It was one of those meals that afterwards compels you to sneak clandestinely into an anonymous pizzeria to satisfy your only partially satiated desire to eat. Collectively, you and your cohorts stand in the florescently lit restaurant exchanging mixed looks of guilt and bliss. The constant din of an emphatic soccer announcer emanates from a flickering television set and, as always, there is that one seemingly misplaced poster of a heavily made-up Greek woman with platinum blonde hair, reaching out to offer you a gyro. Your body is hunched over to ensure that the constant drip of orange grease that accompanies every folded piece of New York pizza stays well clear of your now-loosened tie and dress shoes. The perfect night-cap.
This is not, I assure you, a reflection on the overall quality or amount of pleasure I took from a recent meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, NY, but rather a comment on the specific philosophy behind the food of Chef Dan Barber and his associates. For it is not Barber’s intention to merely fill you up like a car at a gas station (the aforementioned pizzeria will work just fine for that), but to engage you in a larger conversation of all things seasonal, local and organic.
The food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (hereafter referred to as BHSB) is as much a representation of its surroundings on an 80-acre farm in upstate New York as it is by any of Barber’s notions of fine dining. Located on an estate built for the Rockefeller family in the 1930′s, the restaurant’s main dining room is housed in a once defunct now magnificent stone farmhouse with an interior resembling a page out of a Pottery Barn catalog. The walls are framed by windows that encourage diners to gaze out across the rolling verdant pasture dotted with grazing sheep and cattle. It’s quaint and reminds one of our simpler agrarian past. However, the picturesque setting serves far more than mere scenery, as the livestock and the vegetables raised and grown on the farm provides nearly all of the fresh produce and meat used by the restaurant.
While not entirely revolutionary in its nature, the impact of what Barber and his peers have achieved on the worlds of gastronomy and agricultural sustainability by cultivating a self-sustaining system has been immense, earning Barber and the restaurant countless accolades. He has developed a cuisine that not only draws upon a rich and deep culinary tradition, but also encompasses notions of the Jeffersonian Yeoman farmer, as well as the collective rhetoric of the entire locavore and farm-to-table movement. A meal at BHSB is as much of a representation of Thomas Keller and Alice Waters as it is of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry.
BHSB is not the type of restaurant where one can arrive intending to order a specific dish. On the menu there are no appetizers, entrees or side dishes to choose from because, in fact, there is no menu to speak of — at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, one’s dining experience is typified by what is refered to as a “Farmer’s Feast,” a long procession of small dishes that are derived from what the farm has to offer that day. The menu is laid out in such a fashion that one must surrender to the capable hands of Barber and the farm’s bounty.
The amuses bouche offer immediate insight into what Barber is planning to communicate in the meal. The first of which to arrive is refered to as “Vegetables on a Fence,” and consists of unadorned micro-vegetables plucked straight from the soil. A far cry from the obligatory platter of cut vegetables presented at any large social gathering, this crudite of sorts has a fleeting sweetness found only in food harvested just a few hours ago. Sprayed only with salt water to highlight the vegetables’ innate qualities, the dish — if you can call it that — serves as the introductory paragraph to Barber’s main argument: let the farm’s produce speak for itself, and the rest will follow. And it does. Barber, who has a B.A. in English from Tufts University, has often refered to his degree as, “a useless venture.” Despite this, I would surmise that he gets more use out of the degree than he thinks; the manner by which Barber methodically lays out and organizes his meals is fitting only to that of a master essayist, with each subsequent course acting as a supporting argument to Barber’s thesis.
Presented next, a raw egg yolk covered with a gossamer thin layer of lardo (cured pig fat). Fiendishly brilliant in conception, it lacked in execution. After what was likely the result of too much time under the heat lamp, the texture of the yolk was slightly congealed leaving an unpleasent feeling on the roof of one’s mouth. It was overly salty and necessitated a large sip of water.
Savory and tasting of the soil from which they came, Barber’s well known miniature beet burgers followed. These golf-ball sized sandwiches have the capacity to transform anyone unsure about their fondness towards beets into an enthusiast. To a similar effect, skewers of braised salsify with pancetta are also excellent, a haute version of what one might imagine Barber would serve at his Superbowl party. One would be content to forego the rest of the entire menu just to snack on these for the duration.
Described simply as “Roots ‘n Fruits,” this dish is another distillation of BHSB’s basic philosophy. A salad of thinly sliced root vegetables and fruits are artfully arranged into a mosaic and served with a vinaigrette and small pearls of fish roe. It’s delicate and refreshing, but again a bit too salty.
Fresh brioche served with a kale marmalade followed with almost seemless timing. A waiter approached and began spooning out fresh ricotta to accompany the bread. As he carefully separated the curd from the milky whey, he waxed poetic about the daily lives of the 15 cows that produced the milk, going as far to describe the dietary preferences of the bovines. It is in this practice that BHSB could be accused of airing on the side of pretension, but this oft-suffered fate is avoided by the genuine compassion and desire of the wait staff to communicate the narrative of the food’s origins to the diners.
The contents of the table were cleared away, and two rather large fish heads were set in front of us. At a time in gastronomy defined by fanciful presentations and the modernist techniques of those like Ferran Adria, Barber is happy to forgo many of these practices, in favor of simple presentations that do not convolute the integrity of the dish. At BHSB there are no gimmicks: no liquid nitrogen, no foams, and no chemicals requiring a college level course in organic chemistry (shudders) to decifer. However, of all the dishes presented, this one arguably relied most heavily on its shock-value. As you might expect, one experiences a rather visceral reaction when your food stares right back at you. But again, the quality and preparation of the food wins out. Armed only with chopsticks, we peeled back the skin of the fish’s head to find flakey, tender flesh lodged in pockets of its skull. “This is the optic nerve,” my once squeamish younger brother declared, holding up the marble sized eyeball as if having discovered buried treasure.
Egg yolks again, this time succeeding dismissing the pretense of their prior manifestation. Served with pancetta and celery root under a bed of grated parmesan cheese, the raw yolk freely runs and combines with the other ingredients to create a warm and deeply satisfying ragout. A case where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The last of the savory courses followed, a tasting of Berkshire pork, raised only yards away from the dining room. Barber’s penchant for making use of every square inch of an animal is well established, and accompanying the more traditional cuts of loin and belly were a link of blood sausage and the pig’s snout. Each were flawlessly prepared and highlighted the diversity of textures and flavors of the pig in all of its porcine glory.
In a fashion perfectly befitting the meal thus far, the menu concludes as it began. To ensure that his point has been thoroughly driven home, Barber simply presents an apple picked on the premises still in its corer for guests to pick at while they linger over coffee.
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The bleats and squeals of the livestock can be heard as one drives down the restaurant’s gravel path and passes the farm’s barns and greenhouses. The smile that had been a permanent fixture throughout the meal begins to ebb, and is slowly replaced by a subtle feeling of guilt caused by the realization that you may have been complicit in the removal one of their brother or sisters, only to appear on your plate hours later. You are reassured, however, that they died for a noble cause. Shoulders are shrugged, belts are loosened and the car’s radio plays. Such is life — or at least Barber’s idyllic view of it