Monday, November 17, 2008

A Summer Night's Dream

A summer dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barns is an exercise in patience, anticipation and trust. If you can manage this, you will be handsomely rewarded. The privilege is afforded only to those who manage to snag a hard-earned reservation by calling exactly 60 days before the desired dinner date and maintaining a level of persistence that pierces through the wall of busy signals likely to be encountered. So, naturally, having been tapped as one of the lucky ones, we headed into this birthday dinner with a high level of excitement.

The BHSB dining room, housed in a former barn, is a bright, airy space with high ceilings and steel beams, which effect a brilliant elegance. Late June meant a lovely, warm evening with light late into the night and a menu of beautiful summer produce from Blue Hill's farm. It meant a menu prepared for us at the chef's whim (and executive chef Dan Barber was in the house this evening) based on the best ingredients of the day. Diners receive a menu that is a menu only in the loosest terms - the only choice they need make is how many courses to enjoy, a five-course or a seven-course Farmer's Feast. Our table opted for the "conservative" five-course meal. The menu also includes an extensive list of possible ingredients to be used throughout dinner. The restaurant is exceedingly accommodating of people's allergies and even personal preferences - certain ingredients may be excluded as desired. The service was terrifically attentive and open to all of our questions - they were knowledgeable about everything they were serving.

To begin, a few of us chose strawberry sangrias - a deliciously, fresh celebratory drink with a farm-picked strawberry and a sprig of mint. From here we were off and running.

Our grand festivities began with a few amuse bouches:

Chilled pea soup, a solid chartreuse, glowing in shot glasses served in wooden placeholders. Salty and smooth.

Sesame-crusted, pancetta-wrapped asparagus delivered with a playful presentation - on tall skewers tucked into a wooden base. Double crunch.

A glass bowl of sugar snap peas lightly flavored with lemon and mint.

Mini snow pea burgers with mustard seeds served on sweet cornmeal buns - a unique flavor combination presented with a thoughtful twist.

The simple idea of combining unusual flavors is the type of diner's delight that I hope for in meals - to be surprised by the chef's deftness with and intimate knowledge of ingredients and how they manage to cooperate or clash.

A platter of bread arrived next, the equivalent of pressing the pause button on the meal. But this was not just any old bread. This was a row of Balthazar toast accompanied by Ronnybrook Farms butter; ricotta with the consistency of cottage cheese; carrot salt, and asparagus salt. The butter and ricotta cheese were familiar but deeply comforting; the salts a bit curious. We weren't quite sure how to make use of these- the best we could figure was to sprinkle some on top of one of the other spreads once put on the toast. The carrot salt had a nice earthy flavor, but the bright green (so often appearing as a constant reminder of our farm-fresh meal) asparagus salt was subtle to the point of tastelessness without an unappealingly liberal sprinkling.

Soon we began our journey into the more robust courses:

Peekytoe crab topped with Stone Barns yogurt served over an asparagus salad and mache in a deep pink-hued rhubarb broth with tapioca balls. This dish was clean and refreshing. The broth was tangy contrasted against the creamy, rich yogurt. All these ingredients meshed surprisingly well with the crab, which was well chilled, perhaps to keep the yogurt scoop from puddling.

Our next course took us back to land: Poached farm eggs crusted with panko, parmesan, and almond flour were set before us on a bed of tatsoi, surrounded by wrinkly morel mushrooms. All of this atop a creamy combination of ricotta and zucchini with a hint of mint or perhaps just the piercingly sharp flavor of the greens.

Our meal progressed gently to handmade potato gnocchi with a repeat appearance of morel mushrooms and stinging nettle puree. The "spicy" puree jolted our tastebuds, encouraging us to absorb the half-moon shaped, pillowy dumplings filled with ricotta cheese.

We ended our savory courses with pastured beef with spaetzle and a terrific carrot puree and greens. Though I am not a big fan of beef, and thus rarely eat it, this meat tasted seductively rich and buttery.

With an opportunity that seemed to be this rare, we took advantage, adding an extra cheese course to our meal. The cheese was presented in two categories: Old World and New World. There were two goats milk cheeses, a triple cream Normandy goats milk, and a brie cheese. The cheeses were accompanied by a homemade rhubarb marmalade in a miniature mason jar and pickled ramps. A relaxing interlude.

With the natural light fading, our table increasingly relied on the soft, dim candlelight.

The palette cleanser was so large we wondered if it might actually be dessert itself - a parfait of local strawberries with sour cream sorbet - a cool, rejuvenating sweet end just as our stomachs were feeling heavy and sated. One diner at our table allergic to strawberries instead received a parfait of cherries with honey and elderflower.

Our true dessert did not fail to stick to the theme of local, seasonal flavors by repeating the rhubarb in a warm rhubarb meringue with farmer's cheese ice cream and a strawberry drizzle. Again, an alternative for the strawberry allergy was provided - warm chocolate flourless cake with eucalyptus ice cream.

And no fancy meal could end without the petit four/canapes: yogurt marshmallows and sesame brownies.

This end came three or four hours after we had begun while the day still seemed young. But a superb meal carefully crafted and done right will make it seem as though time has hardly passed and that it was well worth all the effort. Blue Hill Stone Barns has perfected the recipe.

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