Thursday, January 19, 2006

BHSB2: Return to Stone Barns

Since Adam goes back to school this weekend, we wanted to do another dinner at Stone Barns before he left. We wondered if we would be remembered from our last visit, but weren't sure how to find out. Luckily, we didn't have to do anything at all. We were seated right away, and I noticed the maitre d' who had shown us the kitchen on our last visit speaking to our waiter immediately before he (the waiter) came to our table. Since the waiter greeted us with a casual familiarity instead of the normal "so, is this your first time dining with us" routine, I suspected that the maitre d' had recognized us and told the waiter (who looked like a cross between Christian Asmar and Jimmy Kimmel). This was confirmed when the maitre d' himself came to the table to welcome us back and say that "the chef would like to cook for you tonight." We were going to do the tasting menu anyone (not realizing that the menu had changed since our last visit), but how can you say no to that? So, we specified that we don't eat meat or poultry, and without knowing what to expect from there...

Cocktail sidebar: I ordered the "carnivale" cocktail, which included some sort of pumpkin puree, campari, orange juice and least, I think it was vodka. Couldn't really taste a lot of the alcohol, but it was very interesting, savory and refreshing (odd, I know). I could really taste the pumpkin. Adam ordered the elderflower champagne cocktail, which he had before, tasted pretty much like a slightly off (not in a bad way) champagne.

We were brought an array of amuses to start. I'm not sure if this (and the petite fours at the end) are part of the newly revamped restaurant (they were closed last week for "renovations" in the kitchen - no idea what - and the menu structure is totally changed) or a tasting menu perk. Anyway, in the order they were set down:
-celery root soup: warm, as good as could be expected, don't love celery flavor
-herbed parmesan crisps on a stick (so they looked like giant lacy lollipops): as advertised, but I'm the perfect audience for that sort of thing
-whole mini white turnip: ate the green too, plain but crunchy and fresh, better as a concept ("here! eat this lovely fresh vegi from our garden") than an actual amuse
-fresh sardine on spice bread: amazing, and I expected to think it was awful. The spice bread tasted almost like gingerbread (but with a softer, breadier texture), and you could taste the freshness of the sardine for all its fishy saltiness. Baffling, but it worked
-beet "burger": beet tartar on a mini bun, surprisingly sweet, with just a hint of mustard

The first course of our tasting was a large sardine with a sauce of soy beans, apple, fennel, and parsley. It was a bright green color from the soy beans and parsley, and each flavor of the sauce was detectable on its own while blending together in a light, wonderful combination. Had it been with some other fish, I think this could have vied with the second course as my favorite of the meal. However, while I now appreciate sardine as something more than just the slimy, canned, absolutely foul pizza topping, I am not a fan of its strong taste.

The second course was fluke with roasted fennel, blood orange, and mustard. The sauce was a bit sour on its own - I wasn't sure at first if the citrus was grapefruit or orange, but it worked amazingly well with the delicious fluke. Fluke isn't a fish with which I'm familiar in its cooked form, as my only previous experience with it has been in ceviche form (like the appetizer at Le Bernardin, which I had enjoyed last Christmas). This was our favorite of the meal.

The third course was ricotta ravioli (in a gnocchi style, not sure what made it ravioli) with parmesan foam, pureed sweet potato, roasted chestnut, and mini brussel sprouts. I have no idea where Stone Barns gets these mini brussel sprouts (having never seen them in a store), but I love them in any way they are included in a dish. This very wintry vegetarian dish was perfectly suited to my tastes, and I enjoyed it a great deal. However, it wasn't surprising in the way that Barber's outstanding fish dishes can be. The chestnuts were oddly starchy, almost dry tasting (in the way that a wine is "dry," not actually a wetness classification), which were interesting with the richness of other parts of the dish.

The fourth course was a faro stew with "two hour" poached egg on top. I'm not sure how an egg is poached for that long, but the results was a creamy, light, so-barely-cooked-it-melts-on-your-plate garnish. The taste of cinnamon was pleasantly and surprisingly strong in this stew, which was much better than the faro dish Allison had on our last visit. The whole thing was very comfortable and hearty, another excellent winter vegetarian dish. I am starting to have a greater appreciation for faro, a grain that I've often associated with too "granola" for my taste vegan cooking.

The last savory dish was poached lobster with cabbage. Since we weren't really sure how many courses to expect, this was a pleasant, not-entirely-expected end to the savory part of the meal. The large pieces of poached lobster were soft and succulent, and the cabbage, which had been stewed overnight in port and raspberry vinegar was a nicely sweet-and-tart accompaniment. I'm not usually one to rave about lobster (just not my thing), but I really loved this preparation of it.

We did the cheese assortment before dessert, since I've never had their cheese and was in the mood. The cheese itself was good but not outstanding: a fixed combination of a cheddary cheese with a smooth, fruity jelly, a creamy, rinded (is that a word? it had a rind) goat with candied pecans, and a mild stilton with pickled fennel. The condiments were suprisingly good, especially the pickled fennel. I'm now will to declare that I don't actually dislike fennel.

We ordered our regular desserts, but were first brought a pre-dessert of apple cider gelee, apple puree, and a green apple sorbet. This was similar in structure to the quince dessert from our last visit, but the execution was much better. It was a fresh, light palate cleanser that I ate in its entirety, enjoying each part and the combination of textures and apple flavors. We ordered the same pumpkin souffle, again enjoying it. Our second choice was the seckel pear, which was poached and stuffed with walnuts, with a walnut cake and saffron sabayon. The walnut stuffing was a good addition to an otherwise very normal poached pear, but it was an enjoyable dish nonetheless.

For the first time in our Stone Barns experience, there were petit fours at the end of the meal: coconut-coated marshmellows (loved them!) and cocoa-coated almonds (a bit bitter in the way of real cocoa powder, very good but I think Adam enjoyed them more than I did - I was just too full).

Needless to say, the service was excellent throughout the meal, with both an attentive waiter and a maitre d' who stopped by a few times to check in and chat. Unsure of what to expect from the bill, since we hadn't seen a menu, we were pleasantly surprised to see that although we'd been charged $125 for the tasting menu, they had deducted $100 from the bottom of the check. We asked to see the menu after paying the bill (which has been completely restructured) and realized we'd essentially gotten a 5 course tasting for the price of the 3 course. I'm not sure where the $125 figure came from (not listed on the menu), but can't complain. Sadly, since Adam will be back in Cambridge for the foreseeable future, I'm not sure when we will return, but I can't wait!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Del Posto Birthday

As Helen is pretty much our only foodie friend in New York (sadness), Adam and I decided that we would take her out for dinner as a combination Chrismukkah/birthday gift (she's an Epiphany baby). After many fruitless conversations about where to go, Helen decreed that while she wouldn't pick a restaurant (drat!), we ought to go to one where none of us had previously eaten. Places to which we had been considering returning, including Bouley and Stone Barns, were out, so we decided on Del Posto, the newest Batali/Bastianich endeavor.

On Friday, we got a 5:30 reservation for the following day, and practically fasted in anticipation so that we could be as hungry as possible. We drove in from White Plains, where we'd been staying with Adam's parents. The valet parking was a nice touch, especially since, at $29, it was about the cost of a garage and much more convenient on a rainy night. As the first step in Batali's bid for four stars, the room is much more grand than any of his other restaurants. It has a forties glamour, with dark, curved railings flanking the wide staircases (going both down to the wine cellar and up to the mezzanine) and the edge of the seating areas on both floors. The ceiling is two stories high, and the color scheme is all black, brown, and tan, including the geometrically tiled floor. We were shown to a table on the first floor against the windows (gauzy curtains semi-obscured the view of alley-like 16th Street). While the room is massive and obviously seats significantly more than Babbo, the tables are well spaced and the room doesn't feel crowded. I liked the decor, but Adam thought it was too stuffy and formal, reminding him of a hotel lobby. The piano music coming from the bar area was, I'll admit, a bit much.

So, by the time we sit down, everyone is famished. We start with a glass of white wine each. Wine is sold by the (rather expensive) glass instead of by the quarto as at Babbo. The cheapest ones seemed to be about $10, with most hovering in the $15 range and some going more than twice that high. I had a glass of the Quinterella (or something like that), and Adam and Helen both had something that was printed on the bill as "Fiano." Fine, but nothing astounding. Bread was actually very good. The warm-from-the-oven assortment included mini foccacia, baguettes, and crispy breadstick-like pieces. While Adam and I didn't try the whipped lardo, Helen said that it was good, bacony and smooth.

After some menu translation, we settled on four antipasti, three pastas, a risotto, and two entrees. It was a bit too much in the end, but not overwhelming, and we wanted to try as many things as possible. The waitress was very helpful in telling us which dishes did not include meat (not many, especially in the pasta section) and very accommodating when we asked about ordering a la carte off the tasting menu.

The antipasti course was the best in overall quality of dishes. Everyone seemed to agree that the "Carciofi alla Romana" was our least favorite. The artichokes were too crunchy for my taste (not in the nicely roasted way), requiring the use of a knife to cut and seeming barely cooked. They bore little resemblance to the deliciously roasted, marinated vegetables we remembered from our trip to Rome a year and a half ago. The pickled red onions were good, though, and the remaining liquid of olive oil, lemon, and probably some vinegar, with the spice of a little red pepper, was great for bread dipping. The "Fungi Misti with Puntarelle" was Adam and Helen's favorite, though I was torn between that and the "Cauliflower Sformato with Skate Salad." The assorted mushrooms were both tender and crisp in parts, with an array of earthy flavors expected with different varieties of good quality mushrooms. The vinaigrette included anchovies, which worried me (not an anchovy fan) but was actually fine. The bitter puntarelle was surprisingly good, especially since I normally dislike bitter greens. The cauliflower sformato was a cylinder of light, creamy flavor, and the skate salad (which included cooked spinach, grapefruit supremes, and small bits of cauliflower) was a nice mix of flavors and textures. I think I liked this so much because the sformato reminded me of an extremely airy quiche or even (and I know Adam and Helen found this a bit horrifying) a very dressed up version of one of my favorite childhood comfort foods, broccoli casserole. Our fourth appetizer was "Swordfish Carpaccio with Lemon and Borage," ordered off the seafood tasting menu. We all enjoyed this one, but didn't really rank it among the other appetizers because it is very difficult to compare directly. Good fish carpaccio is more about the quality of the fish rather than an innovative mixture of ingredients or skilled cooking. It is recommended if you love raw fish, but not if you're looking to be surprised by the dish.

Our pasta choices were, in the end, very simple. According to our waitress, there were only three options that did not include meat, so we ordered those. However, if you do eat meat, much of the menu will likely require translation. We asked, for example, what "cibreo" (with the pici) was, and were told it was a combination of testicles, coxcombs, and some other animal part that I missed amid my suppressed giggles. Yes, apparently I have a twelve-year-old's sense of humor. Oh well. One thing about the pasta menu that we did find a bit puzzling was the option at the bottom of the list. For $23 and $27/person respectively, you can have a choice of two or three pastas for the table. It is unclear to me why any party of more than a person or two would do this, as it just doesn't make economic sense if you would order a dish a person anyway. There are only two pastas that cost $27 or more, and we were told that the "for the table" portions per person were "slightly less than a third" of a normal order. Also, the waitress said that they would split normal orders between plates if we requested it. In the end, our three pastas ended up averaging less than $23 a person and we were happy to pass our plates around the table.

So, on to what we actually ordered. Helen was insistent, even before we realized how our meatlessness limited our options, on the "Spaghetti with Crab, Scallions, and Jalapeno." This sounds like a very innovative combination, and it was good. I like the prominent use of scallion in many dishes we tried, and the spice of the jalapeno added an unusual heat to a pasta dish. The pasta was a bit on the al dente side, however, and the crab, which didn't seem to be of the most overwhelming good quality (not bad, just not amazingly fresh) didn't seem to add a great deal. I think it would have been just as good (and probably a good bit cheaper) to have the dish without the crab. The "Ricotta and Chard Nudi with Caciocavallo" was very good, but in the way of comfortable, homey dishes that are exactly what you expect them to be. The butter could have been a little more browned and the grating of caciocavello could have been a little more generous, but the gnudi were nicely plump and pillowy. Caciocavello is a mild cow's milk cheese, and not head cheese, as I had guessed from my knowledge of other ingredients used on the menu and a shot-in-the-dark attempt at translation from a language I do not speak. The "Gnocchi with Passato and Pesto" got a bit of a three bears review. Adam thought the passato (a tomato sauce) was among the best he'd ever had, I thought it wasn't quite sweet enough, and Helen thought it was too sweet. I had assumed from the menu that it would be a mixed tomato and basil sauce, but instead half the gnocchi were dressed with the passato and half with a thick pesto. Still, the gnocchi were a perfect texture and this dish falls into the same simple but good category as the gnudi.

Before our main courses, we had the "Risotto with lobster." All the risottos are listed as for two or more, and this one served up a hearty portion for three. The flavors of this dish were excellent, rich and red with nice chunks of lobster and a good use of sliced scallion for a fresh, oniony tang. As a testament to the kitchen's risotto-making skills, however, it was a sad disappointment. The rice was too crunchy, and excess liquid made it almost soupy rather than the thickly creamy as risotto ought to be.

Sometime before the entrees, Helen and Adam both ordered a glass of red wine. The waitress got descriptions and they ordered without looking at the menu again, though she did offer to bring it. Adam's fine Barola, we later learned, bore an unmerited $35 price tag. Helen got a Bastianich Vespa Rosso, which came out of a new bottle and needed to sit for a bit to mellow a scotch-like sharpness.

By the time entrees arrived, Helen and I were starting to struggle with fullness and I was relieved we had only ordered two. The black bass came on a bed of mushrooms (there were also crispy bits on top), tomato, and a bright green scallion puree with some larger scallion pieces in it. This dish was probably the best of the entire meal. Again, I loved the use of those scallions. The "Cod with Hake Mantecato and Clam Salad" vied with the artichokes for the worst of the meal. The Cod itself was plain, on the mantecato, which was a creamy pool that had a nice texture but lacked strong flavor. The clam salad turned out to be three clams on their shell (which were a bit fishy), a few pieces of dark red grapefruit, and small slices of artichoke. This is one of those dishes that is decent if you get a bit of everything in the bite, but once we'd finished the so-called salad, no one was eager to eat the remaining, rather boring fish.

Before dessert, we did the selection of three parmesians (2 year, 4 year, and 6 year). I was disappointed that there wasn't a more extensive selection of cheeses (especially since Otto has a good one), but the parmesians were good. Condiments were tasty: a spicy marinated pear slice with horseraddish, a wonderful 25-year-old balsamic, a lambrusco jelly, and a piece of honeycomb in a pool of rich honey.

Nothing jumped out at me from the dessert menu, which I always find disappointing. We were tempted by the zabaglione, which we could see being made is copper pots at a station next to our table, but decided against it after Helen chose the "Budino di Fichi: Warm Fig Pudding, Pomegranate Sorbetto, Zabalione, Salty Caramel." This was our favorite of the desserts. While the caramel was not a prominent flavor, the cake was moist and rich and the sorbet was good. The "Kremeschnitte: Semolina Mousse, Celery Marmellata, Celery-Apple Sorbetto" was the most interesting dessert. The semolina mouse had a thick, almost gritty (but not in a bad way) texture that was surprisingly good, and it was sandwiched between these great cookies made from puffed pastry that had been weighted down during baking so that they were crisp and flaky. That's a baking trick I will definitely try at home. The celery-apple sorbetto was very light and refreshing, though the candied celery wasn't particularly good. Celery, while creative in a dessert, is not really an ingredient that I ever think adds much to a dish. My least favorite dessert was was the "Palacinke: Chesnut Crepes, Persimmon Semifreddo, Rum Glassato." The crepes were pretty plain, not stuffed with anything. The rum flavor was too strong for my taste and overwhelmed the semifreddo and crepes.

Finally, after dessert, the extensive petite four cart was rolled over. This was a meal highlight, in my opinion. There were probably about 12-15 different treats, and we asked to try all of them. My favorites were a light, crisp orange meringue, sour cherry and passion fruit gelees, and a mint pastille. More interesting offerings included rosemary shortbread, pignoli nut cookies, and anise biscotti, though the pignoli cookies were the only of these that we particularly liked. There were some rich chocolate-based offerings if that's your preference (it wasn't ours).

After lingering over tea and petite fours, we didn't leave our table until 10:00PM. Although we were a bit late for our reservation, that was still over three and a half hours of solid eating plus the time we remained even after the check was paid. Service was attentive throughout the meal (the staff is very extensive), but at no time did we feel rushed through our meal or out the door. The star-struck foodie in us was minorly thrilled by Lidia's almost constant wandering through the dining room, and even an appearance by Mario at a neighboring table. However, given this celeb presence, we were disappointed in the food. Nothing was bad, and some things were very good, but it was not what we had hoped for or would expect from a place that covets four stars. I am willing to acknowledge that if we ate his meat dishes, we might have had an entirely different experience. Still, given that it is more expensive (though only slightly) and more formal than any of Batali's other restaurants, if you're looking for great Italian, go to Babbo. I am glad to have tried it, but won't be heading back anytime soon.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Best Thing About Suburbia: Blue Hill at Stone Barns

One of my favorite New York restaurants isn't in Manhattan at all. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is located in Pocantico Hills, New York (I believe it is near Tarrytown) on the old Rockefeller Estate. Dan Barber, of NYC's Blue Hill, opened the restaurant in a complex of renovated stone buildings (hence the name), and his menu is heavily influenced by the produce and animals raised right on the estate's farm. As a result, many dishes will feature the same seasonal ingredients. Since Adam's parents live in Westchester, Stone Barns is a convenient drive when we stay with him. For Adam's birthday, we all went out to dinner there. This was Adam's fourth visit and my third, and it never fails to impress us. The menu is priced by two, three, or four courses, and you can pick any dishes to make up those courses. We did four courses each, covering everything on the menu that Adam and I would eat.

For our first course, we had the "Winter fennel, marinated button mushrooms, pistachios, cauliflower and this morning's soft/fried farm egg." The ingredients, as always, were fresh and delicious. On our previous visits, we had gotten the 11 herb salad with the egg. Bottom line, order whatever salad incarnation contains the fried egg, you cannot go wrong there. The "Maine Crab bean vinaigrette and yogurt sorbet" was better than I had excepted from the description, with the beans adding a surprisingly bright, slightly crunchy texture to the otherwise soft salad.

Second course was the "Cauliflower Soup...white tomato parfait and poached shrimp." The soup was a nicely warm contrast to the previous courses, and the shrimp were tender. I don't particularly like plain cauliflower (though I wonder if anyone does, it's pretty boring), but this soup was rich and flavorful. The "Hardwood Island Mussels...marinated fennel, pistachios and saffron tapioca" were a surprising dish. The shelled mussels rested in a bath with a hint of sweetness, including champagne vinegar (though I don't think that accounts for it, but I've forgotten what else the waiter mentioned) . The saffron tapioca didn't have as much flavor as I would have expected/liked, but they added a nice texture.

The third course had the "Farona Beet Fettuccine...poached maine lobster and beet sauce." I hadn't been quite sure what to expect from this one, but we ordered it because it sounded interesting (and didn't contain meat). The fettuccine itself red streaked with (presumably) beet juice and had the lovely tenderness of fresh pasta. The chunks of lobster were large and succulent, and the thick, red beet sauce was slightly sour and surprisingly good with the lobster. The other dish with this course was probably the most disappointing of the meal (or of any meal we've had at Stone Barns): "Wild Striped Bass...pistou of winter vegetables." While the pea broth was good, the bass was a bit tough to cut (though it tasted fine) and the vegetables (an assortment that included bits of cauliflower) seemed like it could have come out of a frozen package. I imagine that they didn't, but the dish would have been better without the boring assortment.

The fourth course had the best dish of a very good meal: "Sturgeon...celery root puree, hedge hog mushroom and lobster-turnip sauce." The sturgeon had a wonderful smoked flavor that added an unexpected dimension to the flavors of the mushrooms and sauce. I wanted to savor every last taste off this plate. The other fish in this course was the "Poached Cod...crushed fingerling potatoes, portobello confit, braised fennel, capers, cauliflower and almond sauce." Adam had eaten a similar entree on his one trip to Blue Hill in the city (I wasn't there), and he was a fan. While I really liked the mushrooms in this one, the caper flavor was a bit strong for my taste. However, I recognize that it's still pretty good, and if you like capers, you'll probably think it's fantastic. Allison also had a vegetarian farro dish (not on the menu) that was prepared like a risotto with vegetables. Pretty good, in a hearty grain sort of way.

Sadly, Laurie and Allison decided against dessert, which meant two fewer things we could try. However, I immediately settled on the "Pumpkin Souffle...poached cranberries and ginger cookie." The souffle came out and it wasn't in a ramekin! We were baffled as to how it had been done, musing on parbaking. It wasn't as tall as a ramekin souffle, but was still light and delicious. We later found out that they chill it, wrapped in plastic, and then remove the plastic for baking and it keeps its shape. Definitely need to attempt this at home. Anyway, the souffle was atop the ginger cookie, with a layer of pure pumpkin between the cookie and the souffle that probably served a structural purpose of some sort but had the benefit of adding a hint of greater pumpkin intensity. The cranberries tasted like an excellent cranberry sauce, in the Thanksgiving tradition, went well with pumpkin. Jerry got the "Apple Cobbler...oatmeal, cinnamon ice cream and apple cider gelee," which was very good cobbler but nothing innovative. The third dessert was the "Quince...cranberry cocktail gelee, candied almonds and farmer's cheese sabayon." This one was like a very fancy jello parfait, sort of an interesting mix of textures: the congealed gelee, chunks of quince and nuts, and the smoothness of the sabayon on top. Interesting to try, but not high on my list to have again.

Stone Barns has an interesting selection of teas and herbal infusions, and it is worth giving them a try. I had the chocolate mint tea, which had a deliciously sweet smell of chocolate and mint, though the tea itself was mostly minty.

Service throughout the meal was fine, the waiter was perfectly nice and the water glasses were frequently refilled. However, food was very slow coming out of the kitchen. While I think this was not really the waiter's fault, he could have made more of an effort to notice how long we'd been waiting between the clearing of one course and the arrival of the next (more than half an hour between second and third, and over twenty minutes on others), and at least reassured us that we hadn't been forgotten. This has never happened on previous dinners, so I'm willing to chock it up to an off night. As the food didn't suffer, no real complaints.

At the end of the meal, we asked if it would be possible to see the kitchen. The maitre d' came over after we'd paid the check and escorted us into the kitchen. He pointed out the various stations, answered our questions (including about the souffle), and was generally very gracious and pleasant. When we asked how often Barber was in the kitchen, he said pretty much every night and then asked if we'd like to meet him, calling someone to get the chef. Barber himself is a slightly goofy looking man, skinny with wild hair. He introduced himself as "Dan" and was exceedingly nice. Adam mentioned how much we love his food, having eaten here a number of times before, etc. Dan said that we should let the kitchen know when we are next in, and they'll send out something special. I'm not sure if this will come to anything, but definitely intend to find out. As we were leaving, I asked if I could have a copy of the menu, which the maitre d' happily pulled out of its leather folder and handed to me. With that sort of attention and the excellence of the food, the slowness of the meal was forgotten in my eagerness to return.
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