- Menu: normally there is an option for 4, 5 and 8 courses priced at $85, $105 and $135 respectively (the 4-course menu is only on Sundays); our 8-course Valentine’s menu was $195/person (food only)
- See the entire set of photos from this meal on my Flickr
Going local for locavore
About five years ago, when still living in London, I made a trip to New York to visit my brother. We ended up taking a road trip up to Maine and, just as we were setting out, we decided to stop off for dinner at a place he knew about not too far outside of Manhattan. The restaurant was located on a large plot of farm land owned by the Rockefellers and a hot chef had not-that-long-ago established a restaurant on the premises, which had become one of the more talked about kitchens (and larders) in the New York area.
We arrived in the late afternoon and went for a walk around the grounds. We didn’t have a reservation, and the restaurant was full for dinner, but they let us sit at the bar, where we could order the same food being served in the main dining room. The bar stools turned out to be very comfortable, and the person serving our food and drink was both knowledgeable and affable. We decided to go for the ‘farm-to-table’ menu, which meant that all of the things we ate came directly from their farm, or other local farms.
I fondly remember the pleasure we took in experiencing the amazing vegetables served to us that day, stripped down and sometimes nearly naked. The singularly perfect mini ‘beet burgers’ stand out in particular in my memory as one of the best bites I had before I began keeping track of dishes so ardently via my blog.
As many of you know, I moved back to the US about 6 months ago (boy, that went quick!). So imagine my surprise when I discovered that we live less than a 15-minute drive away from Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Since realizing our close proximity, we have gone many times to the casual Blue Hill Café for lunch, and have always enjoyed the rustic food on offer, especially their soups and the amazing savory cheese scones (you can see some photos here).
They also have regular farmers markets on the grounds, which are always fun and useful. My only niggle with the place is that they charge $5 for the privilege of parking your car on-site, which I find a tad strange and off-putting.
Anyway, I needed to plan something special for Valentine’s Day, not simply because it was V-day, but because Mrs. LF’s birthday falls on the same day and our wedding anniversary in the same week. So I figured a perfect solution would be to plan lunch at Blue Hill’s fine dining restaurant at the farm. I booked it online and made a note that we would also be bringing our 8-month old daughter.
After some emailing back and forth with the front of house, they said that while they didn’t have highchairs in the dining room they did have “tables…that are more comfortable for our younger guests.” That sounded promising and, given that Baby LF is a star when dining out with us, we thought we would be fine as long as the meal didn’t last more than a few hours. We arrived early and, just like in our back yard, there was still snow covering the ground at the farm, which had been there since late December.
We walked into the reception area, checked our coats and waited to be seated. Baby LF was still in her stroller as we assumed that she would sit in that by the side of our table throughout the meal, as she normally does. However, this is where things got slightly awkward. The person who greeted us *very quickly* told us that there were no strollers allowed in the dining room. We were a little unprepared for this news, given that our plan had involved her using the stroller throughout the meal. Given that I had specially ordered flowers, which were meant to be waiting on the table, and had also purchased a special gift, which I would present to Mrs. LF table-side, I was concerned that the whole situation was going to unravel as we couldn’t understand how our daughter was going to be able to sit with us during the meal.
Luckily, the person who seemed to be in charge came by after a few uncomfortable minutes and put us more at ease, explaining that there was a table with bench seating and that she could sit in the corner between us, supported by pillows – and that, in fact, his young child had recently done so when they dined in the restaurant. His attitude was one of accommodation and he approached us in good spirits, as opposed to the brisk and borderline confrontational ‘welcome’ that we had initially received. It was weird, because in the end, we found out that the person who had first greeted us so abruptly was actually the person who had been corresponding with me via email. All he had needed to do was explain the situation in a more constructive way and relay the fact that they had a “better” solution for us than leaving our daughter in her stroller for the duration of the meal. However, this did not happen, and we began to feel even more nervous than we already did about bringing a baby into a fine dining room. I think it made them nervous too, because there was definitely some friction, and perhaps they are not used to dealing with infants in the restaurant. As far as I see it, restaurants have two choices in this regard: (a) either don’t allow children, which is perfectly fine and within their prerogative, or (b) do allow children…and if you do, don’t make your guests feel self-conscious about brining them.
(It should be noted that as we are very new to the area and don’t have anyone who can look after our daughter as of yet, we really have no other option than to bring her with us wherever we go…hence when we go out for lunch she accompanies us, and we have never had an issue, either from the restaurants we have visited – some of which have been quite fancy – or from her [as she loves dining out too!]).
In any event, when we were finally brought to the table, we were pleasantly surprised by the layout, and Baby LF absolutely loved sitting with us like an adult. She was very comfortable and could sit up or lay down with plenty of room. We were also in the corner, out of the way, so the restaurant was probably happy too.
We were so busy getting set up for the meal that Mrs. LF didn’t even notice the flowers I had ordered for her, so I had to subtly point this out to her!
The main dining room is simple and stylish, with dark wooden beams running across the ceiling in a maze of rectangles and triangles, plus a stunning floral arrangement in the central service area. As there was only one menu that day – especially for Valentine’s – we didn’t really need to look at the menus because there were no options, but of course I did anyway.
Petite portions, incongruent ingredients
We were in better spirits, and although my own spirits would be provided through the suggested wine pairing, I ordered a celebratory glass of Champagne for my better half.
Her Blanc de Blanc from Pierre Mouncuit was exceptionally good and I snuck a few sips when she wasn’t looking. My own American fizz was pleasant enough, and these pink and white sparklers were going to serve another purpose besides mirroring my flower arrangement – we would sip them while nibbling on our amuse bouches and also for the first course.
Soon after our menus were taken away, a slate stone donning colourful dabs of edible spreadables appeared, which we were meant to function as toppings for the thin farro crisps. They were all fairly nice, though none were particularly memorable. The least successful for me was the butter, which just seemed odd to spread on such thin bread due to its texture. Also, the bread was very brittle – sort of like a papadum – and it kept disintegrating no matter what we tried to spread on top of it. As a side note, we asked the waiter what the pâté was made out of (we presumed it was liver from chicken or some other type of poultry) but he didn’t know. He tried to find out and came back and told us something rather unintelligible, and I still don’t think he exactly understood himself. 6/10.
The sparkling wines both went well with these various bites, but particularly the Champagne, which had a nice bite of its own.
After these nibbles were cleared away, they brought us glasses of fruit juice, presumably to cleanse our palates. This struck us as a bit odd, mostly because we couldn’t imagine that the grapefruit and pomegranate hailed from the farm (or a nearby one), and we thought that local sourcing of ingredients was the whole raison d’être of the restaurant. It should be noted that the glasses weren’t poured evenly, with one very clearly containing more juice than the other – and you don’t expect this lack of attention to detail in a restaurant like this. It was also just slightly odd to drink a fruit juice after the little bites we had just eaten (plus drinking fruit juices with rich and meaty foods isn’t good for your digestion).
The first of the proper courses was now upon us. I was so excited by it that I forgot to take a picture of the plate before I had eaten the oyster…oops. My anticipation was warranted, as this was a phenomenal dish. There were clean, precise, complementary flavors and textures: the saline taste of the oyster blended into the slightly tart soup, with a salty accent from the caviar and lots of mouthfeel variation from the chewy soybeans and spongy tofu. It was a very compelling dish, though I wasn’t sure how oysters or sturgeon fit the farm-to-table bill, but at least the sturgeon (and maybe the oysters) were American. 9/10.
The sparkling wines that we continued to sip also suited this course very well.
The presentation of the next dish was wonderfully whimsical. A ceramic egg crate was placed in the center of the table, containing a soft-boiled egg for each of us, along with toast soldiers and some fun accompaniments. There was nothing in particular that stood out flavour-wise with this dish – although the spinach was pretty amazing – and sadly, in my eggcitement, I forgot to sprinkle some of the pancetta inside my shell before I had nearly scooped out all of the soft loveliness inside. It was a fun and playful dish with good flavors, but certainly nothing mind-blowing. 6/10.
The accompanying wine was a 2007 Vinatigo Gual from the Canary Islands. It had a strong edge to it, which was alleviated when sipped in tandem with the dish, and I grew to like it by the time my glass was empty. It was an interesting idea for a pairing.
I think we were both struggling to control our giggles when they put down a bowl of leaves in front of us in a very fancy glass, with three pots of mostly-vegetal ‘winter flavors & textures’ placed in the center of the table, presumably for us to share. We were also given chopsticks for this course, and I almost felt transported to Japan. There was not much – if any – of a dressing on the leaves, and they tasted about the same as the greens we get from our local farmers market (or even normal market to be honest).
The pickled radishes worked well when they were interspersed with the greens using our chopsticks, but the tapenade seemed a peculiar combination for a plain salad, and while the little strips of cooked egg and ham were nice enough, they also didn’t add any particular sparkle. This was a disappointing course for us, but at least most of the ingredients were from the farm or local area (though I don’t know about the olives). 5/10.
The sommelier poured a glass of 2001 August Kessler, Kabinett Trocken ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ from the Rheingau district in Germany to go with this dish. It was refreshing and offered apple on the palate with good acidity and a little bit of length, and was a decent combination – I thought it worked with the saltiness present in the salad. It was also nice to see German wine being used in a wine pairing, as it is often omitted seemingly without reason.
After the salad came the bread. And they had not skimped on that. It was an excellent loaf of potato and onion bread with a particularly crispy and enjoyable crust. It came with good-quality butter from a nearby farm. Maybe the heartiness of the bread was meant to balance the lightness of the previous course, or maybe it was provided so we could mop up the sauce from the next course…?
The scallop dish was probably my favorite of the savory courses. It had a simple yet striking presentation and it held my attention on the palate too. A perfectly seared, humungous Maine scallop was the central component, and its underlying sweetness was aided and abetted by a thin patty of sweet shrimp (which was mixed with herbs and spices) that rested on its crown. But the reason for the success of the dish was the deeply flavored golden curry, which was gently but not timidly spiced. The cauliflower and almonds added crunch, while green grapes lent little bursts of sweetness. It was pretty much a faultless dish; I only wish there had been a little more of it. 9/10.
I am not sure how much I agreed with the wine they poured with it, which was a 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux, ‘Les Terres Blanches’ from Meursault in Burgundy. Mrs. LF felt that it cancelled out the flavors of the curry, and I sort of agreed. It is a shame as it was a good wine in its own right. I perhaps would have gone for something a bit more exotic.
The giggles that we had held in check at the sight of our crystal bowl of salad leaves suddenly returned when the fifth, and pretty ridiculous, course was presented to us. I mean, come on, just look at it. As they say in England, were they taking the p*ss? Apparently not, as the waiter dutifully explained the three vegetables that wrapped around the little balls of turkey crépinettes.
The three spheres of sausage – which were tiny! – were perfectly fine, but we really felt a bit cheated by this course. The only thing that attempted to save the dish was a particularly intense dab of black truffle sauce. Intrigued, I asked the waiter where the truffles came from, as I wasn’t sure if there were local truffles in the Hudson Valley. He once again didn’t know and went to the kitchen to check. After a few minutes passed, he came back and informed us they were, in fact, from Australia of all places. This was evidently the first he had heard of this too. By this point I was pretty sure that the restaurant had lost its way a little bit since my last meal there. I mean, I can understand that in the dearth of winter, it must not be easy to source a large and interesting menu from purely local produce (though noma seems to do it from a very cold Scandinavia), but why couldn’t they have utilized some local forest mushrooms and made a concentrated sauce out of them? 4/10, mostly because of the stingy portions (and if you read my blog, you will know that I am not usually one that is into large portions, so this is saying something).
At least we were given a terrific tipple to drink with it, in the form of a 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ from Piedmont. It has a lovely acidity to it, which kept it from overpowering (what little there was of) the turkey and truffles.
The final savory course unfortunately didn’t do much for us either – in fact, it was just plain weird. Some beautifully cooked and quite mild-tasting beef (which I believe was from the Hudson Valley) had been placed on top of some chickpeas and humus. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Well, it didn’t go together any better than it sounded on paper as far as the tastes and textures were concerned. Texture-wise, it was a very mushy affair, and it was a very odd combination in the flavor department too, with everything tasting fairly muted and nothing enhancing anything else. I didn’t understand the logic behind the dish, and also wondered where they sourced their chickpeas from as they normally grow in a very warm climate (maybe they used their greenhouses?). I don’t mean to harp on about the sourcing of ingredients – well, yes I do – but this is one of the main things on which the restaurant has historically prided itself. Just look at their description of their own menu; or rather, their lack of a traditional menu. Oh, and by the way, this portion was also pretty small. 5/10.
The red wine that we drank with the beef was a 2001 Rioja Reserva from Señorío de P. Peciña, which was a perfectly pleasant example that worked well with the beef.
Right after our unsatisfying meat course plates were removed, a waiter came to the table donning coffee and tea menus. I noted that these beverages could only be obtained by paying a supplement to the already hefty price of the meal (which had so far left us wanting in many ways). Despite this, I did want a caffeine jolt to liven things up, so I ordered the house drip coffee for an extra $4.00. I assumed that it would be brought out either with or after our dessert, but no, it arrived a few minutes after I placed the order…before the pre-dessert. Now, I have dined out at a fair number of nice restaurants, but I had yet to see this. Maybe it’s just that I’m now used to European customs, and that this is an American one, but I found it very odd, and asked the waiter to bring some fresh coffee back with, or after, the main course, which he did with a slight look of puzzlement.
I did take a better picture of the pre-dessert but I wanted to use the above image to convey a sense of how teeny it actually was. Okay, it was a pre-dessert, so it shouldn’t be too substantial, but this was part of a trend throughout the meal. In any case, this tasted very good and it functioned well, enlivening and clearing our palates for the main dessert, which was soon to come. The addition of the vinegar was a nice touch. 7/10.
I also have other pictures of the chocolate brioche, but I liked this one the best. If you care to, you can see how miniscule this portion was in reality by looking at this photo…and this was the main dessert. In any event, I wish this dessert had been bigger, because it was spectacular. It was probably as good as any gooey chocolate dessert I’ve had. It didn’t do anything ‘out of the box’, but what it did do, it did perfectly. The accompanying ice cream did taste faintly of granola, but it was more of a canvass on which to enjoy the rich dark chocolate and golden brioche. I don’t remember tasting any jam, but maybe I am mistaken. Credit where credit is due. I give it a 9/10 only because the portion again seemed stingy.
The last of the wines was a 1996 Moulin Touchais from Coteaux des Layon in the Loire Valley (a sweet Chenin Blanc). It was excellent and I was glad they decided to do something different than a Sauternes or a Banyuls.
With my newly poured coffee, we were given a few petit fours. One was a dainty little milkshake, which was pretty plain vanilla, as they say – nice but nothing to brag about.
The second was a little wedge of chocolate, with crispy edges, which from memory was very nice. I would give the petit fours a 6/10 overall as there didn’t seem to be any real imagination behind them, and if you are just going to serve a vanilla milkshake in a place like this, it should at least be one of the best vanilla milkshakes your guests are likely to have had…and, for me, it wasn’t.
We asked for the bill and the three of us were on our way. I should note that the gentleman who had made us feel very uncomfortable at the beginning of the meal did come by towards the end of the service and was in much better spirits – he was very pleasant and I assume he was trying to make amends for what we felt was an initially abrupt and slightly icy greeting. He was also very helpful as we exited the restaurant and was definitely rolling out the charm. I hope it wasn’t simply because the staff had probably seen us photographing the food throughout the meal.
When refinement goes too far
I had very mixed feelings about this meal, but most of them were negative. A lot of this was not to do with the food itself, but rather being made to feel quite on edge from the word ‘go’. We felt very self-conscious throughout the meal, and I don’t think we were just being paranoid. It also felt as if the people serving us were walking on eggshells, possibly because we had a baby with us. However, as Mrs. LF said, rather than being nervous about having a child to deal with (who, by the way, was pretty much perfectly behaved), the front of house should have taken this as a challenge to make us feel even more welcome and comfortable, just to show that they can handle anything that comes their way. For example, I can’t imagine that if Restaurant Gordon Ramsay allowed children they would make you feel unwelcome, but would rather make the meal unforgettable by making you feel like you were at home from the moment you entered their domain.
In terms of the food, it was really a mixed bag, with a few real high notes, but also some dishes that felt like they had lost their way. Our overwhelming feeling was that we had been slightly short-changed, with many portion sizes verging on miniscule. Also, there were some really incongruous dishes, which didn’t function at either the flavor or textural level I would expect in a restaurant such as this, and especially at the price for the set tasting menu.
For me, the magic of this restaurant when I first dined there years ago was its paired-down ethos of presenting remarkably fresh produce in intriguing yet simple ways. Based on our more recent meal, it would seem that the kitchen has tried to refine the dishes so much that they have taken some of the joy and soul out of the food. Indeed, the overall feeling throughout the meal was that everything was being slightly forced – it just didn’t flow naturally. This is a shame as there is obviously plenty of inventiveness and skill in the kitchen, but they seemed to have lost their way a little bit based on this meal.
Wine: I didn’t get a chance to look through the wine list in detail at the restaurant, as I wanted to go for the pairing – which was very good – but they definitely have a well-researched and broad list, though I didn’t have time to research the mark-up levels. For reference, the wines I had with the pairing are all listed below, as well as pictured (except for the pink American sparkler).
Wines Served in the Pairing
- 2006 Shramsberg Brut Rosé (Calistoga, CA) [not pictured]
- 2007 Vinatigo Gual (Canary Islands)
- 2001 August Kessler Riesling Trocken, ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ (Rheingau, Germany)
- 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux Meursault, ‘Les Terres Blances’ (Burgundy, France)
- 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ (Piedmont, Italy)
- 2001 Señorío de P.Peciña Rioja Reserva (Spain)
- 1996 Moulin Touchais (Coteaux du Layon, Loire Valley, France)
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns twice, once for lunch in 2006 and this time for dinner in 2011*