Best of 2011: A Feast at Blue Hill at Stone Barns
…And we're back! My utter lack of computer savvy and a malware scare led to few months hiatus of the blog, but I managed to learn me just enough internets to patch things up. In celebration, I can finally write this post originally intended to go up at the new year to commemorate the best meal of the last year. Now, in 2011 I had many a fine meal in Beijing, all sorts of yummy street snacks in Burma, and binged on Cowgirl Creamery cheese in San Francisco. But if I had to pick the most memorable, it would be the spectacular 8-course-with-wine-pairing “Farmer's Feast” at Blue Hill at Stone Barns last fall. Yes, a mildly pretentious name for what is usually called dinner, but in this case, it was simply that, a feast from the farm.
credit: alifewortheating. See flickr for food porn shot in the daytime
Mr. Pig you see (above), resides at Stone Barns farm in upstate New York (Tarrytown, and previously the private dairy farm for the Rockfellers). He was born and raised there – feasting on only organic grains of course – and will at some point become part of a scrumptious meal at Blue Hill, the restaurant occupying the farm's restored silo and barn. (Warning: This meet-and-greet of your meal may not be for those who don't like to know their bacon was once a piglet. Guests can roam freely about the farm, and we ran into turkeys galore, more than a few sheep, and a flock of chickens. For the squeamish, there are also non-mammal ingredients to visit, such as sprightly herbs and baby carrots growing in the greenhouse.)
Blue Hill and its chef Dan Barber are famous for promoting this farm-to-table ethos of locavorism, and at Blue Hill, local eating means eating seasonally, growing nearly all ingredients on your own farm, and sourcing the rest from nearby farmers. They even have their own beehives. Stone Barns is also more than a farm, serving as a food non-profit and education center. After all this media hype, I had high, high hopes. Perhaps too high? After all, Barber was named one of Time's 100 most influential people for his culinary contributions, Blue Hill was cited as a “life-changing restaurant“ and called one of the most important restaurants in America. It all sounded suitably impressive, but it did leave me wondering if the actual FOOD was any good. Verdict? Ladies and gentleman, fear not, Blue Hill did not disappoint.
The menu is based on a daily list of seasonal, local ingredients and only offers three options: a feast of five, eight, or twelve courses. We asked the comically cordial waiter for twelve. He turned us down, kindly suggesting we stick with eight. I took that as an insult to my eating prowess, but in hindsight, it was wise. We wanted the wine pairing and had kicked off the night with a strong cocktail. . . while eight glasses of wine is doable (though I admit to being quite tipsy by course six), twelve would have rendered us incoherent and passed out on the quaint cobblestone paths. Truth be told though, six months later I still kind of lust after the four courses I'll never get to eat.
The setting was romantical, a dining room of cavernous beamed ceilings and lapping candles, plush leather and heavy linens. Not so romantical however, were my rather sad efforts to take pictures by the light of one lone candle with no memory card. Thus, dear readers, the pictures are rather shoddy, so please bear with me.
1. Chilled celery juice and tiny raw vegetables impaled oh-so-perfectly on long pins. So lovely and so very freshly plucked that I had to ask if it was meant for eating, or if it was just for presentation points. A rather appalled waitress told me it was indeed for eating, and so I brushed off the dew and the dirt, and it turns out raw baby turnips are sparky delicious.
2. Tomato sliders, on a martini glass of sesame seeds. Unexpectedly amazing. So amazing in fact, that these little babies were profiled separately (recipe here! Make it if you ever have way too much time on your hands!). Who knew tomatoes were better than hamburger in a hamburger? Not I.
3. Pork heart-and-liver terrine sandwiched by caramelized chocolate. Dammmn! Pure decadence. Sinfully heart-attack worthy.
And those were just the amuse bouches – after which the feast truly begins.
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4. To start was mullet sashimi with pig ear vinaigrette and pickled tomato. Quite a refreshing piece of lake sashimi. However, the pig's ear vinaigrette was.. a tad gelatinous and clung to my tongue. Not my favorite. There are far better to come.
5. Freshly made ricotta (from Stone Barns cows) and swiss chard marmalade, served with the most buttery, delectable piece of toasted brioche. My favorite of the appetizer set. The quality of each simple ingredient was reason enough to support the locavores. I would seriously eat a bathtub of the cheese.
6. Slow-roasted red onion, served sliced open with a smear of three sauces, including chicken liver, beet and pickle relish. I would love it even if I didn't already adore onions. How easy to forget how sweet they can be.
7. Next up was this foamy concoction of pureed eggplant topped with frothy lettuce broth and pickles, with a poached farm egg nestled sweetly in the middle. The foam was a bit bitter for my tastes, but the egg! Oh, a reminder that there are few things more naturally delicious than a fresh egg yolk.
8. Served on a plank, was a relative of Mr. Pig. One fine slice of jowl meat was enough to make us want more, and not enough to stop us eating the next four courses (we are very grateful, Chef Dan). It was, as expected, a rich slice of pork fat, lined with a sliver of the tenderest neck meat and crowned with chewy (but just a bit!) pork skin. It was, needless to say, fantastic. Oh, there was a wedge of purple potato and a few green beans tossed in - but really, who can remember sides in the face of pork fat.
9. My favorite main was this dish – Veal Five Ways. Like Mary Poppins, it was Practically Perfect in Every Way. I usually don't eat veal, not just for ethical reasons, but because I find it quite bland, though tender. But this dish was to die for. There were five cuts – tongue, hanger, filet, tenderloin, and liver. A sprinkle of sweetly sour grape relish mixed with farro danced across the plate, and all of it was lick-your-plate worthy. Even the farro, which was organic and grown next door, was intensely flavorful, an unexpected delight in a dish already packed with taste delights.
10. The first dessert was a yeast ice cream delicately topped with shaved almonds and caramel. One can't describe the taste except to say it's yeasty. The slight sourness of a loaf rising, or the aftertaste of a beer. The flavor was intriguing, and the texture of the cream was velvet. Yum.
11. By this point, I was quite drunk indeed and surprised myself when I later found I took this picture. This dessert was awesome. So awesome, that even drunk, I managed to remember all the components for posterity. A hazelnut praline tart topped with plums and caramelized white chocolate. It was slightly crunchy, airy, yet densely sweet and fragrant from the nuts. The plums were tart and offset a bit of the sweetness, and like I said, it was awesome.
After all that wine and food, a veritable forest of fresh organic herbs was wheeled to our table, our own little tisane buffet. We ordered a pot just because we saw this magical jungle being wheeled 'round and wanted to have our pick of the greens.
Now the actual end (before we wheeled ourselves out of there, the last couple in the restaurant). Petit fours were simple fare: dried nectarines and concord grapes from the farm, and I don't know if it was the grace of the meal, the fresh country air, or just the wine, but I swear, it was the best fruit I've ever tasted. I was literally bowled over and couldn't shut up about it (again, that could be the wine).
The pictures are fuzzy and lacking (blame candlelight!) and the foodie details are fuzzy and lacking (blame the eight glasses of wine!). This post then, is not a work of accuracy (or even of beauty) but rather just a rambling celebration of the joy of eating. A joy which includes the undocumentables, such as the smell of crisp fall air and the company by my side. So suffice to say this dinner – nay, this “Farmer's Feast” – at Blue Hill was marvelous, and far and away the most memorable meal of 2011.
(Thank you S.)