Blue Hill at Stone Barns (2) – Pocantico Hills, NY
Regular readers of the blog have doubtless come across at least one of the reviews of my meals at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. About a decade ago, Chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill, a restaurant in Manhattan (and still there), partnered with the Stone Barns Center, opened an outpost in the old dairy barn in the Rockefeller complex on the property, and with the farm proceeded to turn the fine dining and agricultural universe in the US on its head.
I ate at Blue Hill in Manhattan years ago without knowing about the work going on 45 minutes north, and the Stone Barns location came to my attention as a seriously important site of fine dining sometime in 2019. In February 2020, I finally got to visit, and had an excellent, if not entirely shiny, experience. But, it was also the most educational seven hours at a restaurant I've ever had, and completely transformed the way I think about food.
Since then, I've dined at Stone Barns an additional six times, but each with a different chef participating in their "Chef in Residence" series that transformed the restaurant's approach during the pandemic––Dan Barber stepped away from the pass, and each of these chefs interpreted the incredible bounty and agricultural work of Stone Barns through their own lens, creating six fantastic and very unique meals. In the process, I not only fell in love with the place and the work, but also seemed to become a cherished recurrent guest.
Chef Barber is back in command of the kitchen, and now that I was a "regular" with a serious depth of knowledge about the work being done here, another meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was among the highest priorities on my list.
Every time I have visited my culinary "happy place" in the Hudson Valley, it's required a significant investment of time and money to get up there––I always need to rent a car, and often that means I need to travel to New Jersey, where Turo, a car-sharing service, can legally operate. Knowing this time I had my own car and plenty of flexibility, it was an easy trip to Pocantico Hills to enjoy my second meal under Chef Barber.
Two major components seem to have changed since my first visit. The first is welcome––while before a tour of the farm was an optional part of the experience, this time the tour was built in and much more formalized, and even included little proof-in-concept bites from several of the places on the campus we visited. The second was not so welcome––it's a different financial universe than it was in 2020, particularly for the restaurant industry, but the base price of the meal is now over 50% higher (!) than it was in 2020. While I understand that work like this isn't cheap, it makes me pretty uncomfortable that an already exclusive restaurant has become even more exclusive, barring more and more people from being participants in what is so magical and revolutionary about this place. This is especially true when they espouse transforming agriculture and food culture across socioeconomic classes.
But, here I was, about to embark on another meal I really have no business spending this amount of money to enjoy, and y'know what? I was so happy to be back.
At 3:30 I joined the glamorously-dressed tour group of fellow diners, me wearing rainbow Crocs and jeans (it was a farm tour, after all!) and glad to be greeted by familiar and new faces from the staff. We first strolled up the hill on the northeast side of the property, which houses their main fields, still filled with mature brassicas starting to be replaced by lettuces from the greenhouse. As we went up the hill, the air was rich with the fragrance of ripening tomatoes and the buzz of bees. Though the farmers' lecture about crop rotation was ongoing, I'd heard much of it before, and instead found myself immersed in the glory of the world around me with of all my senses.
We were directed next to a series of bird houses, where the staff ornithologist (incidentally, not named "Luke A. Boyd") gave us a little talk about the interconnectedness of the ecosystems on the property, focusing on the birds who consume possible pest insects who might affect the crops from the farm. We even got to take a peek at eggs and baby birds in the nest boxes that the staff maintains!
In a nook between the network of buildings that form the dairy barn complex on the property that Blue Hill now inhabits, we were introduced to the herb garden while being served a little refreshing beverage to slake our garden-walking summer thirst. A "shrub" can refer to any number of beverages made with vinegared syrups or juices blended with spirits, water, or carbonated water. Food preservation is a critical component of the work at BHSB, and pickled veggies are an important part and often figure prominently in Blue Hill's menus. The shrub we were served was a combination of sweetened pickle juice from Blue Hill's pickled veggie jars and carbonated water––a wonderful refresher and also a cool look into their food preservation work.
We entered the corridor adjacent to the bakery for our next lecture, this time from head baker Patrick Shaw-Kitch, who I'd met a few meals back. Patrick talked about BHSB's work attempting to improve yields and shelf life of whole grain wheat, and also their work with fermentation qualities of various grains with which they experiment in their bread making. We each got to taste a piece of their rye bread; meanwhile, a carafe with one of the fermentation department's projects––a liquid red miso made with quinoa––was distributed to the group in small glasses.
Our last tour destination was the patio outside the restaurant, where the kitchen staff cooks various things over open flame fueled by charcoal made from the bones of slaughtered animals on the property. At my first meal at BHSB, my "field trip," which is a key part of the experience for every party who dines here, was to the patio, where I learned about their process of recycling animal bones to make charcoal. This is where I also got to taste an example of one of BHSB's most important projects of replacing meat, an environmentally taxing thing to make into food, with plant-based ingredients––a beet and pork "hot dog" that was more beet than pork. In the same vein, this time our tour guide served us sausage made from Stone Barns pork and also oats grown as cover crops on the farm. Delicious.
The time for the meal had arrived, and I was guided to my regular spot flanking the dining room and overlooking the center table decorated with vibrant summer plants and flowers. The fabulous Hannah quickly found me and I told her to bring a cocktail from the list for me made with tequila and yellow Chartreuse. "I knew you'd pick that one," she said with a grin, as I perused her and fellow wine director Daniel's new magnum opus, "This is not a Wine List," bound in leather on my table, as well as a charming booklet listing the status of various crops in each month.
The procession of bountiful farm produce began shortly after, with some new and some familiar presentational components. Following a beguiling tea made with celtuce and rice were various preparations of squash and its leaves and flowers with sunflower seeds. A "flower delivery" of young fennel followed, then a gorgeous cup of lettuce housing the first of the strawberries. Summer root veggies, including a challenging-to-eat kohlrabi with a pesto of pickled veg and plum compote and a sweet Hakurei turnip dusted at the table with poppyseeds, closed the parade of raw farm veggies. But this was only the beginning of the amuse bouche course.
Midway through the veggies, Hannah poured a glass of bright, off-dry Riesling from the Mosel, which complemented each bite with green apple acidity. Scrumptious!
The charcuterie program is among the most impressive of an already spectacular lineup of project at BHSB. Notably, the kitchen keeps their food waste, which can sufficiently nourish the hogs and creates a complete, waste-minimizing cycle of nutrients from the soil to the animals on the farm, which then fertilize the soil for new growth. House-cured fennel salami and fatty coppa arrived after the mélange of raw vegetables, accompanied by pickled young peach "olives." The meat was incredible, and though the peaches were a tad too astringent to be particularly enjoyable, the fact that they purloined the pickle juice for later use was fun.
Speaking of purloining things from the table for later use, around this time, my server Kayla collected the bouquet of asparagus and flowers wrapped in chicken wire which decorated the table, cheekily remarking "Chef told me we are low on asparagus tonight, so we need to borrow this!" Of course, I knew it would come back later in the form of a prepared dish.
At some point in your meal, expect a demonstration of the root of some crop you're about to eat. Last time it was endive, this time, something entirely new to me called ashwagandha. This root is said by indigenous populations in Asia and Africa, where it grows, as well as new age health food gurus, to have medicinal qualities that calm stress and aid in memory. Within the twisting roots was a thin strand of white asparagus "jerky," dressed in honey infused with ashwagandha. Chef Barber writes on Instagram that this is the last of the asparagus, so the ashwagandha will help us remember the plant's glories until next spring.
Closing things out from the amuse bouche courses, which themselves lasted over an hour and could have been an entire meal, was a little "macaroon" made with sweet black birch and mint. Besides the charcuterie, this was the first truly special bite of the evening. Another strange ingredient, chufa nut, wrapped things up in milk form, though again I can't recall why they were featuring this particular item––there had to have been a reason, as there is with everything at BHSB!
"What grows together goes together" quips Kayla as she drapes a placemat displaying a circle of plants from the buckwheat family on the table. The next course would feature several buckwheat family ingredients––buckwheat itself, sorrel, wild knotweed, and rhubarb.
A thin cake of rhubarb sat on a clear plate with various pickled and fresh members of the buckwheat family atop, dolloped with Blue Hill yogurt. On the placemat was also a spot for a cup of rhubarb and buckwheat tea.
Finally, Hannah arrived shortly after with a local farmhouse ale brewed from––you guessed it––buckwheat. A thoughtful, educational, and wonderful course.
As expected, the asparagus within the bouquet that graced the table at the beginning of the meal returned, this time roasted and served within the liberated bouquet. A heady tarragon sauce added extra vegetal depth to the asparagus. Meanwhile, one of the classics of BHSB's menus, a soft-rinded, creamy sheep's milk cheese made with ash derived from the bone charcoal mentioned earlier, accompanied a sorghum Johnny cake for a magnificently salty, funky bite.
Hannah had visited Corsica last year and brought back with her to Blue Hill some of her favorite finds from the island, one of which, a red, I got to try the last time I visited. This time I got to try a white cuvée, Général de la Révolution, consisting of a densely populated mix of many indigenous Corsican grapes I'd not ever tried. Anthony Lynch describes this remarkable wine, to pair with the forthcoming seafood courses, quite well:
One must travel to the rugged granite hills inland of Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, to find such an unusual, and, at first glance, perplexing white wine . . . These indigenous grapes became all but extinct in an era when highly productive, ‘commercially viable’ grapevines largely replaced those that Corsicans had been farming for countless generations . . . The cuvée Général . . . is farmed with Abbatucci’s trademark biodynamic zeal, fermented naturally, and aged in oak demi-muids. Broad-shouldered yet fine-grained, it is a resplendent translation of the herb- and flower-studded interior of the Ile de Beauté, with a sea-breeze freshness to contrast the fleshy, sun-imbued voluptuousness on the palate.
Spring pea succotash with pistachios accompanied sliced Maine razor clams served on the shell. A bite of spring in each morsel of the side complemented the crisp, saline clams brilliantly, in a sort of glorious, farm-centric "surf and turf." And with the Général... glorious.
I was one of the first to be served the fish course of the night, just one of about fifty dishes they have ready to deploy at any moment, like a Spotify playlist. Were this dish to come up on Spotify, I might have skipped it––the course seemed under-developed, with the monkfish from the South Fork of Long Island displaying far too little seasoning to be interesting paired with new potatoes with too much seasoning, while the splash of early cherry and sprays of lovage were detached accessories rather than integrated components. A dish that needs more time to develop.
For the next serving, Kayla asked me to follow her to another part of the restaurant, which is par for the course at BHSB. I was awestruck to be guided to a little table set up for me in the corner of the kitchen this time, with a full view of the battalion of chefs busily attending to their stations and the familiar lean frame of Chef Dan Barber leading the pass. I have to say I was a little starstruck, nearly forgetting about the cocktail of tequila and celery root Daniel brought to me.
Squash stems, when mature, form wide, hollow tubes, and the team at Blue Hill transforms these stems into their own breed of penne "pasta." A traditional Italian cacio e pepe, or "cheese and pepper" sauce, the simplest of Italian pasta accompaniments, was transformed by this delightful choice of "pasta." Salty, vegetal, and with the burn of black pepper, it was gone far too quickly, and as I was escorted back to my table, I was surprised and thrilled to have Chef Barber himself catch up with me to welcome me back to Blue Hill and chat for a bit. Might have been the coolest 20 minutes I've spent in a restaurant.
Hannah was waiting for me when I got back to the dining room with another pairing for the forthcoming meat courses, this time, of course, red wine. Bordering Switzerland to the west, the tiny French region of Jura produces some of the country's most enigmatic and unusual wines. Owing to the cool climate and higher altitude, the wines grown here are often intensely aromatic, expressive, and delicate. The Arbois and Pupillin villages are best known for a pale red grape called ploussard––this feather-light red was right up my alley as a lover of similar pinots, with dainty red fruit and flowers punctuated by a bit of assertive anise.
You will have bread at BHSB without fail, and it will routinely be one of the most fascinating parts of your meal. This time, three different whole wheat slices were accompanied by a small booklet of information cards––"Past," "Present," and "Future." Einkorn wheat is the "past," an ancient whole grain that is dense and nutritious but has unworkably low yields. The "present" is represented by a blend of varieties that are well-suited to the region and produce wonderful whole-grain flour when milled. Finally, the "future" slice encapsulates one of the baking team's biggest projects––finding ways to improve the shelf life of truly whole grain bread, which they accomplish with amazake, a fermented grain mash made from rye which gives this bread not just a better shelf life but also a dense, umami-rich moisture. Alongside, three butter dollops were available to mix and match, each from a different breed of cow from a different regional farm.
The cured version of the waste-fed coppa I was about to enjoy formed part of my charcuterie course earlier in the mean. This time, it was braised, with the fatty goodness glazing the surface of the generous cut. Celtuce, a plant sometimes called "monster lettuce" because of its grotesque stem, is cultivated primarily for this same stem, and a peeled slice of celtuce accompanied and provided a lovely textural contrast to the melty coppa. More celtuce, this time a younger plant with a thinner stem and leaves attached, draped itself across a fourth dish along with a skewer of mushrooms and the same oat and pork belly sausage I sampled on the patio during the tour.
I can't get enough of Italian wine stories––there are some real characters in the Italian wine world, and a lot of them have axes to grind. Borgogno, one of the most storied houses in Barolo, attempted to appeal to a younger crowd with a more approachable, lighter in style nebbiolo to be sold at a more reasonable price point. The authorities of the appellation quickly decided it was unworthy of the title "Barolo" because, despite meeting all of the requirements for being labeled as such, it was unusual in style, and when these same powers-that-be later reversed course in a spectacular about-face, in protest Borgogno gave the wine the moniker "No Name," which it's been ever since. It might not say "Barolo" on the label, but this is a Barolo through and through, even coming from some of the most prized vineyards in the appellation, but as promised with a more elegant and vibrant style.
A veritable smorgasbord of fixins appeared with the No Name with the help of several members of the waitstaff, as well as instructions to combine the ingredients to make my own tacos. Braised beef short rib was the star, and to the taco I could add whatever permutation of pea shoots and nasturtiums growing in a hollowed-out squash, grilled sweet onion, green allium sauce, a crisp brassica salad, and habanada pepper hot sauce that met my fancy. At once overwhelming and delightful, and the first point where my stomach started saying to me, "okay, that's plenty, Steven."
But I am never happy to have savory courses end despite my tummy screaming its definitive answer when Kayla asked "Are you feeling like you want more food?" Shortly thereafter a young line cook presented me with a cheeky half grin and a plate of "veggies with a side of beef." The collection of spring veg, strawberries, lettuces, alliums, and even morel mushrooms was glorious on its own, but the grilled beef, bright pink and graced with crystals of fleur de sel, was just dynamite––the best beef imaginable. And just when I thought I was going to bust a button out of my shirt, bone marrow with more BHSB bread made its way to my table, which I certainly could not resist. Hannah brought it all together with a silky, organic Napa Valley zinfandel described by her as "what happens when stoners become winemakers." Now that's my kind of wine!
After the "side" of beef (which I later would be delighted to learn is called a "cow salad" by the kitchen), I was finally ready to listen to my stomach and my jeans preemptively splitting at the seams and enjoy some dessert. Palate cleansers are an under-appreciated and rather critical component of a tasting menu, and this lemon balm granita with rhubarb and Blue Hill yogurt did just the trick.
Milk is one of the prizes from Blue Hill's Massachusetts farm, and the next dessert course presented this milk five different ways, though don't ask me what ways they were––the "stoner" wine did my memory in. Remembering fondly the best glass of milk I'd ever had last time I enjoyed BHSB under Chef Dan's command, I asked if I might pair this dessert with a glass of milk, a request which, because the cows are so productive in the summer, Kayla had no problem honoring. More rhubarb came with it for a tangy foil to the dairy.
Hannah's last pairing for me was another cocktail, and I must say I absolutely love how my pairing experience here has evolved into a rather comprehensive beverage selection of beers, wines, cocktails, and even, once upon a time, baby's first baijiu. Amaro Montenegro is a delicious permutation of the spirit, and the mixologists combined it with El Dorado aged rum and strawberry whipped cream. I may not have needed more booze at that point, but I will always need that strawberry whipped cream.
To close, a scoop of sweet hickory ice cream was perched on a buckwheat cone. Such a nostalgic and beguiling parade of desserts, with a final serving that harkened back to the best bite at the beginning of the meal––the sweet birch macaroon.
In my hotel room somewhere in the Jersey suburbs, I studied the ticket from the kitchen for my table, a standard parting gift, and contemplated the immense eight-hour meal and what Blue Hill at Stone Barns has meant to me, feeling simultaneous waves of joy and a simmering uneasiness.
There have been some fair criticisms of the place which emerged recently, a couple weeks after this meal––disappointing allegations that it is not immune from some of the most pernicious characteristics of fine dining restaurants the world over. Many of these are particularly troubling given what the place purports to, and in many ways does, represent––a revolution in the way we think about agriculture, a restaurant's relationship to its purveyors, and fine dining itself. And moreover, as mentioned earlier, I am more than a bit disturbed by the magnitude of the recent price hike at BHSB; it almost betrays the basic conceit of the place, and just from the perspective of my bank account (and those of many others I know who would love to eat here) it will likely, sadly, keep me away for a while.
Reality can't compete with fantasy, with the romantic narratives and immersive magic of a place like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or with the privilege of getting to eat here, even once. I get it; I know it. It's a place for the few people who can afford to experience it (and food bloggers who can't afford it but like to pretend) and for that reason its transformative potential will always be kneecapped by the demands of profit and prestige. It's outrageous that food this principled isn't more accessible, and we should be fighting tooth and nail for a more just food system.
But here's what I also know––in a world where capitalism too often shackles the potential for transformative work surrounding agriculture and the culinary arts, Blue Hill, despite its limitations and flaws, offers a glimpse into what "could be." Not necessarily right now, certainly not at these prices, and not always in a way that seems consistent with those principles. But this place and its people are pointing the way in a manner few other restaurants in America with this amount of clout have done, or have endeavored to do. The work here is not fake, it's not a show, and it's not disingenuous. It's real, and it's serious, and all of these people mean it. And it's completely upended the life of at least one (admittedly privileged) person, and the way he thinks about food.
I look back at the early years of my dining "career" and sometimes find myself recoiling. As I've written about before, even though my love of food is a manifestation of a monumental conquering of my timidity of which I am very proud, at one point it festered to become more about status than food, despite my having absolutely no business pretending to hold said status. I see this status signaling everywhere in the restaurant landscape, particularly in the United States. I still see glimpses of it in myself, and it's upsetting. But while a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is (too) expensive and exclusive, there's no caviar supplement here. There's no Japanese wagyu, or gold leaf garnish. Indeed, the seminal moment in my culinary life, the epiphany about what food could be and what it could mean, came because I was fortunate enough to dine here. And it's what keeps me coming back. This place pointed the way to principles, practices, and understandings far beyond the reach of a single meal that transformed and humbled me more profoundly than I can possibly convey.
No institution is perfect, or immune from ugliness. Nobody presses benevolently forward in pursuit of their values and principles without flashes of hypocrisy or backpedaling. The mark of the success of your work is tireless faith in those same values, and the way that work manifests in those it affects. There's no question that Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber, and the team here and at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture have made monumental contributions that have advanced the conversation around food, in some ways radically. And in the process, I know to a certainty that there are thousands just like me whose entire worldviews have been upended by the work being done here.
My most fervent hope is that the leadership at BHSB continues to evaluate and nourish the ways they can make this work more accessible, so that more people's lives can be transformed, as part of a far broader movement chipping away at the inequities and cruelties of our broken food system. There is no restaurant in America doing this work more visibly, and yes, it matters.