There are meals in life that are great for many reasons. Sometimes a waiter can stand out as very knowledgeable, or perfectly figure out your likes and preferences and tailor suggestions to you. Other times a setting may make the meal, such as our incredible seafood on the Croatian Island of Hvar under the night sky with the sea breeze drifting in. Sometimes instead the food can speak for itself and be perfection of a specific technique or wildly imaginative. Others can blow you away with food you aren’t familiar with or reinvent it in a novel way. Blue Hill at Stone Barns stands out because it somehow ticks all these boxes.
Stone Barns, the farm itself, is a center for agriculture and food in upstate New York, about an hour north of New York City. The farms are a working farm system growing a variety of plants and even pasturing some livestock. You can tour during the day, but since we ate in the winter, we unfortunately couldn’t see the whole center. I was hoping to spot a sheep or goat on the drive in, but sadly was only greeted by the valets, who were excellent by the way. One even came running down the path to bring us an umbrella due to a light drizzle. This type of service continued throughout the night, but I’ll get there.
Being a working farm, Blue Hill sets the menu (available only as a $200 or so tasting menu called the Grazing, Pecking, Rooting menu) based on the food available from the farm at the time. In early winter, late December, this included a lot of root vegetables, but each was so well prepared, it didn’t get old after even 15 or so courses, including the same ones prepared in multiple ways. What was most interesting though, was the thoughtful way in which dishes were prepared and presented to tie it back to the fact that it came from the same farm you are sitting on, sometimes right around the building like the playful “foraging for nuts” course which evoked the staff going out and foraging the grounds for chestnuts. A visit to the old manure shed (thankfully no longer used for that purpose) also brought it home how food is sourced and prepared. There is less protein than a typical menu, in our case three courses of about 30, because of this sourcing, but rather than missing it, it gives plenty of room for exploration of other food as a focal point, and again makes you realize the cost of sourcing so much protein from around the world at other restaurants.
The amazing staff also hammer home these points without being pedantic or sticking it down your throat. I calculated a staff to patron ratio of about 2.5 staff per diner at one point and it shows. There is constant attention, we often realized our water had been refilled without noticing it. My wine was refilled within second of putting the empty glass down, and there was no pressure to go for the $150 wine pairing. Our waiter served the majority of dishes and took us on a quick tour of the bakery and the manure shed. He, as well as the other staff, sometimes a single waiter served a single dish, not to be seen again, explained each dish including the ingredients, as well as a little information about the inspiration and preparation of each. They also had no issues substituting a few dishes due to food allergies or aversions.
We ended up with about 30 courses, though sometimes they were small enough or arrived constantly enough to possibly be considered multiple components of a single course. It was enough food to feel completely satisfied and slightly overly full at the end, but not exceptionally so. Each table got a slight variation of the meal. A table of six near us got a pizza type dish, the table of two next to us got an egg dish where you were presented with the eggs, had to guess which would be red, and then got served both cooked. We instead probably lucked out the most and got an exceptional lamb dish. It is a marathon of a meal, lasting about three hours, but some of the most pleasant three hours imaginable.
Not a single dish was anything less than amazing, but the standout were three veggie dishes that felt closely tied to the land, a brussels sprout dish which required cutting with a mini scythe, needles in a haystack, a dish where you had to find breadstick like sticks in a bunch of grass, and the foraging for nuts, delicious chestnuts stuffed with cream that had to be found under leaves. The the mushroom burgers were a bite sized burger with the most delicious flavor, and I don’t normally like mushrooms much. I also really liked a root salad with raw components, which then was proceeded with another salad with the exact same ingredients, but cooked this time. I thought that was incredibly imaginative. The potatoes in the manure shed were also very memorable, both for the awesome ambiance of the setting and the best potatoes I’ve ever had, somehow cultivated to be naturally creamy. I don’t know what a sweet beet is, but it was the most delicious crispy, fried tasting sweet and savory dessert.
*Full disclosure to the readers, the names and description of these dishes are from memory. They may not be word for word accurate as the server described but are my best attempt to remember ~30 dishes.
We arrived about an hour early, definitely do so, or allow even more time in the summer for a tour, and waited in the super cozy bar area. The fire was blazing, the high backed leather chairs were super comfortable, and with a tasty Horchata in hand, I almost fell asleep. Thankfully woke up a bit as we started at 9:30 and our meal didn’t end until nearly 1. The Horchata was nice and savory and went perfect with the hearty root veggies for the first few courses. An apple sage was also a great late fall / early winter warming drink.
It’s always fun to eat food off of sticks, and these veggies were no exception. Lightly salted and seasoned, they were exceptional. I am not a huge vegetable fan and had some trepidations about the volume of plants we’d be eating but from this first course my fears were put to rest.
Turnip with veggie butter
Turnips would be a big theme of the night, apparently being in season. Again, before the night, I wasn’t exactly someone who would rave about turnips, but from this first serving of them I was a believer in the book of turnip. The butter, made somehow from veggies and not dairy, was excellent and added texture.
Turnip with pickled sauce
More turnips, and so early in the meal, I was wondering if it’d be an all turnip tasting menu. Thankfully, these were so totally different that it didn’t seem like the same ingredient. This is where Blue Hill excels above perhaps any other restaurant, an ability to make similar things seem totally different and unrelated, reimagining each in the process.
Broccoli with sauce
I’d call these “veggie brooms”. You basically swept up the sauce with the broccoli like florets into a bite size taste.
Veggie chips on a tree
Sort of like the best terra chips you’ve ever had. Perfectly dried into a crispy shell with light seasoning.
Brussels Sprouts with Sauce
Brussels sprouts unlike those your grandma makes for Thanksgiving. You get to cut these off with a mini scythe and channel your inner grim reaper. The sauce was perfection on the sprouts as well.
Needles in a Haystack
A fun dish, fun is another thing Blue Hill uses to stand out in culinary excellence, where you have to find the needles, crispy breadstick like crisps inside the mound of grass like material. The grass is not edible, trust me, I tried.
Foraging for Nuts
Another “fun” dish where you are encouraged to mimic the staff who apparently often go out and forage for chestnuts on the barn grounds in the morning. The chestnuts are stuffed with cream and the nut and make for a nice palate cleanser with some sweetness and harvest time tartness. I didn’t try to eat these leaves.
House cured pastrami
Cured on-site, this is a deliciously salty slice of cured meat perfection. I wish I could have made a reuben of the whole thing. Alternately, we also got some fermented squash in a similar sized slice which was surprisingly tangy and tasty for what was actually a slice of squash.
Perhaps the favorite menu item due to the insanely high flavor to size ration. These bite sized burgers packed a tremendous earthy flavor into a small package. The stand was pretty epic as well.
Tomato Foam with Puffed Quinoa
A substitution to the dark chocolate with liver dish, this puff item was described as a mix of pop rocks and rice crispies in the mouth by my wife. I think she needs to be the creative director here.
Liver with Dark Chocolate
The aforementioned liver with dark chocolate was another dish that made me a believer of ingredients I didn’t love before. My wife’s mother makes a tasty liver dish fried, but it is so dislike this piece of liver as to seem like a different item. I was worried this liver would have a pate like taste, which I can’t stand, but with the dark chocolate, it was more like super tender beef.
Squash in charcoal tempera
Another contestant for favorite dish (ok in reality all 30 were), these fritters were unlike any squash I’ve ever had. With a crispy but tender fried crisp, and powdered sugar, it evoked a funnel cake, but less oily and fat feeling. I wish carnivals would sell these instead.
Your favorite lunch meat spruced up. This was more like a slice of bacon or pork belly in terms of tenderness than the spiral ham you may be used to.
Stalk of brussels sprout cooked
Perhaps stolen from our sprouts while occupied with the scythe and cooked, this wouldn’t be unexpected at Blue Hill. These little morsels were nice and thick with a big crunch and more tasty veggie spread.
Celery root breakfast w ginger tea and celery root yogurt
This course was served starting with the phrase, “a funny thing happens when you cook down celery root” which is how I think more sentences should begin. The world would be a better place. This dish highlighted the grapefruit like properties of celery root with both a tangy root yogurt and delicious ginger and tumeric tea. As a ginger lover, the tea was delicious and I wish I had some for cold winter days at home. The root yogurt was surprisingly convincing, but at this point in the meal, totally unexpected tastes from familiar ingredients were now expected. That didn’t make this any less unique and interesting though.
Radish, celery, pear, squash, kielbasa raw salad
This dish stood out to me not only for being delicious, which it was, but for being really inventive with the next course. The pears brought some bright citrus to the earthy notes of the root veggies.
Radish, celery, pear, squash, kielbasa cooked salad
A cooked version of the exact same dish as the last course. Sounds simple, but I can’t think of a single other restaurant that has created a similar set of dishes. So cool. And smart.
Cauliflower with cheddar cheese
Another tasty raw vegetable dish with a great balance of seasoning and a super light dressing that brought out the natural taste of the plant.
Turnip Taco Shell with Mackerel and Peach Hot Sauce
My favorite part of this dish, beside the excellent taste and the fact that it was a taco, was the huge turnip watching over our meal, looking like Wilson from Castaway. The mackerel was superb and the shell wasn’t overly vegetable tasting. The peach hot sauce was also nice and bright and not exceptionally hot.
Homemade Whole Wheat Brioche with Ricotta and Greens Butter
They do love their so called vegetable butter here, and this one was the most interesting. The greens were a bit sour, but super creamy which makes for a great spread. The ricotta was also sublime and spread super tastily on the great bread which was fluffy with a great crust.
Interlude: Tour of the Bakery and Manure Shed
At this point in the meal, we were asked to leave our table for a walk around the kitchen and bakery. In the summer, some have been taken to the porch for a course out there, but on this wintery day, I liked the bakery just fine. It was so great smelling.
Speaking of great smells, our next course was given privately in the manure shed. Luckily it hasn’t been in service for manure for a while, but this allowed for a little history on the farm and large portions of which were gifted from the Vanderbilts.
The shed was just outrageously beautifully decorated and surprisingly romantic. The private aspect was also nice. Here were got some information about the composting process sed in the shed now, as well as some of the research they do on hydroponic growing, which also happens in the shed.
Butter-less butter potato with mushroom ragout
We then were served a potato, but not just any potato. It was a potato cultivated to be buttery without need for butter, and with the creamy taste, I’d say they succeeded. It was also interestingly cooked in the compost heap, which can apparently get to temperatures over 150 degrees. I guess we enjoyed it, because by the time they brought us some shawls for the chilly room, we were already finished.
Sourdough bread with lard and butter and fennel salt
I don’t think I had previously had lard, but based on the sweet, creamy nature of the lard at Blue Hill, I may need to try more. Although, if I hadn’t had a radish before those here, I’d expect them all to be as delicious as well. The sourdough was nice and spongy with a thick crusty edge. I don’t know how one makes fennel salt, but it was amazing. I started dusting it on everything because it was so good. I almost asked for more bread before realizing how much we still had to go in the dinner.
Fowl with Butternut Squash Puree
I forget if this was partridge or another fowl, but regardless, it was fantastic. The butternut squash puree was succulent and hearty. The meat was fall apart tender with an earthy sauce that has some nice acid kick and savory season.
With this dish, we also got a bowl of chopped pancetta which was salty, fatty, and opulent. It was further enhanced by pouring what appeared to be a candle, as it was in fact candle shaped and burning, of fat or oil on it. Strange, but so totally cool. I want pork fat candles for my house.
Lamb with veggies
A dish so good, if it were the only thing, I would have been perfectly happy. The lamb was melt in your mouth tender with a “bark” or skin not unlike a great brisket with a crispy seasoning. The green veggies on the side helped cut it with acid as well.
Squash ice cream with butternut squash syrup
If you were to see Squash Ice Cream on a menu somewhere, you would never order it. It couldn’t possibly be good. Blue Hill challenges your preconceptions like this and makes what amounts to an incredible ice cream, hands down, let alone that it is made from squash. The sauce was even served out of a squash. It’s attention to detail like this that matters and stand out.
If this wasn’t a deep fried beet, I have no idea how they got the texture, moisture, and crispiness into the beet. From the rest of the meal though, I’m sure they invented some way to specifically do this to a beet, making it sugary, crisp, and delectable. You’ll never be satisfied with a jelly donut again after enjoying this masterpiece.
Breaking it apart revealed a beet red inside which was sweet. The cream underneath was also incredible and nice and fluffy.
Almond pound cake with blueberry jam
Again, I didn’t know pound cake could be something not dried out. This was moist and bread like. The blueberry jam was just heavenly. It was so well balanced between super sweet and savory that I just can’t be natural. But of course it was. It probably was picked by our waiter in the morning from a bush next to the barn.
A good dish, but not my favorite dessert. It was a little dry, but since it was served with the pound cake, the blue berry jam helped with that. The egg was nice and sweet somehow and perfectly integrated into the pastry. It smelled amazing.
Coffee and latte
Even the coffee and tea at Blue Hill were superb. My coffee almost measured up to Blue Bottle, my favorite coffee. It had a fresh sourced and roasted quality you only typically get at small batch coffee roaster and helped revive me for the drive home. It had been flurrying and some ice was on the ground, but I didn’t even mind as the exceptionally happy glow we had from the meal seemed to prevent the ice from sticking to our car.