August 9, 2013
Our taxi from the train station narrowly missed the chicken on the driveway; as he dropped us off at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the driver said cheerily, “I’m going to try and hit that chicken on the way down. It would make a great dinner for my kids.” From the corner of my eye I could see him contemplating the sheep grazing in the meadow, thinking they’d be pretty tasty too.
They would be great – but reducing the experience that Dan Barber and his crew produce to mere food would be to miss the best part of the evening. This is a restaurant unlike any other I’ve ever been to.
You know all the pertinent parts: the restaurant in the former Rockefeller dairy barn raises a great deal of the food that appears on the plate. They’ve got greenhouses and fields filled with organically-grown vegetables you’ve never heard of, and their pigs forage for acorns in the woods behind the restaurant. There are cows and sheep and chickens, and the Stone Barns team is so intent on recycling that even the bones are turned into charcoal. Nothing goes to waste.
The place is as gorgeous as a movie set, with a dream-like quality that sometimes makes you pinch yourself (go look at the website). The flowers! The candles! The beauty of each plate. And the service is superb in a particularly American way; it’s friendly without being familiar.
But something else is happening here: there’s a communication between the kitchen and the customer that I’ve not seen anywhere else. There is no menu; you simply put yourself in their hands and the staff intuits your desires. I doubt that any two tables get the same meal.
I can’t remember a dinner I’ve liked better than the one I had last night. It was a progression of tiny courses that paid homage to the season. I left the table, after a five hour meal feeling light and incredibly happy.
The meal was extremely simple. Most of the courses were tiny vegetables that spoke for themselves. A handful of tiny tomatoes that burst into the mouth. Baby fennel, strident with anise-flavor, curled into a “plate” made of bark. Infant leeks, so thin they were barely visible, pulsating with flavor. Tiny beans that looked like threads. Chinese gooseberries. A single watermelon cucumber the size of a marble. A whole eggplant, charred in the ashes, its creamy white flesh scooped out and served with just-harvested sesame seeds and tomato foam. Cantaloupe simply seared and then distilled into a fragrant drink. Little “tacos” made of turnip that we wrapped around lobster and a trio of fruit and vegetable salsas. The parade of vegetables went on and on, occasionally punctuated with a perfectly cooked egg, a gorgeous little cracker, or the astonishingly fine house-made pepperoncini.
The biggest surprise: pig heart “pastrami” so delicious it would make any offal-hater change her mind. And the single best piece of bread I’ve had in years: a slice of brioche made with heritage wheat that tasted like no wheat I’ve experienced in my life. Served with seductively delicious just-made ricotta and a savory marmalade, it has given plain old bread, butter and jam something to aspire to. I will never forget those flavors.
This meal was so much fun to eat; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at dinner. It led, finally, to a single gorgeous piece of pork – sweet, tender, and just enough. Biting into that rosy meat I felt as if everything that had come before had been a tribute to this animal.
Dessert was wonderful too – peaches with white chocolate, blueberries, and the strawberry cannelloni that’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened.
It was, for me, a perfect meal. But I noticed that the people at the next table were eating a completely different dinner; they had more meat, more composed dishes. They seemed every bit as happy as we were. And that’s the main point.
All through the meal I could sense a silent communication between the front of the house and the back. They were watching what we were eating, figuring out what we liked, adjusting the food. This is, of course, what you do at home when you cook for your family. But I’ve never before seen that happen in a restaurant. At Stone Barns you aren’t just paying for a meal, you’re forging a relationship. A relationship so extremely pleasing that all you can think at the end is, “How soon can I come back?”
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