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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