Monday, October 04, 2010

Blue Hill Stone Barns Revist

The seasons had changed, I had grown older —in fact, I had returned to Blue Hill Stone Barns to mark just that, a landmark birthday. But how had the restaurant stood up in the two years since my first visit? My virgin meal took place in early summer, but my return visit would allow me to witness it under the guise of late summer. The season can make a world of difference when the mission of the restaurant relies on fresh, local food. At Blue Hill, the diner must trust the chef as there is no set menu; the chef decides how to compose your meal from what is available at on the farm or from nearby sources. Because of this, a chef must be versatile and able to adapt to changing limitations. The ingredients from which your meal is drawn might determine just how much you enjoy the meal. It was essential to me that my group was an eat-anything crowd —more flexibility and range given to the chef, higher chances to see his full creativity, just a naked look at what might be inspiring him on this night.

In place of the traditional menu, there is the list of possible ingredients, the roulette wheel from which our dinner would be constructed. You can return to Blue Hill and never have the same meal twice (even if you eat more than once in the same season) because the list of ingredients is long, many of which will be unfamiliar to most.

The Concord: fresh concord grape juice, gin, juniper berries

We went with the five-course menu. One of my dining companions remarked that for her, tasting menus mean leaving hungry. But this meal set her straight. The portions are large and filling and there are many interstitial treats, turning this into a great value. Our waiter told us that he hoped we liked tomatoes, as it would be a dominant ingredient for the evening. He also made sure to check not only on food allergies, but general food preferences. The restaurant is incredibly accommodating. Even after we told him we were ready to eat anything, he questioned our comfort with fatty cuts of meat or eggs with a runny middle. I appreciated this attention.

Part of the philosophy of BHSB is "to create a consciousness about the effect of everyday food choices." Some might question the lavishness of this meal — and I recognize my fortune in being able to afford such luxury — but eating here does make one more aware of a connection to food. There is an emphasis on how good the things from nearby fields can taste, but also, as we taste together, on how we socialize around food and create conversation and bond over eating these same things at once. We are drawn in closer as we gauge one another's reactions, searching others' faces and keeping our ears open for the sounds of enjoyment or distaste.

The intensity of our excitement throughout the meal could not be capped. It was already later in the evening on a Sunday night, so not every table was filled, which seemed to make for a more relaxed atmosphere. Whispers from surrounding parties softened the shadowy candlelight and enhanced a sense of wonder and mystery as the servers, coordinated in their movements, placed each new composition before us.

A shot of spicy tomato gazpacho.

Tomato burgers. These were very sweet and tasted like sun-dried tomatoes.

An array of vegetables: romanesco, tomatillo, sungold tomato, hakurei turnip (the entire thing, including the leaves, could be eaten). The turnip was spicy, emanating a soft heat. The other vegetables feel like a direct connection to the earth; there is no masking here, the vegetables speak for themselves.

Pastry cups with cured duck & walnut (top) and tomato & eggplant.  The duck had a dry earthiness, its taste reminded me of the smell inside of a butcher shop with hanging legs of dried meats. The tomatoes burst in your mouth, an explosion of juice and sweet pulpiness.

Polenta with pickled vegetables.

House-cured charcuterie: home made toscano salami, which tasted like corned beef, and beef salami.

The Potato & onion bread came from Balthazar (it's baked 60 percent and finished in-house) served with local butter, corn salt and tomato salt. This is some of the best bread I've had. Its slightly charred, crispy, crumbly crust and chewy insides made it dangerously addictive. It was served in a more traditional bread basket and we even got a second round.

Late summer fruit and vegetable salad: purslane, grilled cantaloupe, grilled watermelon, ricotta cheese, fennel, peaches, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese. The unusually grilled fruit was stunning. The cheese was soft and milky.

Smoked maine lobster in a dairyless corn and clam chowder. The velvety tenderness of the lobster was immersed in a magically creamy chowder with soft razor clams and sweet bursts of corn. Depth of flavors and a wonderful seafoody pungency stunned our tastebuds and made this a hit with the entire table.

A poached farm egg from that morning with spinach, mushroom & pancetta. The egg was slightly overwhelmed by the heavy-handed sprinkling of bread crumbs on top.

Stone Barns pork belly with zucchini puree & chicory, and a fried zucchini flower. We received an extra course and I think this might have been it. I loved the addition of the fried zucchini flower to complete the zucchini part. The pork had a cinnamony taste to it.

Beef and beef heart from a Connecticut farm with greens and lima beans. It was at this point that some members began to hit a wall of satiety (but we did not let it go to waste). The beef heart was smooth and milder than the actual meat. The beef itself was not as rich as I remembered it being the last time I was here, which it made it easier to eat more of it.

Sunflower and plum cake with lemon verbena ice cream and honey vanilla custard. The custard was heavenly. I appreciated the non-traditional dessert, even if it was not the best one I had ever tasted.

Hazelnut milk chocolate birthday cake.

Concord grapes & canadian ice grapes with honeycomb and whiskey chocolate truffles. This was a great conclusion to the meal rather than a mere traditional sweet. The grapes were mild and the honeycomb added the sweetness the grapes lacked. Everyone was a bit baffled by how best to eat the honeycomb — suck the honey from the comb and leave the wax on the plates, we supposed. Several of us were left picking the wax out of our teeth.

Where I thought the night was winding down and could not get better was where I was mistaken. The waiter came and set before me an envelope. Was he assuming I was picking up the tab? Everyone looked at me in confusion as I slowly withdrew what was inside. It was a copy of the list of ingredients, but this one had been signed personally for me by Dan Barber, the chef. He had also circled several of the ingredients and scribbled some of the dishes he had made from them. It was an incredible gift! It was proof that Barber himself had been there and that they had been paying attention. The waiter came back and said that that's what happens when they see someone writing down everything served. BHSB knows how to make it seem like you are the only table in the restaurant even when you know you're not.

This was a dual celebration: a celebration of a special occasion and a celebration of delicious, impressively prepared food and BHSB splendidly accomplished both.

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