Blue Hill at Stone Barns (a rather long report, September 2017)


#1

After months of struggling to get a reservation, I finally was able to eat at Blue Hill at Stone Barns two weeks ago, on a Wednesday at 6:30 pm.

A few quick notes before we get to the food. Though the complex itself is stunning, I found the dining room to be rather dull, very comfortable, but not particularly cozy or inspiring. And it is rather romantically lit, so it’s difficult to snap those insta-worthy shots. Because I didn’t have a camera with me that could handle the low light, I chose to not take pictures, though I did take some notes. It is often recommended to arrive early at Blue Hill at Stone Barns to tour the grounds. If you’re gonna do that, bring an extra pair of shoes–perhaps even an entirely different outfit. The working farm is huge. I think the better way to do this is to stay the night somewhere near the restaurant and then come back the next day for a farm tour and some decent snacks at the cafe.

We had pre-paid for everything except booze by purchasing a gift certificate through their website. It included the meal, gratuities (which are included,) taxes, and non-alcoholic beverages. So that included sodas, well-crafted juices, bottled water, tea, coffee, etc. And there are some really expensive teas if you so wish to indulge.

Alright, on to the meal itself. After a few minutes (this waiting would become an unfortunate trend) we were greeted by a rather young (mid to late twenties) and very boisterous waiter who explained the meal to us. Yes, there is no menu. They are just “cooking what they have for you.” We were asked if we had any dietary restrictions, or whether there were things we did not enjoy. No restrictions, we said, though I mentioned that I do not like chocolate. Bill Addison, in his Eater review, was supposedly asked two things: how adventurous was he feeling and how long did he want his meal to be. We weren’t.

We were started with the seemingly standard impaled vegetables. That included a halved pepper, some tomatoes, and a couple greens. This was then followed by like a two-foot long stalk of fennel that they serve with no explanation. (Hint, you’re supposed to chomp on the bottom.)

Said veggies were followed by a round of delicious single-bite snacks. At this point, I wasn’t taking notes, though I remember a few dishes. There was a mushroom tart that we had to “forage” through a box of vegetation for. Glorified cheese sticks that were “hidden” amongst pieces of hay. A rather interesting corn lemonade. Vegetable sushi that featured a thinly-sliced pepper over rice and grains. A zucchini "pizza that was just beautifully-layered zucchini over a flatbread. A tomato burger. A chocolate and foie gras bite. A flash-fried sunchoke was particularly revelatory (and makes me want to drop everything and pay homage to Japanese tempura.) These were served very quickly and were often presented with no detail other than a quick name. (I.E. “tomato burger.” “chocolate and liver, etc.”)

Now I’d read a few reviews of Blue Hill (namely Addison’s) though I hadn’t watched the Chef’s Table or anything like that. I came in expecting the meal to be super local, produce-based, and nose to tail/roots to flower (is that a thing) but even I was surprised at how much Barber utilizes each individual product. I guess if I had been paying attention to his Wasted series, etc. I would have been a bit more prepared.

This ethos, for better (and sometimes worse) is at the core of the Blue Hill experience. Our first real course started with our jubilant waiter carrying over a six-foot tall sunflower and telling us how when he himself thought that sunflowers were good for nothing but seeds and flowers. Apparently Barber was sick of the waste so he decided to use the whole damn thing. We were served a sunflower marrow which was truly wonderful, just salty enough, pleasingly nutty, slightly floral. This was accompanied by a “sunflower pancake” that was among the best breads I’ve ever eaten–picture a cross between a biscuit and a pancake and a croissant, gloriously nutty, buttery, and dense.

Blue Hill is known for uprooting you for a course or two. We were taken to the kitchen (which was honestly a small bummer.) Though it was fun to watch the thirty or so cooks in action, we had to stand for a good fifteen or twenty minutes at a cleared off bar space. While there, our waiter pulled out a delicata squash and told us that only thirty percent of delicatas are big enough to be commercially sold. As you can imagine, that fact upset Barber a good deal. So we were served delicata squash in three different stages: small, medium, and large. The small delicatas were sliced into tiny slivers and served with sorrel and ricotta. The mediums were paired with strawberry and cheddar. The big guy was tempura’ed. And of course the stalks shouldn’t go to waste! Those were chopped thin and served as a sort of pasta with a bolognese sauce that would not rival anything at Felix. While we were in the kitchen, we noticed a couple cooks firing this beautiful and massive lamb shank. Alas, it wasn’t for us. That’s another thing about Blue Hill–you will frequently see your neighbors eating dishes that you aren’t.

Back to the dining room. Next up was corn risotto which consisted of slightly chewier than normal corn kernels, a huitlacoche paste, and whelks. A superb dish, this wonderfully married the earthy, almost pungent huitlacoche with the slight brine of the whelks and the sweetness of the corn. This was served along a buttered chunk of corn on the cob that was, without a doubt, the best corn of my life. The ingredients at Blue Hill really can be splendid.

I made note of a ginger and tomato spaghetti, which was effervescent, though not particularly memorable.

Then we moved on to what could be described as the “genetically modified” portion of the dinner menu. There was a beet on display that had been engineered to have all the “earthiness” removed from it. What you got was a sweet beet that they served raw, as if it was a fruit. It was fine. I prefer beets to taste like beets.

Then we were presented with “red egg roulette.” Basically, me and my wife each picked an egg. One of them had a red egg yolk due to the chickens eating exclusively red peppers. A few minutes later, the waiter returned with the cooked eggs in a sort of bean stew. For those among of us who have had a “frijoles” dish at Taco Maria, this was much inferior to a Carlos Salgado production.

Now what has been missing from our meal up to this point? Meat! We were a good 2.5 hours in and had had no meat except for some foie. Thankfully, we got some pork from the free-ranging pigs that they breed on the farm. On the tour the next day, we saw these pigs. They really do lead good lives. We were given four different cuts: shoulder, jowl, eye socket, and snout. The shoulder was closest to a chop, wonderfully grilled, simply prepared. The jowl was a fattier cut trembling in its own juices. The eye socket was rather dense and slightly offal-y. In my opinion, the pick of the lot was the snout, which was crispy much like well done lechon. The pork was served alongside some plums and kumquats.

Somewhere in here was a bread course. Given the fact that Barber has all these crazy grains he’s come up with, you’d have expected the incredible. For whatever reason, this was much inferior to the bread served at Blue Hill in the city. My piece was crispy to the point of being quite brittle. The butter was strained and served alongside fresh buttermilk. Super milky.

Next up was more squash. (If you don’t like squash, don’t come in September.) It was dipped in beef fat and aged for two weeks and accompanied by slices of beef sausage and a heady and delightful veal marrow. We were then presented with two fatty cuts of pastrami, which were delightful, and at this point, given that both of us were insanely full, rather hard to eat!

Finally, let’s talk about the desserts, which were the consensus lowpoint of the meal, due to a combination of bad service and a slight lack of inspiration. At this point, my wife had been trying to flag down a waiter to order a drink from for a good fifteen minutes. The servers (of which there are a good ten or more that stop by throughout the meal) drop off dishes so quickly that it was really difficult to actually ask anything. When you’re paying what amounted to well over 700 dollars for two people, this should obviously not be an issue.

Now remember, at the beginning of the meal, we were asked what we did not like to eat. The only thing I said was chocolate. So the first dessert comes. It’s a glorious honey semifreddo presumably made with the honey from the apiary and cream from the dairy cows. To my dismay, it was then drenched in chocolate.

Next up was milk three ways. Basically, there was a milk jam, a milk ice cream, and this super intense and sugary caramel-like thing? Anyway, it came with a crispy and brittle “milk crepe” and strawberries, pickled grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and honey. This was quite good–though without the glory of some of the best fruit in the country, it wouldn’t have been quite so spectacular. I guess what I’m saying is that the milk three ways in it of itself wasn’t that great. In my opinion, it falls rather short of the famed milk and honey from Nomad, while clearly operating in the same space.

And finally, for our final bites, a piping hot loaf of chocolate bread. What the hell! Why the hell would you ask me what I did not like to eat if you are going to completely disregard what I said? We left this almost entirely uneaten. Am I being unreasonable in being bummed out by this?

So, a final verdict? Blue Hill was wonderful and in an era of global warming and crop shortages and what not, it seems vitally important. The splendor of the product is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It can give you revelatory moments–the best corn of your life, a perfect grape, a stunning sunflower dish. But it can also lead to dishes in which the kitchen seems to be trying too hard to communicate a certain ethos. I didn’t need seven variations of squash. The non-earthy beets were mediocre. So too was a pepper that had been genetically modified to not be spicy.

I bet a more important diner than me enjoyed a life-changing lamb chop.

This is a particularly difficult meal for me to judge. You are entirely subject to the season and what’s available to the Blue Hill crew. We had ONE seafood dish. No fish, no oysters, nothing but whelks. Some ingredients were featured so often it almost felt like a meal at Maude. The highs were spectacular, the lows were simply mediocre. As a whole, it was a remarkably approachable meal. Not a single dish (unless you were averse to foie like the table next to us) could be described as challenging. There is no funk, no spice, nothing that you haven’t seen (at least in an inferior version) before.

Still, I find myself desperate to go back, despite the fact that for such an expensive meal, it certainly had more flaws than most comparable places. It is invigorating and inspiring to eat so closely with the season, to literally be able to walk ten minutes in any direction and find 90 percent of your meal.

You should go.


#2

Great review. Good to know they’re still serving their guests raw fennel stalks.


#3

It was so awkward. I had no idea what to do with it, even though I’d heard of the practice before (perhaps from one of your comments somewhere!)


#4

Perhaps you saw this post


#5

That was the one!


#6

Thanks for your report. You may want to go back, but based on what you’ve said about the service, I certainly will not. Paying that much money, having them ask you what you don’t like and then featuring that ingredient in your desserts is unforgivable, in my opinion.