July 19, 2015
I'm opening with these two images because, considered together, they explain so much about the remarkable restaurant that is Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The eggplant is simply that – an entire eggplant, charred into softness and served naked. Take the time to savor the flavors and you rediscover eggplant. Eggplants are amiable creatures, so willing to take a back seat to other ingredients that they're rarely allowed a starring role. Listening to an eggplant speak with its own voice is like meeting it for the first time. The texture is creamy, the flavor clean and strong with a decided edge.
Caviar on cucumber, on the other hand, is culinary thinking in an entirely different direction. The combination reminded me, in many ways, of Joel Robuchon's famous pairing of caviar and cauliflower. The classic caviar dishes- blini, eggs, pasta – all frame the fish roe so that it stands stubbornly alone. Caviar wants to be the star, but when it encounters certain vegetables (cauliflower, cucumber), it finally deigns to relinquish its diva role and join the cast. What sets this dish apart from Robuchon's is that it is not tricked out with butter and cream; the cucumbers need no help. (That cream on top was certainly very nice, but it was definitely not necessary.)
As for those cucumbers….
We arrived at the restaurant when the sun was still high in the sky. It's good to get here early so you have time to wander the gardens and experience the fading of the light. As night falls stars dapple the sky and the Big Dipper rises until it is right above the beautiful barns that once housed Rockefeller’s pampered cattle.
Walking the fields we encountered Mike Mazourek, a plant geneticist from Cornell, who's attempting to breed a yellow cucumber resistant to the disease now threatening commercial crops. This is Mike with his Silver Slicer cucumber.
and this is Dan Barber testing the cucumber's sweetness with a brixometer (4.19). (The strawberries in the next field tested about the same.)
And here is the second course of our dinner. Mike’s cucumbers, simply sliced and so sweet I was reminded that cucumbers belong to the melon family.
Our dinner lasted almost 5 hours, and I'm not going to give you a dish by dish rundown. Here, however, are the highlights:
A little edible garden
Fermented asparagus with cattail pollen. Asparagus as you have never known it.
Baby squash with its blossom:
A squash sweet enough to eat like an apple:
Green chick peas – so remarkably sweet and soft you wonder why we only eat them dried. A revelation.
Peas stuffed with pistachios. There was something fermented in there, turning these into little surprise packages, flavor bombs that exploded when you took a bite.
Foraged greens – purslane, lambs quarters, dandelion…. with charcoal mayonnaise
Fennel salami and pickled grapes
Gazpacho julep: hiding beneath that ball of ice was the coolest, most refreshing gazpacho.
Pluots and cheese: savory fruit.
Culatello, which was served with little glasses of cantaloupe essence. A new take on prosciutto and melon. The intensity of the cantaloupe juice jolted the cured meat into an entirely unexpected sweetness.
Beans with squash blossom pesto -
Various pieces of chicken, surrounded by what a chicken eats as it hunts and pecks. Each little morsel was juicy and flavorful, but it was that foot that sent the dish into the stratosphere. (Look for the starfish on the side of the plate. ) A delicious explosion of crunch, crackle and flavor, it made me wonder about other ways with chicken feet.
There was so much more – little daikon "tacos" filled with blue fish and pork. Bread with three different butters. Baby kohlrabi. Roasted garlic. The sweetest beet I've ever met. And finally an entire parade of fruit and vegetable desserts.
The finale was this absolutely irresistible apricot kouign amann. Ending with a pastry that's all butter, sugar, artifice and crunch underscored how resolutely simple the meal had been. Mostly vegetables; many of them raw. And yet it was a thrilling circus of new flavors.
Driving home (late at night, when there's no traffic it’s only about twenty minutes to Manhattan), I asked myself what, exactly, I want from a restaurant. Because this was a meal that challenged every notion most of us have about what a fancy meal can be.
Well, not every notion. The service is stunning. Thoughtful. Attentive. Just friendly enough. The wine list is fascinating. And the room is beautiful and extremely peaceful.
But the food does not resemble that of any other restaurant. As the evening ended Dan came out with a worried look on his face. "Was it enough? Do you need a steak or something?" If we'd said yes, I'm sure a big piece of pork or lamb would have instantly appeared.
But that would have ruined everything. For almost five hours I'd been stimulated and thrilled. I often leave a long restaurant meal with the guilty sense that I've just consumed much more than my share of the world's protein. Now I floated out the door with the lightest feeling – and the sense that I'd had a small taste of the future.
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