Saturday, July 15, 2006

Guys, Let's Put on a Meal New York City Entry #108 Blue Hill at Stone Barns/Blue Hill

The first serious meal that I ate in New York this year was at Blue Hill. So to provide symmetry my friend and I decided to return, but now to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We dutifully made a commitment and assured the reservationist that nothing could prevent us from showing up at the appointed time. And so we fought our way through Grand Central. Upon alighting in Tarrytown with plenty of time in the gray, thick, heated air, we hailed a cab to be told that a storm had blown through and traffic was slow. Yet, our cabbie was a roadmaster and we arrived at Stone Barns at precisely 5:30, just as promised.

Stop the presses! Tarrytown had just experienced what in New York passes for a tornado, not an Oklahoma Supercell, but what my friends in Tulsa call "a bit of wind." The storm knocked out local electricity. And after our long trek, we were informed by a staffette that the kitchen was closed.

Say it ain't so, Dan. At most restaurants this might be a problem, but Blue Hill should treat it as a challenge. This is a restaurant that prides itself on its ingredients. No heat? OK, let's picnic. At 5:30, there were daylight hours left and a few candles were to be had.

This was an opportunity for Dan Barber to demonstrate that cojones are not just to slice and fry. Here is where we separate the chef from the sheep. A stream of hungry diners appeared, each turned away with an apology and a smile. We were informed that the staff didn't want to enter the coolers because the food would spoil! Sheesh! An opportunity squandered!

Use that luscious asparagus, luxurious berries, oysters, clams, apples, beans, mint, lettuce, nuts, and guanciale. Whip up some Hollandaise. Who needs a blender? Pour oil and vinegar. Open some wine. Start a campfire for S'mores. Have the staff at Blue Hill downtown form a caravan. Show the customers your stuff and show it gratis.

If Chef Barber was unwilling to turn lemons into lemonade, we weren't. Returning to New York, we plotted to visit the Blue Hill farmstead in the Village. And we were welcomed by Franco, the Blue Hill manager and his congenial staff. Yes, Blue Hill had electricity, but somehow the power never satisfied the air conditioner. Blue Hill was a steaming meadow until the restaurant emptied out, and as Blue Hill is a tight restaurant with low ceilings, and absence of a cool breeze was noticeable.

Still, the meal was noticeably superior to my first meal on the Hill. Hoping to capture the Barns oeuvre, we selected the Farmer's Feast, and began with a pungent, elegant and herbal Garden Green Gazpacho. It was a nicely chilled blend of vegetables, perhaps peppers, parsley, green tomatoes, and garlic. The amuse was paired with an olive oil financier, a cake that satisfied through its subtlety and being paired with the more potent soup.

Summer Bean and Herb Salad with Pistachios and Stone Barns Lardo, another cold dish (get the point!) was the high point of the meal. This is the cuisine that Blue Hill is known for. Profound and evocative ingredients, transformed but without being gussied up. The wax and green beans were luxurious, even the parsley - not one of my beloved foodstuffs - was as bright as a garden morning. This was a delightful opening for an agricultural repast.


The Lightly Smoked Lobster with Creamless Corn Chowder, Guanciale (cured pig's jowl) and Clams was another sublime dish. Granted Lobsters are not to be found up the Hudson, but they had a freshness that compared with any local fish camp. The dish was airy, and with bright summer corn was a candidate for the ideal summer dinner. Splendid.


The Blue Hill Farm Pastured Chicken with Roasted Nugget Potatoes, Local Chanterelles and Black Trumpet Mushrooms was as fine a piece of chicken placed before me since I was last at Jean's in Mount Vernon, Kentucky for their pan-fried poultry. Here was a tender, moist, flavorful bird, succulent and sensuous. If the potatoes and mushrooms didn't improve the meat, they didn't need to.


Both desserts were a letdown. The Cherry Soup with Mint Sorbet was a mismatch. Not only was the sorbet grainy and harsh, but it clashed with the sweetness of the soup. Few sorbets are unpleasant, but this was not a dish to reprise.


Steamed Cheesecake with Marinated Blueberries was served in a mason jar. Aside from the idiosyncrasy of its presentation, it was ordinary and could benefitted from a more generous helping of the marinated berries. At a moment at which exquisite low-bush blueberries are taking flight on the hillsides of Maine, these berries were pedestrian.


Blue Hill is ingredient-given, as evident in our appetizers and entrees. And had our intended destination been the steamy streets of Washington Square Park, we would have been well-pleased. But for this night we wished to be gourmets eating on the land, and no cyclone should have upended our fantasy. Dan, you're not in Oz anymore.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, New York

Blue Hill
75 Washington Place (at 6th Avenue)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

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