Chef Jonathan Tam in Residence at Stone Barns – Pocantico Hills, NY
Stone Barns is starting to feel like a bit of a home. The people, the ethos, and the amazing food––everything about it makes me so joyful every time I visit. My "happy place," indeed.
I'd had a couple of rough weeks that unsettled my mental health. I was exhausted from traveling, feeling worried about the upcoming school year, feeling generally insecure about myself––a mess. The next Stone Barns meal, and one of my favorites so far, if not possibly my favorite yet, came at exactly the right time.
Jonathan Tam is a young Canadian chef, the child of Chinese immigrants, who developed his career in Copenhagen, where he still lives and works. Copenhagen happens to be one of the food epicenters of the world––Noma, which is considered by many to be the best of the best, is there, and Chef Jonathan worked there before helming his own restaurant and later developing another, the former of which is among the highest rated in Europe.
Before Dan Barber's offer to engage in a residency at Stone Barns, Chef Tam had never really explored the cuisine of his heritage––Cantonese––which was the third of the five "What Americans Eat Out for Dinner" meals in the second season of the Stone Barns residencies. I was also happy to have a bit of a break from the southwestern/Latin American styles of cuisine that had characterized my last three meals at Stone Barns, which were fantastic, of course, but I needed a shift.
The thing that was so incredible about this residency is how they utilized Stone Barns' preservation department. Staple Asian ingredients take ages to create––according to Evan, fish sauce can take three years (!) to make, so almost all restaurants order it in from overseas. But this is Stone Barns, and they don't order much of anything in. The preservation department, led by Chef Cortney Burns, used the bounty of the farm and the time that they had in advance of Chef Jonathan's residency to create versions of many of these condiments and components. Amazing stuff.
Evan and Hannah were taking care of me for this meal, so I knew I was in good hands––though at Stone Barns, you are never not in good hands! I had a new view of the dining room, too, from the east wall, and enjoyed seeing the "belly of the dragon" art display that graced the space over the large table in the center.
Evan started me off with a cocktail of fermented plum and champagne, a perfect, refreshing way to begin on a humid summer day, and I enjoyed playing with the little circular, rotatable ingredient calendar which showed the crops and various months and seasons in Guangzhou, Copenhagen, and the Hudson Valley.
The first thing brought out was described by Evan only as "the first summer harvest from the farm." Chef Jonathan presented several veggie bites on a lazy Susan filled with ice, which I appreciated because it felt like a callback to how Dan Barber used to start meals at BHSB, with a parade of simply prepared veggies. I don't know precisely what each of these were, but my favorite bites were a fermented young eggplant (the small green medallions), a tiny squash with attached squash blossom, and a "sandwich" of brassicas from the farm.
Shortly after, Evan brought over a small plate with Chinese charcuterie––lap cheong in an Italian, salumi style, the same lap cheong grilled, as you might find in Guangzhou, and a Chinese spiced semi-dry ham. Of course, all of these were made in-house from the finest pork imaginable from the farm, and all were delicious. My favorite was the grilled lap cheong, which allowed the fat to render a bit, and worked beautifully with the slight sweetness of the Chinese preparation.
Evan was clearly excited to pour me this next wine, a perfect varietal for summer, chenin blanc, which sings with acidity but also can have some heft and body––his "favorite wine right now," he said. This Central Valley chenin, from Clarksburg, just south of Sacramento, had the ripeness of Central Valley fruit but the same sort of food friendly brightness that I associate with a good, summer-appropriate chenin. I am seeing a lot of chenin on menus these days, perhaps because it is summer, and I am loving seeing the variety of the varietal!
With the chenin, I was brought a take on a Chinese "prosperity salad," which is a dish traditionally served during the Chinese New Year. The salad is served deconstructed, and Evan explained that the legend is that the higher one can "toss" it, the more prosperous your year will be. I suppose I missed the association between "toss" and "salad," because I ditzily asked Evan if I was supposed to toss the whole bowl up and... like... catch it, to which he flatly responded "no, toss it with the chopsticks." Embarrassing!
The salad was made with Alaskan sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, which was the most pristine, beautiful sockeye I'd ever seen or tasted, and was almost beet red. Shredded summer veggies were in the mix as well, all dressed with a fermented plum sauce crafted by the preservation department. Once tossed together, everything was absolutely delicious, but I could not get enough of the perfect salmon, which I cut into smaller and smaller bites to make it last. Wow. The beauty of perfect ingredients.
The second course was one of the most flavorful things I'd had in a long time. Custard from the milk of Blue Hill cows was served sort of panna cotta, or "tofu" style in the bottom of a big shell, topped with thinly-sliced conch meat and spices. I took ages to eat it because I enjoyed every bite so much.
Hannah told me they wanted to name the next cocktail "The Steve" because she knew I'd love it so much. Made with armagnac, citrus, and all manner of savory flavors, including shiitake, it had a full body and savory backbone that paired beautifully with the deep, complex flavors of the Chinese ingredients. A great cocktail for me, and a stellar way to pair a beverage with Chinese-inspired dishes.
A "master stock" is a Chinese broth that is used repeatedly to braise meat or vegetables, absorbing the flavors of each cooking. To prepare a master stock for this residency, which was largely veggie-focused, they added anything they didn't use from the veggies from the farm and put it into the stock pot. This process started weeks before Chef Jonathan came to Stone Barns and continued throughout his residency, meaning the pot of broth became more complex and evolved every day as things were added. It was a fairly tangy stock, given its vegetable base, but was loaded with flavor, and served with nixtamalized Barber whole wheat noodles made by the bread department, herbs and flowers, and white currants. I love the entire concept behind the dish, particularly creating a vehicle for veggie bits that would otherwise be composted, and the constantly evolving broth, but there were a couple elements of the dish that seemed a shade out of place, most notably the currants, which were too tangy in a broth that already had a lot of pucker to it. The savory cocktail, of course, was a perfect complement.
It's not a Stone Barns meal without bread. Their bread department made a whole wheat version of bao, a normally bright white Chinese style bun, served with a lard from Blue Hill pigs dressed with Chinese chives and Sichuan peppercorn. I loved every bite of this, but my I-might-have-had-COVID-a-few-weeks-back palate didn't pick up the Sichuan peppercorn, one of my favorite things. Alas.
Remember how I wrote about the preservation department being the real heroes of this meal by producing from scratch many of the condiments that they'd normally have to buy? Fish fragrant sauce, a Chinese mother sauce, is one such condiment. It takes years to create from all manner of ingredients, but the preservation team created a vegetable-based version of the sauce using things like figs, black garlic, shiitakes, and miso. The result was an immensely flavorful, sticky sauce that paired beautifully with another play on a Cantonese classic, "squirrel-style" fried fish––a technique which debones the fish, flips it inside out, cross-hatch scores it, and deep fries it––this version not made with fish, but rather with a slice of eggplant from the farm. Wow.
Hannah brought my next wine, telling me it's currently her go-to wine to drink at home. Beaujolais can have a ho-hum reputation among many in the wine world, but there are producers that make real magic out of the gamay grown in the region. This house, recently discovered by Hannah, creates a gamay with such depth, complexity, and color, one might mistake it for a syrah, but it still carries that immensely aromatic essence of Beaujolais gamay. Cool wine!
Clay pot rice was next, made with rice that is actually the only local-grown rice you can get in the Hudson Valley, made in a sort of flood plain in New Jersey, and served with a Stone Barns egg yolk and chanterelle and donko shiitake mushrooms. Evan cooked it in the hot clay pot for me, letting the egg yolk solidify slightly among the grains. It was nourishing and delicious. Alongside, two little nuggets of deep fried chicken mushroom were served, meant to play on "General Tso's chicken," but instead "General Tso's chicken mushrooms," borrowing from one of Dan Barber's classic dishes, chicken mushroom nuggets. So fun.
A wine from Corsica was next, which Evan was jazzed about, because it bridged the gap between the sort of grit and "oomph" of those warm Mediterranean Italian reds and silk of reds from the west of France. A really lovely wine with grip, but singing red fruit reminiscent of the sexiest of pinots, and a perfect pairing with the lamb dish to come.
Stone Barns lambs are, of course, the best you can get, and were the focus of the next series of bites. The centerpiece contained two cuts of lamb––the loin served in a more "western," dressed-down style and the jowl served grilled with a mystery Chinese-style sauce, served alongside a spring onion. Complementing this was a plate of dressed brassicas, similar to the brassicas served at the beginning, which are very much in season at Stone Barns and a key ingredient in Chinese cuisine, and some beautiful cherry tomatoes served also with a mystery Chinese sauce and condiments. By "mystery" I of course mean that I just can't remember. Each bite was delicious, but the lamb was just special.
Knowing my tolerance for eating weird things, the Aussie on staff, who tends to bring me the weird dishes, presented a whole wheat dumpling made with lamb offal (essentially, organ meat) and brains and a sort of mild chili-based sauce. Really delicious, and I always appreciate getting to taste a little something different from the normal menu every time I visit. Also, a great way to use edible cuts from the lamb that would otherwise go to waste.
I always get so sad when the savory courses are done, but this time I had to return my rental car fairly early in the evening, and also was getting more full than I usually do here, so I was resigned to continuing to dessert. The first set of desserts were a bunch of summer berries––a caramelized cherry, blackberries, young raspberries (the first of the season), a white raspberry, a grilled plum in a plum sauce, green strawberries crusted in a sugary condiment, and––not a berry, but a fruit––a slice of cantaloupe. Reminded me of the type of thing you might see at Noma, Chef Jonathan's old stomping grounds.
A little bowl of ice cream with foraged blueberries was served alongside. That Blue Hill milk is simply the best.
Hannah brought me a take on a sazerac for my dessert pairing. They took purple barley that Chef was using for the residency and smoked it, then added that flavor to vodka, making an almost mezcal-like spirit, then added the citrus and anise to create the cocktail. So good, and, as Hannah put it, "the closest we are allowed to come to distilling our own spirits." Now, wouldn't that be something!
An "egg roll" was the next dessert item, this one filled with Stone Barns egg custard and made with a shell of buckwheat. So simple; so delicious. A Macao-style sweet egg tart and a spongy cake the constitution of which I cannot remember (I lost my menu on my way back to the city) were also served alongside for the last two sweet bites.
Not feeling quite ready to go, I had Evan bring me another cocktail, a rose hip daiquiri, and was loosened up enough that I decided I had the strength to try my first baijiu. Baijiu is a Chinese spirit that most westerners don't know about, but is actually the most widely-consumed spirit in the world. There is an incredible variety of baijiu, from light, clean, floral permutations to downright funky, nasty, savory ones. I had asked Hannah at the beginning of the meal if she had been brave enough to try and acquire any baijiu for this residency, and as I figured, she had brought one in, but the best she could find in a category that would appeal to at least some western palates.
This baijiu, from Sichuan Province, is of a type known as "strong aroma," which is almost always sorghum-based and has robust aromas of tropical fruit like pineapple which come from a high preponderance of esters in the spirit. If you can get past the slight "baby vomit" resemblance that the esters give the spirit and view the taste instead as tropical fruit, it is actually a rather pleasant, flavorful, and rather fragrant spirit to enjoy. Not that I'll be seeking it out any time soon, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable way to end the meal.
Stone Barns surprises me every time. How cool that they used nothing imported in this meal, instead relying on the preservation department to create versions of traditional sauces and condiments using ingredients that came exclusively from the Hudson Valley and environs. An incredible commitment to the ethos of this place, and one that produced spectacular results. Certainly one of my favorite Stone Barns residencies to date.
I may have to miss the next couple, since I'll be abroad for most of the next one and should probably be tightening my purse strings a bit after a summer of travel! Stay tuned, as always, for reports from my next adventure!