beer). I liked how this wasn’t a sugar/fat bomb. The sweet side of breakfast. The nourishing side of dessert.
26) Zucchini cake
Not your typical Z-cake. This was moist inside, like a custardy bread pudding, which leads me to believe that the zucchini was pureed and used as you would eggs, oil or milk. Then with the stiff golden crust, this was almost like a green cannele (hey if you can have a green smoothie, why not?).
Also, only upon writing this post did I realize that we had four zucchini courses. But they never felt redundant or overkill or that we were paying for garden offloading.
27) Sunflower praline with whole grain shortbread
The obvious praline accompaniment would have been chocolate. But here, the biscuits are barely sweet, earthy and gritty against the roof of your mouth.
28) Chocolate mints
With fresh mint embedded, reminiscent of Stone Barns’ beautiful bread plates with leaves and wheat stems pressed into the clay. (sorry don’t have a great pic of this)
29) Grapes - Jupiter, Canadise, Himrod (?)
Probably not a coincidence that this mimicked the first baby vegetables course. You pluck a very local product. Your senses are heightened -- what’s the difference between these grapes? How do their skins slip off? This one is more oblong, this is more spherical.
But unlike the first course, this hasn’t been touched by a chef. It’s like when Broadway actors take their bows, then point to the orchestra, the crew, the audience: the components that make the show what it is. In this case, we taste, simply, the ingredient.
At Jean-Georges you’ll get sparkling finesse. At Daniel, French precision. At Le Bernadin, a Zen-like meditation on seafood and the things that effortlessly fall into its orbit. Ko has its explosive flavors and textures. Alinea, wizardry.
But at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you get a bucolic theater--from the cows at the entrance to the bone candle votives to a meal that is at once challenging and simple. And maybe that’s the point: elevating and sharpening the pleasures of the farm, while also dampening the chef’s urge to manipulate.