review: untethered…

Amuses Bouches
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Pocantico Hills, New York

On one side, you have those who would look at it and say, “It’s just a salad.”

On the other side, you’ll find those who would argue, “It may be just a salad, but that’s not the point.”

I have to admit, I expected more than a few leaves of baby lettuces, three tiny halves of asparagus tips, and some minced dried apricots.  Not because I was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  But because it was presented as an asparagus salad, and I was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

At this point in our meal, the preciousness of Blue Hill at Stone Barns was eclipsing whatever culinary or social importance it might have.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Pocantico Hills, New York

More smitten by the restaurant’s dedication to sustainability than the food itself, I had left that idyllic patch of sustainability in Pocantico Hills two years earlier less starry eyed than simply pleased. Service could have been better, but it was a lovely meal in a lovely setting marked by fresh ingredients and well-prepared food.

As I said in my first review of the restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a unique and special place.

And not much had changed between that first experience in 2007 and my last one in May of 2009, except the service was worse this second time and the food was spottier. In fact, it was, quite easily, my second-most disappointing meal of 2009 next to Bouley.

If there is any excuse to be made, we happened upon the restaurant over the James Beard Awards weekend, a particularly busy one for high-profiled restaurants in the area.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns Carrots and Radishes
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Pocantico Hills, New York

The room was full when we arrived a little to the later side of the evening.

I learned, after our meal, from a good friend who had lunch there earlier that day, that the house was saturated with (and probably stretched by) culinary VIPs. The results were pretty evident during our visit.  Service was frayed, dishes seemed trimmed, and the bathroom was a wreck.  The restaurant seemed out of steam, disoriented.

Although I couldn’t imagine visiting Blue Hill at Stone Barns without ordering the Farmer’s Feast ($125), given the subsequent experience, choosing a la carte might have proved more successful.

CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.  Click on the course titles to see photos of the individual courses.

Pre-Feast
Blue Hill at Stone Barns Carrot and Radishes
Beet Burger
Potato Chip and Fried Sage
Flatbread
Pancetta-Wrapped Asparagus
Grilled King Salmon
Parmesan Crisp Lolly
Celery-Apple Juice

First Course
Crab
Yogurt, dill.

Palmina, Arneis, 2007

Second Course
Asparagus
Caviar, almonds.

Prager, Gruner Veltliner, 2007

Third Course
Scallop
Ramps, green garlic.

Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit, 2007

Fourth Course
This Morning’s Farm Egg
Red fife, ramps, speck.

Beaune Greves, Premier Cru 2002

Fifth Course
Handmade Pasta
Beef shank, fiddleheads.

Barolo, Vigne Dei Dardi, 1998

Sixth Course
Lamb

Spring parsnips, asparagus.

La Rioja Alta, S.A., Gran Reserva 904, Cosecha 1997

Cheese
(Supplemented $15)

Andante Farm Cheeses
“Cavatina” and “Cadence”

7th Course
Meyer Lemon Confit

8th Course
Red Beets & Chocolate
Molasses and coffee ice cream.

Macari, Block E Chardonnay, 2005

Parsnip & Spelt
Bergamot & ginger ice cream.

Petits Fours
Chestnut macarons.

Prager, Gruner Veltiner, 2007
Prager, Gruner Veltiner, 2007
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

The “Farmer’s Feast” is billed as a menu specially created for each table, taking into account preferences and dietary restrictions.  Given the number of covers at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, this isn’t possible in the sense and style in which it is advertised, especially on a busy night.

Clearly, our menu was not prepared just for us. It was based on a script that was slightly tailored at the last minute to accommodate dietary restrictions.  How do I know?  They gave us a printed copy of our menu afterward, and it was the same meal that we saw served to the tables around us in the exact same order.  Also, I sent a brief summary of my meal to my friend who had lunched there earlier in the day. Our emails happened to cross, and we discovered that we largely had the same experience.

Chef's Amuse: Potato Chip and Tuile
Potato Chip & Flatbread
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Many restaurants offer a set tasting menu, and I happily order them.  I don’t expect special treatment or special dishes.  But for Blue Hill at Stone Barns to lecture us on the spontaneity and uniqueness of our dinner beforehand is insincere and, I think, a rather insulting charade.

That aforementioned, two-bite “Asparagus”  salad was by no means bad. But I found it somewhat of a throw-away course. One just doesn’t see a plain, simple salad on a “spontaneously-assembled” tasting menu at a restaurant of this caliber and at this price.  While that statement seems haughty, consider the fact that the salad was supposed to include caviar.

2nd Course: Asparagus
“Asparagus”
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

After our meal, when we saw the printed menu, we confirmed what we had suspected – they purposely left the caviar out of our salads because one in our party had specified at the beginning of the meal that the only thing she didn’t care for was caviar. But she had emphasized to our server that she did not want the rest of the party to suffer because of it.

So, why leave the caviar out of the rest of our salads? Why not just serve her something different and give the rest of us the salads with the caviar as it was served to all of the other tables? Or, if they wanted our entire table to enjoy the same dish, why not just send out something else without compromising this salad as it was intended?

5th Course: Handmade Pasta
Handmade Pasta
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

There were many inconsistencies between what was announced and what was set down before us. Deer tongue was presented as ramps. Meat-filled ravioli were presented as gnocchi, leaving us scratching our heads wondering whether we were given some other table’s order. Later, upon inquiring, we were told that they called them “gnocchi” because the pasta dough for the ravioli was made from gnocchi dough. The explanation was unconvincing and confusing. (“Handmade Pasta“)

6th Course: Pastured Lamb
Lamb
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

We were also told that the meat filling was pork.  But that didn’t taste right.  Then we were told it was beef short rib meat, and finally beef shank, which agreed with the printed menu.

I should make it clear that our servers were very friendly. But they were either misinformed or careless.

There were also inconsistencies with the food.

That gnocchi dough was shockingly sticky and gummy.

Lamb” arrived on what seemed to be chilled plates. The meat was too cold to enjoy. Begrudgingly, two in my party insisted on sending theirs back. So back they went for all of us.

Chef's Amuse: Celery-Apple Juice
Celery-Apple Juice
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

When our lamb returned, replated, it was warmer, though tepid.

This time, our plates came with a rib chop, sliced loin meat, and a square of belly (slightly different cuts from those we sent back). Instead of the dark leafy greens, this second version came garnished with dill. Otherwise, the accompaniments were the same.

The lamb was very tender and full of flavor (just slightly musky). The rib chop, especially, was very good.  But the most extraordinary thing about this dish was actually the wine pairing. The La Rioja Alta, S.A., Gran Reserva 904, Cosecha 1997 acted as a speakerphone for the dill. The pairing was so potent that one whiff of the wine brought the dill back in the mouth. It was an amazing coupling.

Bread
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Pocantico Hills, New York

This leads me to ask: since dill did not come on our first plating, was the addition of dill a mistaken omission on the first plate, or was its addition in the second plate a stroke of luck? The wine had already been poured before the food was presented.

Save that one lamb pairing, none of us thought any of the wines paired well with the food. Like my first visit, the wine pairings were the most disappointing parts of our meal.

These issues aside, the majority of food was good.  There was a delicious “Scallop” that was scored, seared, and served with a sweet and sour ramp sauce.  Looking like an anemone, it was my favorite dish of the night.

4th Course: This Morning's Farm Egg
This Morning’s Farm Egg
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

This Morning’s Farm Egg” was textbook – crunchy shell, runny yolk – it was just as good as it was the first time I had it here.  A touch of acid helped cut the richness.

And there was a fairly straightforward “Crab” dish that was essentially a light crab salad dressed with tart yogurt and herbs.

Our meal was handsomely book-ended by a parade of pre-feast snacks and a couple of very good desserts. “Red Beets & Chocolate” aren’t a novel couple anymore, but together with the accompanying coffee ice cream, the dessert took on a  fascinating petrol-like flavor that made the coffee flavor in the ice cream seem more savory than a sweet.

Supplement: Andante Dairy Cheese
Andante Dairy Cheese
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

We added a cheese course, which was generously portioned and quite nicely done, although I wonder how shipping Soyoung Scanlan’s Andante Dairy cheeses from the other coast qualifies as a sustainable practice. (We were offered an additional wine pairing for the cheese – a white wine. We declined.)

If Blue Hill at Stone Barns’s niche is offering local, sustainable, and seasonal products, then I’m not sure I understand how serving chestnut macarons in the springtime fits into their model either. To my knowledge, chestnuts are neither local (are they?) nor seasonal.

7th Course: Meyer Lemon Confit and Buttermilk Ice Cream
Meyer Lemon Confit and Buttermilk Ice Cream
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

I don’t expect the restaurant to be a slave to its cause, but, unlike other parts of the meal, I think that the cheese plate and petits fours presented rather easy opportunities for the restaurant to translate its philosophy onto the plate.

At my first meal, we were served tomatoes, stone fruits, green beans, eggs, chicken, pork, beans, corn, and multiple types of fruit all from the Stone Barns farm. Our brook trout was fished from the grounds of the surrounding Rockefeller estate.

This time, we had baby carrots and turnips, asparagus, egg, spinach, and deer tongue from the farm.

Petits Fours
Chestnut Macarons
Blue Hill at Stone Barns

But we also had crab and scallop, neither of which came from the farm. We had lamb that came from Elysian Fields, if I’m not mistaken. That’s in Pennsylvania. We had cheese from California. And I don’t believe pine nuts grow anywhere near Pocantico Hills, neither do chestnuts.

I wasn’t expecting Blue Hill at Stone Barns to serve a complete meal from its own farm. That’s not its mission as I understand it.

But, considering that the restaurant boasted a list of nearly a hundred seasonal items, all allegedly at the kitchen’s disposal, I have no idea why the same two or three vegetables appeared at every turn, or why so many of the ingredients seemed to have been outsourced.  Given the larder that the restaurant claimed to have, our meal seemed highly unimaginative. This dinner at  Stone Barns might as well have been a meal at any number of sustainably minded, locally-focused restaurants around the country.  In this regard, Blue Hill at Stone Barns seems to have finally jumped the shark.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Pocantico Hills, New York

There are far too many comparable dining choices in the city (New York) and an increasing number of noteworthy farm-to-table experiences elsewhere for me to justify returning to Stone Barns to eat again.  Our meal was by no means a disaster, but it was an awkward one plagued by consistently careless and confused service and some so-so food.  For me, the cause for which the restaurant reputedly stands remains far more compelling than its food.

I don’t doubt that the house had a very tiring day of taking care of very high-profile guests.  I’m just sorry that it showed at our meal.

I would, however, like to tour the farm one day. A severe time crunch on my first trip and a heavy downpour on my second have precluded me from doing so.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Executive Chef/Owner Dan Barber
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, New York 10591
914.366.9600

Note: The bread and butter here is quite good.

~ by ulterior epicure on February 16, 2010.

9 Responses to “review: untethered…”

  1. “Note: The bread and butter here is quite good”

    lol.

  2. @ Moby: :)

  3. Interesting. Your account was certainly one of a less than fully memorable meal or memorable for the wrong reasons. My two experiences, neither on a high profile evening, were quite different from yours and apparently better reflect Barber’s talents and the restaurants skills.

  4. @ Doc: Well, yes. And given the tremendous talent he has, it’s particularly disappointing to have experienced one lackluster and one disappointing meal. Your positive experiences are not the exception. Mine are. And they make me very hesitant to return. Third time a charm? I’m not sure I’m willing to find out at this point. There are far too many interesting restaurants in the city. The schlep ain’t easy for a visitor.

  5. No, the schlep isn’t easy for a visitor. I stayed with my brother who lives ten minutes away. Too bad though, as I think BH@SB is one of the best examples of the genre that there is.

  6. @ Doc: I’ve heard high praise for Blue Hill NYC as well. That might be a viable option. Have you been?

  7. I’ve been to the one in the city 6 or 7 times and all of my meals were better than my one trip to the country. My meal at the farm had slightly better ingredients but the cooking is more interesting at the one in the city.

  8. That said I liked my meal in the country more than you liked yours by a pretty wide margin.

  9. Earlier this week (6/11/14) four friends joined my wife and I for a memorable, if not, perfect meal here. This was my ninth or tenth meal here since opening in 2004. One friend said it was the most interesting and exciting meal he had experienced. The full on tasting menu is the only choice now, and it is $198. We experienced it as a bit too much food by the end of the meal, but we all left happy. The service was flawless and friendly.

    We are returning with our children and their spouses in two weeks to celebrate our 51 wedding anniversary. My daughter and daughter-in-law are vegetarians, and I can’t think of a better place on the east coast for them and us to enjoy.

    It remains our favorite special occasion restaurant.

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