Thursday, July 13, 2006

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Be here now. Right here! Right now!

When I recently sat down with Dan Barber, the chef of the two renowned Blue Hill restaurants and Creative Director of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, Barber was clear that Blue Hill at Stone Barns was not a departure from the Blue Hill restaurant he has run for years in downtown New York – that his approach to food remained unaltered by his experience with the pioneering center for sustainable agriculture he founded in Westchester.

The fact that Chef Barber’s cuisine has not been changed by Stone Barns is remarkable. How could living the most far reaching social experiment to take place in the Hudson Valley since Harvard scientists Timothy Leary and David Alpert (Ram Dass) turned the Danheim estate into a living laboratory of communal odyssey, LSD, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and inner peace not change Barber’s approach to food? But to Barber it’s a sign of success.
When we spoke, I took him to mean that this extraordinary fact held out the promise that cuisine based in seasonal local ingredients stood on its own and could be emulated in a variety of places – that the experiment could be replicated and was therefore revealing of an objective truth. But perhaps it was less that and more of an appreciation of the realization of an unchanging personal truth, one that is as much about the Blue Hill aesthetic of controlled elegance as political and social in nature. Perhaps the Stone Barns experience is a manifestation of that aesthetic. (Note to Readers: This has significant implications for the observations and issues discussed when I first wrote about Stone Barns. Click here for the post.)
At the heart of Stone Barns is the Blue Hill restaurant where Barber oversees a kitchen that serves the peas, mint, radishes, Berkshire pig, lamb, eggs and ever changing produce and meats from the Stone Barns farm, together with complimentary ingredients from more somewhat distant sources, into a gracious dining room that opens itself to the hills of working fields, grazing pastures and woods in which it is nested.

When I dined at Blue Hill in early summer the menu was focused on sweet peas, fava beans, cauliflower, baby summer vegetables and Berkshire pig from the farm. The kitchen does no more to each ingredient than is essential to present its full flavor for realization in taste. A confident intuition of maximum restraint is at work in each dish with results that favor the aesthetics of truth of native flavor over the glory of transformation. This approach makes it possible to serve the crops of the moment across several courses without reliance on pyrotechnics of spice and richness of sauce.

In a first course, Blue Hill picks up each small white turnip, rosy headed radish, orange and white carrot and slender young fennel with pale root below extravagant wispy leaves and places them, intact from the root point to the still delicate greens, atop a small spike on an unadorned wooden block. The vegetables appear as an apparition of the rows of root crops in the field – freed of the earth, now washed, and dipped in just enough salted brine to cultivate the inherent flavor - arriving to initiate one into the meal.
Peas are served first as a cool but deeply bodied soup to be sipped from a tall clear shot glass. Then alone, a small pile of blanched snap peas are presented with only a few flakes of sea salt and a hint of oil but with a rich smooth green emulsion of pea beneath the shells pooled in the base of the miniature dish in which the bright peas are stacked. Each pod is impeccably cleaned and heated just enough to give with ease to the bite but without surrendering any decibel of crunch. The peas have been gently forced to fully assert their own sugars and elemental qualities.

Simple cod served glistening white with coconut broth on its surface is pitch perfect. The garlic scapes and spike of intense parsley flavor in the green speckled pistou bring the dish back from far away places with coconut palms to the immediacy of the farm.

The pork, rare slices of loin together with a thick cut of soft belly meat and melting fat under crisp salted skin, was precisely as I had wished it would be, a preparation seeming to follow inevitably from the sight of foraging fat Berkshires in the nearby woods, rooting and positioning for sunning spots in leaves on the cool wooded earth.

Dining at Blue Hill is an experience that is immediate, complex and intricately connected to the joys and pleasures in the here and now of season and place. The restaurant makes sense of the larger Stone Barns experiment. How anyone could experience the vivid sensations created from simple ingredients of the moment in the Blue Hill kitchen and not want to find a way to infuse the rest of life with what they have discovered is beyond me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a big flop in my book. They have little or no respect for the products they use, service is lacking and pretentious, and the prices are simply nuts.

I have given BHSB a few chances, and they have failed every time. Having eaten in some wonderful restaurants all around the US and Europe, BHSB ranks well at the bottom.