Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tomato Terroir - New York City entry #3

Ten years ago a dining companion and I shared a memorable evening at Simpson’s on the Strand, that quintessential British restaurant in the heart of London’s West End. I rank the evening:

1) Yorkshire Pudding (very delicious)
2) Dining Companion (very beautiful)
3) Service (very British)

Much of the charm of Simpson’s is its sense of place: to dine is to bathe with British aristocracy. The food was ideally paired with our cultural imagination.

Some restaurants attempt to capture an idea: a place, a time. Among current New York restaurants, Blue Hill is one that strives for the truth of terroir. And, so, after the span of a decade, D.C. and I selected Blue Hill for a post-S.o.t.S. meal.

I will gain few admirers by a modest proposal to ban anyone under thirty from public spaces, but Thomas Hobbes had a point when he critiqued social life as a “buzzing, booming confusion.” Blue Hill started life as a West Village speakeasy, and much of this busy bustle remains. As the evening progressed and the restaurant emptied, the space became increasingly soothing. We could finally appreciate the place. Blue Hill indicates that they have fifty-five seats, but sounds echoed.

Blue Hill’s claim to culinary fame is their stated commitment to local, seasonal food and to sustainable agriculture. Many of their vegetables are grown on Executive Chef Dan Barber’s farmstead in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, what they described as “nature at its best.” One admires the commitment to quality that results from raising one’s own produce, but I reject the ardent claim that a salad will be more conjugal if my mixed greens once shared the same bed.

I came to feel that Blue Hill wanted to proclaim their virtue by including too many herbs, greens, and vegetables in each dish as if to suggest: look at our cornucopia. What a plot of land! Still, aside from self-satisfaction, Blue Hill is a superior restaurant and a worthy addition to New York dining.

Our amuse bouche was a simple glass of cool pureed corn soup. It was silky smooth, showcasing the essence of corn. It was very pleasant, indeed, although perhaps not sufficiently savory as to be a perfect amuse. It lulled the senses, not awakened them. The dominant taste was the liquid purity of the corn itself. I am somewhat embarrassed to relate that in its one note, it reminded me of Moto’s infamous Doughnut Soup. The selection was also peculiar in that Blue Hill serves a more robust Chilled Corn Soup as an appetizer. Given that my D.C. ordered that Corn Soup, why serve a second corn soup as an amuse? All corn, all the time.

The appetizer soup (“Chilled Corn Soup, Preserved Tomatoes, Marinated and Pickled [Enoki?] Mushrooms) was exceptionally delicious, and the most memorable course of the evening. The soup was flecked with caviar and the pickled mushrooms provided an unexpected but welcome tang. The signature of Chef Cuevas’s cuisine [Juan Cuevas is chef at the Greenwich Village Blue Hill] is a willingness to experiment with unexpected tastes - herbal, pungent, and candied. These dishes are designed to surprise and inspire, while remaining within the canons of contemporary dining.

I selected “Maine Crabmeat Salad, Green Tomato Marmalade, Preserved Tomatoes, Basil, White Eggplant Confit, Chilled Tomato Consomme.” As the ingredient list suggests, this is a dish that creates honeyed memories. Each bite of tomato marmalade, each taste of summery basil transformed the sweet crabmeat into a confection. Less successful was the pool of consomme that surrounded the cylinder of crab salad. Consomme may now be the preferred term for “vegetable water.” The water had strong notes of cucumber and zucchini, and perhaps the diluted liquid was intended as a naturopath’s gazpacho. The effect was to create a culinary bog at the waterline. Crab surely has enough moisture without such misguided assistance.

“Poached Hudson Valley Duck, Stew of Organic Carrots Cooked in Their Own Juices with Toasted Spices and Portobello Mushrooms” was a signal success in its refusal to embrace the cliches of duck preparation. The sliced duck breast was robed by a rich carrot jus (perhaps Blue Hill has now perfected carrots with butter in their veins, but I suspect the carrots were goosed by the chef). The sauce was flavored with chives and fennel, which along with the mushrooms, gave the duck a welcome touch of bitterness, undercutting the common treatment of duck as dessert.

Our second entree was less successful (“Wild Striped Bass, Pistou of Summer Vegetables and Pureed Basil”). A pistou is a vegetable stew that demands the chef thoughtfully consider which produce belongs together. I felt that the choice of vegetables were selected to show off Blue Hill’s farm, rather than for aesthetic reasons. The problem was less the taste than the texture (the slab of bass was fresh and properly cooked). Any chef who combines lima beans, broccoli, yellow squash, and field peas plays a dangerous game. Well-cooked lima beans have a delightful snap, but they can’t avoid the slightly grainy texture that make children and gourmets intensely suspicious. With a soft vegetable like squash, the odd edges of broccoli, and firm peas, the stew might have been vegan leftovers.

Our shared dessert was also texturally challenged. I am always amused when a menu places quotation marks around a dish, preparing diners for a full serving of irony. Here was “‘Strawberries and Cream,’ Ice, Jam and Puree, Lemon Cake and Crunchy Almonds.” Ice? Jam? Crunchy Almonds? We ordered it, and so caveat emptor. The play of tastes was compelling, but next time 86 the ice.

No wine tonight, but a smooth, yet tangy, sake: “Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Sake, ‘Limited Release,’ Akita, Japan.” Sake is today’s Sauvignon Blanc. When not ordering a bottle of wine, I often select a fine sake, which I find, when well made, enhances most foods.

Blue Hill is a restaurant that demands to be taken seriously. As a mid-priced restaurant ($115/two), it delivers creativity that one might expect with a steeper tag. The chef may be too taken with the idea of displaying local produce for its own sake, but there are far more foolish claims that believing that the land speaks through the response of our senses.

Blue Hill Restaurant
75 Washington Place
New York, NY 10011

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