Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Tarrytown, NY
It’s difficult for me to remember exactly when my culinary curiosity was piqued. When I was a younger kid, dinner regularly consisted of white rice, buttered noodles, a roll, or toast. It wasn’t even until middle or high school that cheese was acceptable to me. My parents were, naturally, at a complete loss. They sent me to Primary Children’s Medical Center once weekly to see an occupational therapist, who would force me to ingest baby corns in the hospital cafeteria. To this day I still can’t stand baby corns. (Note to occupational therapists: a hospital cafeteria is hardly the place to inspire an interest in new types of food).
Toward the middle of high school to the beginning of college, I started to taste more. And more. I had my first scallop. Learned to love sushi. Renounced my staunch vegetarianism-turned-pescatarianism (which was more an excuse to not have to brave eating something I hadn’t tried than a moral philosophy; hell, I didn’t even really eat vegetables when I was younger). I learned about the importance of fresh, quality ingredients and the evils of factory farming. I dined all over the best places in Salt Lake City. I dined in California. I dined everywhere I could.
My first tasting menu was in 2009 at the now-shuttered Sona in Los Angeles with my sweet mama. The chef served us an entirely spur-of-the-moment menu with what he had available in his kitchen. The menu shared by the couple next to us was completely different than the one shared by myself and mama. The spontaneity, creativity, and artistry of the experience, guided by the freshness and vitality of the ingredients, was a seminal moment in my evolving foodie-dom.
Turns out my father was prescient when I was a kid: “One day, you’ll eat almost everything there is to enjoy.”
Given how much I have grown to know food, wine, and excellent dining over the years, I never thought an experience at a restaurant could teach me how little I knew about the way we eat in modern society; I never thought I could again witness the open frontier of exploring new things about food like I did when I was but a young, all-carb-diet-eating food noob.
Then I went to Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
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Blue Hill at Stone Barns had always been on the periphery of my restaurant consciousness, though I suppose this is true of east coast restaurants in general. Dan Barber, the guru of this culinary cathedral, opened Blue Hill in Manhattan before he acquired this old structure from the Rockefeller estate some 30ish miles north of the city. The Manhattan outpost of Blue Hill is still open, despite now being eclipsed by its big brother up north; I have eaten there many years ago and very much enjoyed it, but I didn’t know anything about the man behind it, or what he was up to in Westchester County.
Eater published an article in 2016, calling BHSB the “Best Restaurant in America.” I’ll admit that I am often too reliant on the Michelin Guide to steer me to the “best” places, so I was surprised by this critic’s designation, mostly since Michelin hadn’t scored BHSB (as I learned later, this was merely because they weren’t scoring any restaurants outside the city). This year, Michelin scored BHSB for the first time, awarding it two stars. I have little doubt it will be three in 2021.
As the Eater critic put it, this isn’t just a restaurant, and the restaurant is unlike any experience in the world. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is attached to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a laboratory and educational center for research and praxis of sustainable, organic, innovative farming practices that respond to the agricultural challenges we face in this age, and those we will face in the future. The attached working farm is the manifestation and prototype of this research, and happens to be from where nearly everything served to you is harvested, usually the same day or even hour you consume it.
I had a little voyage to the northeast scheduled at the beginning of February to present at Westminster Choir College on a Wednesday and Saturday, leaving me with time during the week to find ways to entertain myself. Blue Hill at Stone Barns was my first thought. I saved up and found a reservation, and on a dreary, misty day, made my way up the Jersey turnpike to the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley.
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Your experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns can (and should) begin with a tour of the farm. I managed to slide into the last available reservation slot available on my particular day, at an elderly hour of 4:00pm. Fortunately, the tour was scheduled immediately before, so it allowed for a seamless experience from literal farm to literal table.
Stone Barns thinks about nearly everything when it comes to farming, so it would be impossible to list and discuss each of their premises or goals. I’ll list a few notes that came to me during our visit to the greenhouses.
Preservation and health of the soil is of paramount importance, and was a regular theme during the tour and meal. The commercial farming industry has resulted in long-term soil degradation. We have lost an incredible diversity of crops in the name of homogenizing for the American consumer––when you go buy a carrot, you buy one type (Bugs Bunny Orange), you know what it’s “supposed” to look like, and there is comfort and regularity in that routine. As a result, we only really have one type of carrot widely available to us in most supermarkets, when there are in fact thousands of species. Rotation of crops is critical to the sustainability of soil so that the same nutrients are not taken each year; Stone Barns recommends that once one species is planted in one area of soil, the same species should not occupy that same area for at least seven years. Crop diversity is critical to this cycling, so Stone Barns has been cultivating multiple types of many different crops, each with a unique effect on the soil, and, of course, unique flavors!
Another thing upon which they focus in the winter is the importance of cover crops. During the winter after harvest, when nothing is planted for several months, the soil is depleted and exposed. Snow and rain can wash away unanchored topsoil and its nutrients. The consumer food market in the U.S. has woefully neglected cover crops as a source of food, and as a result, the crops are not profitable for farmers to grow, so it is too costly to use cover crops to preserve the soil and not sell them. The result is increasingly nutrient-absent soil slowly degrading over time. Stone Barns has made a point of promoting the value (and deliciousness!) of cover crops to their partner restaurants, farmers, and consumers in hopes that the market will begin to embrace these crops and compensate farmers for their work maintaining the soil.
The other interesting component of soil preservation is that it drives decisions about what animals they keep on the farm. Just like plants, animals have a profound effect on the soil. Chicken waste, for example, is loaded with phosphorus, which leads to soil that can’t support many types of crops. For years, Stone Barns was keeping chickens for meat production, and they were the most popular thing they sold––a beautiful, pure, pastured bird is a true prize. They found, however, that their soil was too high in phosphorus, and so they had to stop, much to the chagrin of their customers. The good thing is that Stone Barns is nonprofit, so they don’t have to worry about such profit motives, but everyday farmers absolutely have to––this is part of the advocacy that Stone Barns can provide by experimenting and promoting the results without the need to worry about profit, which can lift all farmers when these practices are exported. The chickens at Stone Barns are now all egg-laying hens with a diet much lower in phosphorus. The chickens are free range in the spring, summer, and fall, and follow bigger animals like pigs and cows, scratching and distributing their waste so that the nutrients are spread and returned to the soil evenly.
One last comment on soil––Stone Barns always keeps their eyes on the way that farming practices can affect the climate, and perhaps help alleviate some of the effects of climate change. One of these methods involves selecting plants that sequester carbon back into the soil in high volumes. A certain type of soybean, for example, is particularly good for sequestration, and has been grown on the farm the last couple of years to bring more carbon into the soil. This is a testament to their commitment to progressive farming that is sustainable and confronts current problems.
Food waste is also a major focus at BHSB. They are constantly thinking of ways to use every component possible of a crop or animal to minimize the amount of waste produced by the facility. Composting is, of course, a major component here, as is using parts of food you’d not normally consume. For some other examples, they use corn cobs, which are notoriously difficult to break down organically after stripped of corn, as a base upon which to grow mushrooms. The fungi help break down the structure of cob, making it much easier to compost. The bones of animals that are slaughtered for the restaurant are either sent off to make various dishware (including the water glasses on the table) or carbonized in order to create charcoal that the chefs can use to cook meat in their wood-burning grill. Additionally, the pigs they keep on the farm are fed with food waste, and in turn their waste helps restore nutrients to the soil (especially when the chickens help distribute it!)
While I could go on and on about the progressive food and agriculture practices of Blue Hill and Stone Barns, I would like to last mention that they desire to edit the transactional nature of the relationship between the farmer and restaurant. Instead of a restaurant asking them for a certain number of things to fill the ingredients list on a menu, the farm tells the restaurant what they have, and moreover what needs to be consumed. Even more interesting, the farm can tell the restaurant what crops are needed for the health of the farm and the soil, so that the restaurant can plan months in advance for the types of crops that will be ready during their growing seasons.
* * *
It was wonderful to come into the vast, living room-like bar space from the damp chill of the walking farm tour, and in front of the fire I was brought a hot towel and little warm tonic of elderflower and beeswax, which was sweet, slightly effervescent, and comforting. Alongside this came a cocktail menu that was actually a map (!) of the farm, and each cocktail was themed after a section of the farm, featuring ingredients from that section. I went for a cocktail mapped to the root cellar, with beet, tequila, tallow, and citrus, which somewhat resembled a savory margarita.
My “captain” Nathaniel would come fetch me shortly thereafter despite my desire to stay with the looker of a bartender that I’m pretty sure thought I was cute, and escorted me into the vaulted dining space that used to be a dairy barn on the Rockefeller estate, where they play no music, but instead the sounds of birds chirping, and later the hum of crickets. The captain was terrifyingly good-looking––like, one of those people who you’re not quite sure they actually exist because you can find literally zero physical flaws in their appearance. He was also terrifyingly ethereal, floaty, and restrained in his delivery (like a fancy high-talker), which could contribute to the air of elegance in this place, but instead at times made me really uncomfortable.
I was struck by how one member of the kitchen staff on the tour mentioned that January and February are actually the best times to visit the restaurant, contrary to my expectation that it would be better to visit in late spring/early summer. She explained that due to the farm and kitchen’s pioneering preservation practices, they are able to collect the “best” of each of the seasons to preserve for winter meals, creating a menu she called “seasonless.” As Nathaniel brought me to the room in front of the kitchen, he echoed this sentiment, and referenced a display of all manner of ingredients in pickling jars on long tables along the windows.
Afterward, he managed through a series of questions to get an idea of my story and the things I like. And I am telling you, be careful––you mention something ONCE, it WILL appear before you later.
At the table I was given a “menu,” which was blank. As I may have mentioned, there is no menu here. They have dishes they focus on, but everyone’s experience will be different, both between dishes and within them, simply because they have so much from the farm they can use, and also because they never know exactly what ingredients or how much of those ingredients they will have. Everything is flexible.
Their beverage program is emphatically called “This is not a pairing,” mostly because when there’s no set food menu, there’s not a good way to select the “one” pairing for a dish. Instead, I was given a card with four lines of four words each, and told to select the word that most appealed to me from each line. Once I did, one of the dining staff whisked it away, and the show began.
* * *
This procedure of small bites at the beginning of the meal had been described in the Eater article as “waves.” I can’t say I disagree, and I eventually thought I was… well, drowning. After Nathaniel poured out a little jar full of all sorts of beautiful pickled things from the season for me to enjoy “at [my] leisure,” the fireworks started. The first thing to appear was a selection of fresh veggies from the garden––about the only thing that is a regular star of the menu. On a board with nails sticking out the top were five gleaming fresh veggies from the farm––three radishes, a tiny head of romaine lettuce, and bok choy––each smeared with a hint of lemon vinaigrette and a dash of salt.
I had barely taken the first glorious radish in my mouth when a briskly-walking server darted by with a green stalk sticking out of a cone and offered it to me: “flower delivery!” I clumsily tried to take the whole cone, and was corrected to take just the plant. Oops. The stalk was attached to a tiny, delicious carrot.
I was mid-romaine when a member of the kitchen staff appeared with a single, naked leaf of “fighter spinach” beneath a canopy, the likes of which you would find in the winter to protect crops from the elements. Fighter spinach is so named because it can grow in the winter, and the colder temperatures cause the plant to create a good deal of sugars, making the spinach almost as sweet as candy. Amazing.
While still considering the impossibly tiny and delicious romaine, yet ANOTHER dish came forth, this time a pickled carrot with crumbled sunchokes and sprinkled (tableside, obviously) with poppy seeds. Notice the broken plate––this would also be a theme of the meal. Because the establishment is philosophically committed to minimizing waste, even broken dishware is not thrown away, but instead used at various points throughout the meal.
A large log with a “tree” attached appeared beside me next before I could even get to the third radish. Things were starting to back up a bit at this point. The tree was a stalk of kale, which they rub in brown butter and sprinkle with salt and serve alongside smears of three different kinds of apple butter. I was instructed to cut the leaves with the provided scissors and dip in the apple butter. The apples were all varieties I’d not heard of or experienced before, and the third one was smoked and had a lovely, BBQ-like flavor. This was a ridiculous knockout, and big enough that I was able to revisit it all the way through the procession of small bites.
On another broken plate came a stalk of noble jade with “brown butter butter.” Dragged through the butter, the jade had an herbaceousness that melted away with the glorious nutty richness of the butter.
Please note that I had not even eaten my way through any more than two of the five veggies that were first brought to me before this parade started. A hunk of a server came over with a salami, asking if I’d like some (uh, yeah!). The salami is another way to reduce waste, and is made from parts of the cows that aren’t used for other purposes. It was rich and salty, with a pungency reminiscent of bresaola. About eight seconds after he left, I was presented with carrot and parsnip jerky, two crops that do well in the winters.
With the greens of the second radish still sticking out of my mouth, a paper bag was placed on the table and cut open, revealing “on the cob” popcorn, over which was sprinkled a savory powder of various dehydrated veggies and fruits. Two seconds later a bowl of hay was provided: “needles in a haystack.” I took a photo of the hay and moved back to unfinished business from other small bites, attempting to eliminate tasks one at a time like a college student during finals week.
I was finally making some headway on the remaining bites and the gloriously salty-sweet popcorn (omg) when MORE things arrived. The first was a beet pizza (which I joked to the sort of fratty-bro-looking server should have been introduced as “Beetza”) with a dried beet crust and a beet sugar glaze, and the second was a tiny “hen burger.” I had plenty of other things on my mind, and managed to clear up a few more bites before finally making it to the Beetza and the (still uneaten) bok choy.
After having several empty dishes cleared away (whew!) I noticed that my haystack was gone without me having found the damn needles. A new one was swiftly provided and I found some aged cheese straws. So good. Shortly thereafter, a bite of the “marrow” of the kale stalk that had served as the tree in the apple butter course was served. They really do use everything they can!
The last little bite of this extravaganza was a goose liver crusted in dark chocolate, served on a bone, of course. Almost like a glorious little dessert after everything that had just transpired. Oh wait, there’s one more radish on the first thing they brought me! *crunch*
Oh, and wine! About 2/3 of the way through the progression I was brought my first “pairing,” inspired by the fact that “marigold” was the first word I selected on my beverage sheet. This was a white from a region of Italy I’d not yet tasted, with a vibrant floral quality that was certainly reminiscent of a marigold and a lovely acidity that rendered it friendly with most of the small bites.
I gotta say… I get why they do this little parade, and I likely would have been better for me to maybe just stop taking pictures and notes and just let the waves of flavor happen as they come, but this was a LOT. I was pretty exhausted by the time I finished, and there were still hours and hours of courses to come. It reminded me of SingleThread’s little “Sonoma” spread with which they start every meal, but even more whirlwind. I feel like this could be much better-executed if these were all one-bite items, like the first several were, but instead some were actually pretty substantial dishes that required some work, and could be a course all by themselves.
* * *
The first “real” course would be offered in short order, but not before I was presented with yet ANOTHER plate of pickled and preserved things, this time from last year. Among them were some top-notch cuts of very aged charcuterie. The course itself that followed emphasized cover crops, much like the tour of the farm. First, Nathaniel brought around a butter-roasted type of radish that anchors the topsoil with its roots and sliced me off a glorious piece. Delicious. Next, I was presented with a stunning Egyptian purple oat bread that was maybe the best bread in all the land, a salad of cover crop grains (flax, oats, etc.) and a turmeric purée-like sauce. Last, a cover crop grass shot was a palate cleanser. All were excellent, and I appreciated the advocacy for cover crops that the course conveyed.
Even cooler was the pairing––the beer was called “beer from here” and is specifically made for BHSB through a collaboration with a brewery right down the road. They brew this beer from the very cover crops that made up the salad. Deliciously bright and funky, like a farmhouse ale, it was the absolute perfect pairing for the course.
The next course was a manifestation of Barber’s technique of “making veggies taste like meat.” A cart was rolled over with a koginut squash and various accoutrements––koginut is a type of squash that Barber essentially demanded that someone create and oversaw when it was hybridized. It is sweet but powerful with a crisp texture. This was meant to evoke beef tartare, except with strips of koginut. Traditional tartare accoutrements were stirred within the squash tableside. Without my knowledge as the “tartare” was being prepared on the cart, a beautiful piece of bread with a cut of pork and a mache salad had appeared beside me, the same mache that I saw in the greenhouse earlier. The tartare was more successful in concept than it was in flavor, but the mache salad was INSANE. Nutty, earthy, and oh-so-green, it was one of my favorite things I ate.
A Moreau-Naudret Chablis was paired with this and the next course, the first wine inspired by my next word, “salt.” This apparently grows in particularly salty soil in Chablis, which lends some umami and salinity to the otherwise bright, green fruit-driven wine. Really lovely.
I found the next course particularly cool––the farm performed some experiments with endive roots, and found that when endives are re-planted in the winter, after producing plants in the warmer months, they will grow again and produce beautiful, tender white endives. My table was graced with a mammoth endive root as I enjoyed the course. Raw endive was presented with horseradish miso, and roasted endive with Oranos pepper, “immature” sunflower seeds, and a purée of the same seeds. Glorious, and made me give endive a second look!
Post-endive I was brought an 8-hour bone broth, which was combined with the pickling liquid from the preserved items provided at the beginning of the meal for a delightful, rich, but slightly tangy concoction. I was summoned by Nathaniel to take a field trip, some permutation of which awaits every diner at Blue Hill, and found my coat and an umbrella waiting for me to visit the charcoal and wood-burning grill on the (rainy) patio. One of my favorites of the kitchen staff was out there waiting, telling me about the various experiments I saw hanging over the fire while she cooked a mini hot dog for me over the flames.
I moved back inside and was escorted to the bakery, where a private seat at the baking counter awaited me, along with a bottle of wine and a few bowls of accoutrements, as well as a series of bread loaves. My fabulous Taiwanese chef-server offered up her labor of love––the single “Beetfurter” that was grilling outside, composed of 60 percent beet and 40 percent pork––upon a whole wheat brioche bun. The accoutrements were to be served alongside, and Nathaniel, noting that I mentioned how much I love Willamette Valley wines during our first conversation, poured me a glorious pinot gris aged on the lees for a nice funk and somewhat tannic quality. How this was “salty,” however, is unclear.
The coolest part of this experience was being in the presence of a 17th century Belgian grain mill, which produces grain nearly round-the-clock to bake their in-house bread. Barber created a new wheat, aptly called “Barber wheat,” based on the rich, nutty flavor profile of the earliest wheat we can find, heirloom wheat. His goal was to replicate the taste of heirloom wheat, which has notoriously low yields, with the higher yields of modern wheat. I got to taste the Barber wheat hot dog bun alongside a loaf made of actual heirloom wheat. While the hot dog itself was fairly underwhelming, I was certainly impressed with the tasting of bread!
Nathaniel took me back to the kitchen where a cart was waiting for me with six different types of root vegetables from the farm coated and aged in beef tallow. Yet again I would get to select my journey for the meal, as the last course would consist of my choice of root vegetable roasted and served in the style of a steak. I chose the purple daikon radish, since I love daikon, and was quickly escorted back to my table, where more goodies would surely await.
I have relatively little experience with wines from southwest France, but my next wine, inspired by the word “barn” that I selected at the beginning, was a silky and slightly funky cinsault with some residual grip. Not sure how I felt about this as a “pairing” for what was to come, but I loved the wine, and the cute bartender from the beginning of the evening was now pouring me wine and talking nerdy to me. I wasn’t mad.
The next course would prove to be not only one of the most interesting conceptually, but also the most delicious. A little bag of grains was brought out and poured onto the tablecloth. It was a combination of various grains, many of them cover crops, that mirrored what they feed to the chickens during the winters when they aren’t in the pasture. Alongside was an egg from the chickens that had been cooked for about 45 minutes inside of a pipe under their compost bin, which generates heat naturally during decomposition. Cooking things under compost is a 100% sustainable activity that requires no electricity, fire, or smoke. The egg was perfectly soft, with a yolk just barely held together. On the plate was a “deconstruction” of the chicken feed: oats, flax, some type of legume, and oysters, since they put oyster shells in the chicken feed to aid their digestion, but obviously wouldn’t want to do the same for the diners. Very interesting; very tasty.
Before the next course, a piece of glorious bread made of Barber wheat and just baked in the in-house bakery was brought along with a long brick that had two small dollops of butter on either end. I had heard they churn all of their own butter by hand, and do so every day, from milk acquired from the cows of the Barber family farm in Massachusetts. I was not expecting, however, to get such a wonderful story about a simple dollop of butter. It was explained that the two dollops of butter were what they call “single udder butter,” meaning they come from the same cow, but at different times of the year. Their cows are grass-fed, so in the spring the butter is more herbaceous and lively, while in the winter it takes on a richer, nutty quality. This butter came from a cow named Hazel, who I was told is the “sweetest, shyest, most loving” cow on the farm. I seriously almost cried.
I was getting to the point of being rather full, and was not sure how much I had left. At about 3 hours and 30 minutes into the dinner, and hearing that dinners can regularly last over 5 hours, I was afraid that I might bust a seam out of my already too-tight suit pants. The plate that arrived next did not help––pheasant (a first for me) was generously portioned in three cuts with a rich sauce and some wild cress. I must say I am really loving game birds these days, and the rich, fatty, crispy skin of the pheasant was a real treat, despite how full I found myself!
Somehow I think they can read minds here, because just as I was becoming aware of my full-ness, it was announced that the last savory course was next. As expected, it was roasted purple daikon radish with creamed spinach (omg so good), pickled chanterelles (ok but the acidic foods are really overwhelming by now), tomato purée, and a sort of creamy sauce that I can’t remember. Alongside were some “duck chips” in a little bag that looked like a Lays bag; these weren’t potato chips, nor were they duck. Instead, they were waffled and fried water chestnut crisps, which are apparently the things the ducks on the farm love to eat the most (they were so damn tasty). The result was supposed to be a “meat and potatoes” kind of dish––this is another one of those dishes that is meant to make a veggie taste like a meat, and I guess it kinda did? I was having trouble ingesting all of the radish, since I was so full and I wasn’t wild about it.
Here’s the other reason I wasn’t going to town on the radish––when I was out cooking with the Taiwanese chef on the patio, she mentioned how they use bones for charcoal, which led me to mention how much I LOVE bone marrow. Well folks, alongside this radish dish, they heard me, and brought me an entire goddamn femur.
It was spectacular, especially with the Barber wheat bread.
That final course was paired with a red from Sicily in very volcanic soil, giving it a flinty, mineral-like quality with the same bite you can expect from many warm Italian reds. I neglected to photograph this one, unfortunately, but it was inspired by my selection of the word “soil.” My understanding was I got two wines per word, however, and didn’t get a second for either “barn” or “soil.” Oh well; they were still generous pourers, happy to refill when my glass was low!
I was also really surprised that the beverage pairing didn’t include literally anything boozy with dessert. I was able to get an included cappuccino and also ordered a stellar scotch from Kilkomann that is finished in Sauternes casks. Classic scotch mouth, but with a round sweetness from the semillon barrels. So good, but something I wish had been included.
Dessert consisted of three courses. First was a sorbet with cranberries and honeynut squash seeds. Second was candied pears and ginger with a pear foam and chestnuts shaved atop. Love me some pears. The last was a divine “milk jam” with house-baked chocolate and cherry bread.
During the first dessert, I had shyly asked one of the servers if I might be graced with a tasting of Hazel’s milk, assuming they had some for the butter they churned. I was told that they weren’t really allowed to do that, since they get so little of it in the winter. Much to my surprise and delight, then, a glorious little glass of Hazel’s milk was the last thing I was brought that evening. I don’t think I have ever had a more delicious glass of milk, and I drink a LOT of milk. Can I adopt Hazel?
* * *
This is a special place, as was promised by all that I’d read. I enjoyed very much the unique inspirations for the dishes, and how the philosophy of the restaurant is informed by their relationship with the farm, as well as Barber’s own advocacy. The tour was amazing, and I certainly learned more that evening than I had in any single meal.
Do I think this is the best restaurant in America, as has been suggested? Probably not. They do some absolutely amazing things within their philosophy to change the narrative around fine dining, and many of them are wildly successful. Some significant misses, however, often having to do with the courses that intended to “make veggies taste like meat,” are things that shouldn’t be taking place at a restaurant of this caliber and with this renown. Don’t get me wrong––the meal was overall very successful, and I enjoyed most of what I had immensely, but it is hard to imagine a restaurant like, say, SingleThread or Atelier Crenn with this many misses in a meal of this magnitude.
I always eat somewhere twice before criticizing anything too harshly, however, so I will certainly be back, eager to taste the bounty of a new season, and this time, I will not eat anything for 24 hours before.
New York was a trip of culinary delights, so stay tuned for my reviews of two more wonderful places, this time in the heart of Manhattan.