Entries in Blue Hill (4)


Blue Hill at Stone Barns


A visit to Blue Hill at Stone Barns requires some advance planning, or a bit of good luck. On two previous occasions, I made the trek up to Tarrytown without a reservation and dined at the bar. The bar accommodations are comfortable, but if all the seats are taken, you could be waiting for a while. On another occasion, I meant to do the same thing, but on arriving, we found to our dismay that the whole restaurant was closed for a private party.

Another barn on the premises. (This is not the restaurant,
although it is similar.)

If you want a reservation in the elegant formal dining room, you need to reserve two months in advance, to the day. I called about 45 minutes after the reservation line opened on February 14th. The evening of April 14th was already mostly sold out, with 5:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. being the only times available. Luckily, 5:30 suited our schedule, so I was finally able to dine at the restaurant with a proper reservation.

No restaurant better exemplifies the label haute barnyard. The cooking, service, and ambiance are about as elegant as can be; but the restaurant is literally co-located with a barnyard. The mission statement on the website seems almost too precious:

The cow logo is ever-present—
even on the weather vane.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a platform, an exhibit, a classroom, a conservatory, a laboratory, and a garden. The restaurant will reflect the spirit of the farm, the terroir, and the market. The kitchen will express the humanity and the fervor of the educators, preservationists, farmers, cooks, and servers who learn and work at the Center.

Reading that, you wouldn’t know whether to expect dinner or a lecture. Indeed, the staff are mighty proud of the farm. At some point in your meal, a server brings around a tray of greens, to show you all the seasonal herbs that are featured in the day’s menu. But none of that would matter if the food didn’t live up to the billing. Which it does.

The restaurant is operated by the same team that run Blue Hill in Greenwich Village. I’ve now visited both restaurants three times. I don’t know why, but the original Blue Hill in the city doesn’t generate the same excitement as Blue Hill at Stone Barns. At Stone Barns, the menu is much more creative and eye-popping, the progression of tastes far more extravagant.

bhsb01.jpgThe dining room is in a converted barn, elegantly appointed. When we arrived, there was still ample daylight shining through the windows. By the time we left, it was quite dim, with the only light coming from a handful of sconces and candles at each table. Most guests dress up to dine here, though we did see a few people in jeans.

After we were settled in, the server recited a list of house cocktails, all based on the “barnyard” theme. I couldn’t resist trying one made with carrot juice and hay-infused vodka, which was much better than it sounds. (In the photo, you’ll notice that even the stirrer is a piece of straw.) We saw plenty of these coming out of the kitchen, so I wasn’t the only one intrigued.

A diner at another table noticed that the tall glass still had a price tag on it. We noticed this too, but considered it too minor a matter to point out. The other table mentioned it, and the server took the drink off both bills. (In the photo, you can just barely see a white price tag shining through the bottom of the glass.)

The menu changes daily, to take advantage of the latest seasonal ingredients. There is a choice of three courses at $65, four courses at $78, or the farmer’s feast—a tasting menu with six courses plus multiple amuse-bouches—at $110. As we so often do on such occasions, we ordered the tasting menu.

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Bread service (left); Cream of cauliflower soup(right)

The bread service is spectacular. Each of the rolls (above, left) suggests a “book,” whose pages you pull apart. The soft butter it comes with is wonderful. The first amuse was a cream of cauliflower soup with a drizzle of basil olive oil. It also came with a tiny breakfast radish and two dried vegetable chips. One of these was a beet chip, which looked like a potato chip, but was about as thin as a human hair.

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“Beet Burgers” (left); Foie gras and chocolate (right)

The next two amuses were extraordinary: “Beet burgers” (beet and goat cheese on a micro-bun) and bites of foie gras in a chocolate sandwich.

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Walnut bread with two salts (left); Mango-crabmeat cannoli (right)

The last amuse consisted of two contrasting salts—the one at the top of the photo is “carrot salt,” with walnut bread. I had to admire the creative impulse, but the taste of salty bread wasn’t really that intriguing.

The first savory course was a crabmeat cannoli wrapped in mango so thinly sliced that it yielded instantly to the touch. This flavor combination worked perfectly.

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Green salad (left); Sturgeon (right)

A green salad had enough herbs and vegetables to fill a botany textbook, but offered little excitement to the palate. Sturgeon was served over citrus braised fennel with a fig sauce. The sturgeon was impeccably prepared, but fish, fennel and fig were all overwhelmed by the tartness of the citrus—which was presumably grapefruit.

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Gnocchi (left); Venison (right)

A delicate gnocchi was prepared with ricotta cheese, sweet potato, a roasted chestnut, and parmesan. Good as it was, we couldn’t help admiring the serving bowl, which was large enough to be the conversation piece on our coffee table at home. We wondered where we could buy them?

Venison was the final savory course. My girlfriend, who normally doesn’t like venison, thought it was terrific, while I found it dull. Perhaps I was just over-fed by this point.

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Palate cleanser (left); Dessert (right)

bhsb08.jpgThe palate-cleanser was house-made yogurt with citrus accompaniments; we noted that the citrus worked here much better than it did with the sturgeon. I don’t recall the exact description of the dessert, but it was excellent. So too were the petits-fours (right), but I was far too full to taste more than one of them.

Service throughout the evening was first-class. Water glasses were always promptly refilled. The wine was decanted, and our glasses kept full. The pacing of the courses was about right, with the meal unfolding over about 3½ hours. Servers were enthusiastic and well informed about the food.

While a few of the courses weren’t hits, the overall quality of the meal was quite high. Whether one liked a particular item or not, it was always clear that abundant thought and care had gone into its preparation. After three visits, I can say that Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of my all-time favorite restaurants.

Tarrytown, the closest Metro-North stop, is under an hour’s train journey from Grand Central. The restaurant is about ten minutes’ ride from the train station, and there are always taxis waiting. At the restaurant, just notify the staff about fifteen minutes before you are ready to leave, and they’ll call a taxi for you. It’s a bit of a schlep to get there, but well worth it.

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

Food: The ultimate expression of American locavore cuisine
Service: Elegant, crisp, and correct
Ambiance: A lovely haute farmhouse, located on the farm itself

Rating: ★★★★


Blue Hill

Monday night was the final stop of my culinary mini-tour with my Mom, who was visiting from Detroit. I chose Blue Hill, an iconic New York restaurant that you simply wouldn’t find anywhere else. As we were chatting, it occurred to me that Fleur de Sel, which we visited on Sunday night, is clearly the better restaurant, but you could find it anywhere; Blue Hill could only be in New York.

New York’s Adam Platt coined the phrase “haute barnyard,” referring to restaurants that self-consciously define themselves with a reliance on locally-sourced seasonal ingredients. Blue Hill fulfills that ideal better than any. The cooking is impeccable and technically precise, although to some tastes it may seem a bit bland.

I started with the Stone Barns Greens Ravioli ($12), made with ricotta, zucchini puree, pancetta, and lettuce. There wasn’t much zing in this dish; its only point was to show that you can turn fresh farm vegetables into an acceptable ravioli. Stone Barns Berkshire Pork ($30) was served on a bed of spaetzle and spinach. The pork loin medallions were cooked to gorgeous tenderness. A square of crisp pork belly offered the right contrast, but it was only the size of a large postage stamp. My mom loved the lamb ($32), which like the pork was served in bite-sized medallions.

On a previous visit, I complained of a lack of red wine choices around $40. This time I had no trouble finding a satisfying California red at around that price. Service was up to the usual standard, and I especially liked the warm and hopelessly addictive warm bread sticks.

Blue Hill (75 Washington Place between Sixth Avenue and Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village)

Food: ★★★
Service: ★★★
Ambiance: ★★★
Overall: ★★★


Blue Hill

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

A friend and I dined at Blue Hill on a Saturday night in November. I had the Foie Gras and the Stone Barns Pastured Chicken. The foie was competently executed (if nothing special). You expect ultra-tender chicken from Blue Hill—and you get it—but the dish was spoiled by an overpowering tomato sauce. My friend had the mushroom salad and the lamb. Oddly enough, she too felt that her entrée was spoiled by a sauce that had too much tomato in it.

On the plus side, my friend (who’d never been to BH) found the ambiance enchanting. When she left a third of her mushroom salad uneaten, the kitchen sent someone out to inquire if anything was wrong. (There wasn’t; it was just a large portion, and she was saving room for the main course.) It’s rare anyone will even bother to ask, and we were impressed that they noticed.

IMO, there’s a hole in Blue Hill’s wine list, with not enough choices in around the $40 range. I’m not saying there aren’t any, but they are few and far between. I asked the sommelier for a wine in that range that would go with the chicken and the lamb. She quickly produced a wonderful new arrival (not on the menu) at $38.

Blue Hill remains a friendly place to which I’ll return, but on this occasion both entrées slightly misfired.

Blue Hill (75 Washington  Place between Sixth Avenue and Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village)

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


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: ***