I recently had the great, good fortune to spend an evening dining at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., followed by a farm tour the next morning. And I shall say right now that this was the most spectacular, staggeringly creative, delicious meal I have ever had in my life.
I went with friends, Alexandra and Michael, who have been there eight times already. As almost everything served is from the farm and this is very early spring, I had visions of many, many root vegetables and not much else. Alexandra and Michael assured me there would be a great deal more variety than that. This was the understatement of the year.
There are no set menus at Blue Hill. You have a choice between two tasting menus. One is called Grazing, Pecking, and Rooting, 12 courses for $208. The other is the Farmer’s Feast, eight courses for $148. We all chose the Farmer’s Feast, which is actually far more than eight courses. So many tiny, tasty delights come out of the kitchen, it was impossible to tell which were actually courses and which were merely the chef’s whimsical ideas of the day.
Dan Barber is the executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, but I got the feeling that if Tim Burton and Wes Anderson were ever let loose in a kitchen together, this is what it would look like. If I were to tell you every single thing we were served, it would take up 2,000 words. Some of the food came out so fast and was so varied, we couldn’t scribble notes fast enough.
We began with a long wooden board studded with thin spikes. Arranged on the spikes were tiny pickled and salted baby turnips, carrots, radishes, and purple cauliflower. Next were squash blossoms and fighter spinach leaves, so called because it manages to grow outside through the harsh winters. I have never tasted such sweet spinach.
Beets and carrots were big stars throughout the meal. Beets came in the form of jerky, tartare (prepared table side and topped with a quail egg yolk), Bolognese on polenta, beet liverwurst hot dog, and tiny beet burgers.
The way the dishes were served was insane. There were big slabs of bark, slate, and tree trunks. A pot of sprouts came with scissors for snipping and was given a spritz of tarragon vinegar from a mister. Fermented vegetables came in an egg cup shaped like a chicken’s foot. Shot glasses arrived with a clear liquid, the first spring flow of maple sap. It tasted faintly resiny. There was phytoplankton and curried carrots on seed crackers, cola on corn flatbread, pickled mussels with seaweed creme fraiche, potatoes with trout caviar. A whole pepperoncini was brought out on a wooden board with an Opinel pocket knife to slice and snack on throughout the meal. One of the craziest looking dishes was a huge pizza slice-shaped slab of slate with a powder of Aleppo pepper, Parmesan, hazelnuts, and almonds as the crust. The “pizza” part was carrots, spinach, and scallions scattered about with two different sauces to drag them through. One was pale and saffrony, the other chorizo. Playing with your food is encouraged here. There was home-cured speck with juniper berries and tiny squares of pork liver sandwiched between shaved dark chocolate. Freaky weird, right? It was delicious.
Every dish was described and explained by a never-ending parade of waiters. When I first saw the sprouts and scissors and the handsome fellow with the tarragon vinegar mister, I thought, “Oh, dear, this is becoming just a bit twee,” but it really wasn’t.
One of the coolest demonstrations at the table was a contraption that was brought out to measure the sweetness of carrots, similar to that used to measure sugar in grapes, or the “brix measurement.” One was a big horse carrot, another was an organic California greenhouse carrot, the third was a Mokum carrot, grown at Stone Barns. The horse carrot measured 5.7 on the brix scale of sweetness, the organic was 6.8, and the Mokum was a staggering 15.6. Basically, you are getting an education about your food as you eat it.
About three quarters of the way through our meal, our gang was escorted out of the dining room into the dark, rainy evening. We were led through a loggia and into what used to be the manure shed. It was lit entirely with votive candles propped up in old copper kettles. Dried herbs and flowers hung from the beams. Here we were served “broccoli and cheddar,” divinely charred stems of broccoli with crispy onions and foamy cheddar sauce. Next was toasted brioche with a green marmalade made from kale and spinach, and house-made ricotta.
Then we were led back to our original table where we were served “farm tacos.” The taco shells were made from thinly shaved kohlrabi, the fillings were crispy pig’s ear, jerked brisket, seared scallops, “broccamole,” smoked sea salt with lobster roe, and watermelon and molasses sauces. After this, dainty Berkshire pork loin slices with chestnuts, rutabaga, and sour onions. Can you believe that I still haven’t described half of what we ate?
One of the things that shocked and thrilled me the most was the $148 price tag for such a remarkable meal. A person could easily spend as much at any of our better restaurants on the East End and come away having only eaten an appetizer, entree, dessert, and a glass of wine.
The meal was a long one, as tasting menus tend to be, but we didn’t get antsy or feel too full. We started at 6:30 and departed four hours later, sated and educated.
By the time desserts rolled around, my notes had become frightfully brief. Dessert was a celebration of honey in all seasons, a lavender honey ice cream, spring honey with Carolina gold rice, and a fall honey cake with fennel and pistachios. The Tim Burton-Wes Anderson touch appeared again in the form of a tiny George Nakashima-style table covered with straw and what appeared to be mushrooms, speckled eggs, rocks, caterpillars, and ladybugs. These were chocolate truffles and homemade marshmallows.
On our tour of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture the next day, we learned more about what we had dined on the night before. There were 14 baby lambs of the Finn-Dorset variety, Amber laying hens were busy in their moveable egg-mobile, and the Berkshire pigs were rooting around in the woods or sleeping happily in their barns. The fighter and ice spinaches really were growing on the cold, stony hillsides and in the comfortable greenhouses.
The Stone Barns buildings are part of the original Rockefeller family estate, Kykuit. Grosvener Atterbury designed them in the early 1930s. The Rockefellers enjoyed fresh milk.
The good work done at Stone Barns is worthy of another story. The symbiotic relationship between the for-profit restaurant and 10-year-old nonprofit farm is an extremely successful one.
All I could think about upon leaving was how soon I could come back. We had booked rooms at the nearby Sheraton in Tarrytown and they were quite reasonable.
Between the affordable hotels nearby and the spectacular meal and education you get, I would urge any and all to take a trip to Pocantico Hills to experience firsthand how the food is grown, raised, and prepared . . . with a touch of Tim Burton and Wes Anderson on the side.