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Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John D. Rockefeller amassed some 4,600 acres in the area that’s now Tarrytown. There he built his family mansion, Kykuit (pronounced KY-kit). His grandson, Nelson D. Rockefeller, bequeathed Kykuit to the National Historic Trust, which maintains it as a museum, along with hundreds of acres of parkland and nature trails. Even in its reduced state, the old Rockefeller estate is still massive, and some of the family still live there, including Happy Rockefeller, the late Governor’s widow.

The Stone Barns estate is another gem in the Rockefeller crown. It’s a former cattle farm that David Rockefeller (JDR’s last surviving grandson) has renovated and opened to the public. As the website explains:

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a beautiful non-profit farm, educational center and restaurant in the heart of Westchester County. Our mission is to demonstrate, teach and promote sustainable, community-based food production. Open to visitors of all ages, we offer a unique experience: a chance to learn about farming firsthand on a real working farm, the only farm open to the public so close to New York City.

Central to the mission is a working farm:

By contemporary measures, our farm is small, but it is well diversified and extremely productive. We manage our livestock and crops in a symbiotic relationship, attempting to mimic nature’s own methods. By working in partnership with our environment, instead of resisting its natural tendencies, we produce food without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Our only amendments to the soil are compost made from humus-rich manure, minerals and organic material. We use an intensively managed rotation method in our garden and greenhouse beds, preserving the soil and locking in important nutrients.

And lastly, there is a restaurant: Blue Hill Stone Barns. It’s a cousin to Blue Hill NYC in the Village, but the Stone Barns version emphasizes locally raised ingredients. The menu changes regularly, with many of the vegetables coming directly from the Stone Barns farm itself. They also slaughter their own chickens and pigs. To avoid complete monotony, they do obtain ingredients (such as fish, beef, and lamb) elsewhere.

The menu is simple to explain: you choose two, three, or four courses; and you pay $46, $56, or $66. Portion sizes are adjusted, so you’re getting a full meal whichever option you choose. It’s more a matter of whether you want four “tasting-menu-sized” portions, or two traditionally-sized portions, or something in between. On a recent visit, a friend and I each chose three courses.

The menu is divided into four sections, with three or four options per section. On our visit, these were labeled “Tomatoes,” “More Tomatoes,” “From the Pastures,” and “Hudson Valley Pastures.” The restaurant encourages you to ignore the traditional appetizer/entrée distinction, but the items in the first category (“Tomatoes”) were undeniably appetizers. The “More Tomatoes” category consisted of seafood dishes that included tomatoes somehow. (Can you guess which vegetable was in season?) The last two categories offered chicken and meat dishes respectively.

I started with a mixed tomato medley, which even included a tomato sorbet. My friend’s salad included lettuce, tomatoes, and an astonishing confection of egg yolks with hazelnuts, sesame seeds, and homemade pancetta. This must be one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, as practically every reviewer has mentioned it with approval — as well they should.

For the second course, we both chose crabmeat pressed between squares of yellow squash. I guess tomato must have been in there somehow. We got four of these little crabmeat sandwiches, resembling ravioli. This too was a hit.

For the third course, we diverged again. My friend got the crescent duck, with asian greens and baby carrots, which she said was the best duck she’d ever tasted. I chose the braised bacon and roasted pig. The pig actually seemed to be prepared three different ways, and it’s beyond my food vocabulary to describe them, but it was a superb dish. Incidentally, I noticed another diner who had ordered this dish as part of a two-course meal, and what the server said was true: if you order two courses, each one is a bit larger than what we had. But our three courses were more than enough for a full meal. We skipped dessert and went home very happy.

Although Blue Hill Stone Barns is in a rustic setting, it is upscale dining. One of the food blogs told about a guy who turned up in shorts (designer shorts!) and was turned away. Well, it turns out his lady friend knows the chef, and they were able to wangle something, but don’t turn up in shorts. The restaurant has been decorated elegantly and thoughtfully. You watch the patrons as they walk in, and you realize that most have come for a fancy evening out — farm or no farm. (Informal dress is fine, though; just no shorts.)

Reservations at Blue Hill Stone Barns aren’t easy to come by. For prime times, you’ll need to call a full two months in advance. Luckily, like many a new restaurant, Blue Hill Stone Barns offers dining at the bar, where no reservation is required. The bar here has a wide surface that easily accommodates placemats and stemwear. The bar stools have backs, so they are comfortable to sit in for a long meal.

Indeed, if you sit at the bar nowadays for just drinks, the bartender may just vaguely hint that the seats are needed for more lucrative customers. We didn’t observe that here, but it has been known to happen at other upscale restaurants that offer bar dining, such as Babbo. This is not likely to be an issue at Blue Hill Stone Barns, as there is an adjoining lounge with plush sofas and chairs, which seems to be preferred by those with reservations who want a pre-dinner cocktail. A bar, it seems, is no longer a bar.

For a party of two or three, there is really no disadvantage to dining at the bar, and it means you can make the trip on the spur of the moment — as we did. Give it a try! Tarrytown is about a 45-minute ride from Grand Central, and there are at least two trains per hour, even into the late evening. You’ll find taxis waiting at Tarrytown station, and it’s about a $10 ride to the Stone Barns Center.

Perhaps we’ll be back in the winter, when no doubt the fireplace will be roaring, and tomatoes will be replaced by whatever is then in season.

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

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***

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