Making Up for Lost Time — 2012 in Food & Wine

2012 was a great year for my family. After a long search, I finally got a new job in April. I now write about wine for a living, and must say I’m not missing the hectic, stress-filled “corporate culture” of international finance that used to encapsulate my working life.

With a growing family and a new direction for my career, I haven’t prioritized restaurant reviews as of late. And the inevitable flip side of the career coin is that I don’t have the budget I once did for global gastro gallivanting. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been eating (and drinking) some exciting things from time to time! What follows is a personal list of some of the best things I ate and drank during 2012 (plus a few surprises — both positive and negative).

Now that things are a little more settled with work, I do hope to be posting more often on this site in 2013 and beyond. In the meantime, and just in case I don’t happen to get around to it, you can always keep track of what I’m eating and drinking on:

In fact, many of the below pictures were instagram images, taken with my iPhone. Can you tell which ones? Probably. Apologies, but I just can’t be bothered taking ‘proper’ pictures all the time anymore, unless I’m pretty sure the food is going to merit it.

But without further adieu

~ Best Meals of 2012 ~ 

This ended up being a tie. The connecting thread between these two restaurants is their focus on the provenance and quality of single ingredients, and the aiding and abetting of these pristine centerpieces with elements that will enhance yet not overpower the star of the show. I suppose this could also be seen as the biggest restaurant trend of 2012: searching for the finest ingredients (the nearer by the better) and letting them shine, simply yet beautifully. Dead simple in theory, but very hard to get it just right. Both of these places do, thanks to the insane lengths they both go to in sourcing ingredients, and their precise conceptions and flavors.

Hedone (London)

Possibly the most controversial restaurant opening in London for some time, Hedone created a chasm between its early visitors (through dishes like Cévennes onions with pear shavings): there were “haters” and passionate proponents, nothing in-between. However, as time has passed, the self-taught Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson (a former lawyer and food blogger … and long-time Paleolithic diet adherent), seems to have found his stride.

This was the most memorable meal I had in 2012, helped by the fact that I spent it with two very dear friends. By all accounts, things only continue to get better. And the restaurant has achieved a Michelin Star within about a year of opening — no small feat, no matter what you may think of the tire company. You can find the full photo gallery of my meal there, along with a few of the many highlights below.

Oyster at Hedone

Poached Dorset Rock Oyster, Granny Smith, Pickled Shallots

Broken Duck's Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

Broken Duck’s Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline at Hedone

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline

Roast Squab Pigeon at Hedone

Roast Breast and Leg of Squab Pigeon, Smoked Potato, Parsley & Pistachio

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Brooklyn)

When our good friends Mathilde (a true Foodista) and David visited in the early Spring, we had a few really good meals, as well as some great food (and wine) at home. Somehow, I had managed to secure us seats at the fabled Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which is one of (if not the) hardest reservation to make in New York. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, but you can read my full review here.

Luckily, that’s not where the story ended. When another friend visited New York in December, he invited me to dine at César’s palace once again. I actually found the food slightly better on the second occasion (which is really saying something). Out of 20+ dishes, all except for a couple were truly exceptional. This is still definitely one of the best places to eat in the New York area (and possibly the country).

Brooklyn Fare Window

The only picture I’m allowed to share — that’s so Brooklyn Fare

~ Most Disappointing Meals ~

Corton (Manhattan)

I had really wanted to dine at Corton for a while. So, when the opportunity came to meet up with Kristian it seemed like the perfect place. Sadly, it disappointed on almost every level. Aside for a bite or two, the food was utterly forgettable and (even worse for a Michelin 2* restaurant) the service was downright horrible. Even the wine pairing was lackluster, save for one special glass. It felt like our table was on a conveyor belt. The same one everyone else was on. No effort was made to make us feel special about the meal, and the staff kept looking at their watches and chatting to each other, ostensibly eager to leave (and get us out of there) as soon as possible … even though it wasn’t that late. This is to be expected in a more casual setting, but certainly not in a restaurant many regard as one of the finest in the city. I can’t imagine returning, despite the surprisingly pleasant room — it’s much nicer than internet pictures make out. You can see all of the photos here.

“Scotch Egg” at Corton

“Scotch Egg” — one of the only memorable bites at this 2* Michelin disappointment

wd~50 (Manhattan)

That I was really unimpressed with wd~50 is even more sad, given that I had enjoyed meals here previously. On this occasion, I ate with That Hungry Chef (who is now heading the kitchen here) right after the new menu format was introduced. Let’s just say I preferred the previous meals. It’s all become very Japanese (not a bad thing in itself, of course), and there were very few standouts in a meal of many plates. The meat dishes were overall much more solid than the other savory courses. Aside from the food, the dining room just didn’t feel like it was running smoothly, or in sync with the kitchen in many instances. More minor quibbles included plates that were so visibly scratched and un-wiped before leaving the pass, that they shouldn’t have ever left the kitchen in a restaurant of this standard. Oh, and seemingly random sizes of Yuzu milk ice puffs for every diner (I, of course, managed to get the small end of the nitrogen poaching stick). You can read my dining companions’ entertaining review here, and view all my photos here if you care to. Oh well, I do wish Wylie and his team luck with their new venture, Alder, in 2013.

Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse at wd~50

Dessert of Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse — one of the few really good dishes at the re-launched wd~50

~ Best Surprise ~

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Manhattan, RIP)

I had always liked L’Atelier in London as a place to get oftentimes astonishingly good haute cuisine in an informal atmosphere that was fun and engaging.  But after so many years in the limelight, followed by many years of falling from grace (Robuchon’s concept has famously been coined the McDonald’s of fine dining, i.e. you get roughly the same menu in any of its global locations, despite variations in local ingredients and cultures), I wondered if the ancient-by-restaurant-standards New York outpost would hold up to my fond memories.

Well, I dined there with my brother and we were both totally gob-smacked at how simply delicious everything was. You can actively go looking for faults in nearly anything, but here there were certainly no faults in the cooking. With a new chef and some of his own dishes, it was a fabulous meal. Sadly it’s closed now. Likely due to its awkward location within the Four Seasons hotel and the fickle dining trends of a large metropolis. You can read the full breakdown of my meal here. And all the photos are on my Flickr.

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar at L'Atelier New York

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar

~ Most Fun Meal ~

Torissi (Manhattan)
Chef’s Tasting Menu

This was another very difficult meal to book, but I seemed to have lucked out this year with tough tables. I had not been a fan of the original dinner service at Torrisi — having been rushed out so they could turn our table once, and feeling ‘meh’ about quite a few of the dishes (plus the annoyance of having no reservations and needing to wait from before 5pm to nab a table). I did, however, love the few lunches I had there.

So when they changed the format, and transitioned the ‘simpler’ fare to a location a few doors down (Parm), and focused solely on the more ‘refined’ food at Torrisi, I thought I’d give it another chance. Thank goodness I did. The sheer inventiveness, playfulness and presentation of the Chef’s Tasting Menu is fantastic. With it, the restaurant has morphed from being (proudly) Italian-American cuisine to a unique representation of historic New York dishes from all cultural backgrounds. There is a real nostalgia to the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the food was overall executed splendidly during our meal. It is worth trying to book based on my experience. A few of the more catchy dishes are pictured below as a little taster. The whole set can be found here (spoiler alert).

Smoked Sable Cigarettes at Torrisi

Smoked Sable Cigarettes

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) at Torrisi

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) — for the men

~ Weirdest Meal ~

ISA (Brooklyn)

There’s no real way of putting it gently: ISA is a weird place. I have only eaten there once, for brunch, and everything from the design of the menu, to the Brooklandia-ness of the waiters, to the odd amalgamation of dishes on offer made it the single most odd meal I had this year. Having said that, it was actually enjoyable overall and a few of the things we ate were really tasty. Those are pictured below, along with the menu and the bathroom (to give you an idea of what I’m talking about). You can see all the photos I took here.

ISA Entrance

Welcome to ISA

ISA Bathroom

Welcome to ISA’s Bathroom

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter at ISA

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter — this was really good

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & 'Dirt'  at ISA

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & ‘Dirt’ — a little sweet (and nuclear yellow), but pretty tasty

~ Best New (Temporary) Opening ~ 

Frej (Brooklyn)

My meal at the first incarnation of Fredrik Berselius’ cuisine (along with his then partner Richard Kuo) was one of the most enjoyable I had in 2012. I wrote a full review of it here, but suffice to say I am very excited about his new(ish) solo venture in the same space (Kinfolk Studios). He has imported a few pretty serious chefs to help out from his native Sweden, as well as enlarged the kitchen and dining room (plus made it a more comfortable space to eat).  I sampled some bar food there in December and will definitely be back for the full tasting menu — especially now that they have a full wine/beer/spirits program.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin at Frej

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin (photo courtesy of: Jose Moran, aka The Spanish Hipster)

~ Best New (Permanent) Opening ~

Empellon Cocina (Manhattan)

After reading all about Alex Stupak’s foray into Mexican cuisine (Empellon Taqueria) following his departure as (a very respected) Pastry Chef for wd~50, I was curious. Somehow I never made it to Taqueria, but I’m not sweating it too much, because the sequel is sooo good (as I think @jezmd would agree). Employing modernist cooking techniques yet keeping things extremely authentic, Stupak’s food at Cocina can be mind-blowingly good. In fact, I’m getting hungry just thinking about my meal there (and am plotting a return as I write this). One of my favorite dishes (despite its off-putting, gnarly appearance) was the lamb sweetbreads pictured below. Oh, and the bread they start you out with is off-the-charts good. In fact, the baking throughout all the dishes was stellar. Just go already.

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) at Empellon Cocina

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) — tasted as good as it looked bad

~ Best Burger ~ 

Little Big Burger (Portland, Oregon)

I ate more than my fair share of burgers in 2010 and 2011 (it’s New York, right?), and although my consumption slowed dramatically in 2012, of course I still had more than a few. At this moment, the one that stands above the rest was also the most demure. But it was definitely the best-tasting burger. Cooked medium (to order), and eaten together with some truffle oil fries, it was pretty darn magical. The few photos I have are here.

Cheeseburger at Little Big Burger

Cheeseburger Cooked Medium (To Order) with Tilamook Cheddar

~ Most Disappointing Burger ~ 

The Spotted Pig (Manhattan)

Talk about burger hype. Aside from Minetta Tavern (which somehow lives up to its stratospheric reputation, and won Best Burger in my 2011 list) plus a few others, The Spotted Pig’s burger is right up there in the NYC pantheon of burgers. And just look at it (pictured below) — it appears to be amazing, right? Well, sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, but the one time I had it (all $20 of it), the meat was shockingly bland and totally overpowered by the Roquefort cheese that’s slathered on top of it. Terrible? No … but no better than average in my book. At least the (copious amount of) shoestring fries served by its side were nearly perfect. Some of the other things we ate are pictured here.

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries at The Spotted Pig

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries

~ Best Fried Chicken ~

Mad for Chicken (Manhattan)

Yes, it’s still open. And yes, it’s still good. Great, in fact. Despite the crowded market for fried chicken in NYC (Asian-inspired or otherwise), this stands as the best I’ve had (so far) in the area. The only question is, do you like the hot & spicy or soy garlic wings better? You can find The Skinny Bib’s take on our meal snack here too.

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings at Mad for Chicken (NYC)

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings

~ Best Pasta Dish ~

Frankies 457 (Brooklyn)

This is kind of a toss-up, but the “House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter” at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn was probably the most satisfying pasta dish I had in 2012. It was made even more delicious by the glass of Lambrusco I drank with it (Venturini Baldini Dell’Emilia NV).

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter at Frankies 457

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter

~ Best Pizza ~ 

Don Antonio by Starita (Manhattan)

2012 was the year of the Montanara as far as NYC pizza went. The best one I had was at Don Antonio. The crust, with just a hint of donut sweetness on the crisp outside, demonstrates the brilliance of textural contract with soft, pillowy dough inside. The slightly smoked mozzarella works well too. Overall, it’s the perfect lunch (with a green salad on the side and some house red in your glass). If you sit at the bar, you can be in and out in under 30 minutes and have a civilized meal that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Montanara Pizza at Don Antonio by Starita

Don Antonio’s Montanara

~ Best Charcuterie ~ 

Soif (London)

This is sort of an excuse to list Soif in my round-up. From a restaurant group connected by an owner that’s in the business of selling natural wines, and with siblings that also serve up delicious, simple French fare (with a particular flair for charcuterie), Soif may be the best yet … even ahead of my beloved Terroirs. It’s more restaurant than wine bar, but can function reliably as either. Along with Douglas, I enjoyed some fine midday dishes, with the most memorable being the Jambon Persille seen below.

Jambon Persille at Soif

Jambon Persille

~ Best Non-Restaurant Meat Dish ~ 

Courtesy of Stone Barns Center (NY State)

As @catty pointed out a few days ago at brunch (at The Lambs Club if you must know), I really did win the food lottery this year — a few times, actually. But securing this bird was the real lottery. At the appointed date and time (9am, and not a second before … literally), I sent an email off to the good folks at the Stone Barn Center (i.e. the farm associated with Blue Hill at Stone Barns) to see if I would be one of the lucky few to win pay a lot of money for one of their highly sought-after heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Actually I lied. I also sent an email from my wife’s account exactly 20 seconds after sending mine. And she got the turkey, not me! Anyway, suffice to say this is BY FAR the finest turkey I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a Bourbon Red and tasted like no other turkey any of us had ever eaten. So much so that my uncle, who hates turkey, couldn’t stop eating it. Let’s hope we’re as lucky next year.

Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center

Preparing the Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center for Thanksgiving

~ Best Restaurant Meat Dish ~

Hedone (London)

I won’t belabor the point. New Year’s resolution, you see. The “55-day-aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline” pictured near to top of this post was far and away the most superb meat I had at a restaurant in 2012.

~ Favorite New Brunch Spots ~

Allswell (Brooklyn)

In fact, I have ONLY been to Allswell for brunch, but many times. Aside from wanting to order nearly everything on the changing daily menu (they use Tumblr very effectively for this), they also have lovely service — which is child-friendly — plus a charming décor and ambience to boot. It’s casual but not annoyingly so, and the food is never casually executed in my experience. Their burger — which includes some well-aged beef in the blend, giving it a touch of appetizing funkiness — is also simple and delicious.

Allswell Dining Room

Allswell’s wallpapers are almost as memorable as their food

Reynards (Brooklyn)

I only had the chance to eat here once for a large family brunch. The interior design is spectacular and the brunch menu is equally alluring … as are the copious amounts of freshly baked goods they lay out next to the pass as you walk by to be seated at your table. The rabbit sausages I had there constituted one of the most satisfying dishes I ate this year.

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts at Reynards

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts

~ Meal with the Best View ~

Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise (Canada)

Not much to say here. Just look at this …

View from Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise

Now THAT’S a view

~ Best Coffee ~ 

Sweetleaf Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

This is by far my favorite café in the New York area right now. It is very serious about coffee, but doesn’t look down upon you if you’re not, and is laid back in a pleasant way (complete with a foosball table). They are very picky about whose beans they use to make their coffee though, and they generally know how to use the beans to the best effect. The barista in charge of quality control is often at the Williamsburg branch on Sundays (I am only ever in Brooklyn on weekends, so not sure about during the week), and it is worth seeking out a coffee made by his intuitive yet meticulous hands. The single best coffee drink I had in 2012 was the espresso he made for me from Sightglass Ethiopia, Shakiso, Mora Mora River Valley.

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso at Sweetleaf

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso

Macchiato at Sweetleaf

Macchiato

Cortado at Sweetleaf

Cortado

"Rocket Fuel" at Sweetleaf

“Rocket Fuel”

~ These Were a Few of My Favorite (Sweet) Things ~

Mast Brothers (Brooklyn)
Mast Brothers Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

La Tulipe (NY State)
Canellés from La Tulipe

The daily batch of Canellés

Sal's Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)
Cannolo from DiMare Pastry Shop

Cannolo

Mrs. London’s (NY State)
Lemon Tart at Mrs. London's

Lemon Meringue Tart #1

Bouchon Bakery (Manhattan)
Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery

Lemon Meringue Tart #2

Paul A. Young (London)
Brownie from Paul A. Young

Classic Brownie (as long as he makes these, and as long as I can manage to get hold of them, they will likely remain on my annual list)

Dutch Desserts (NY State)
Chocolate Tart

Chocolate Tart

~ Favorite Wines for Every Occasion ~ 

The following is a heavily syphoned-down list of wines I’ve tasted this year that struck a chord, and that also (mostly) offer value for their respective categories. There are ten wines in each category, organized from red to white, in chronological vintage order, and then alphabetically.

‘Weekday’ can be taken to mean good “everyday” wines (almost all are well under $20 a bottle); ‘Weekend’ means wines that are a little more special (mostly around $30 a bottle, or less); and, well, ‘Special Occasion’ is obvious.

First, though, are five sparklers that punch above their designations (i.e. NV Champagne, Cremant and California) — and most certainly their price tags (listed in alphabetical order).

 Favorite Sparklers That Won’t (Totally) Break the Bank
  • Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige Brut NV
  • Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre NV
  • PLR Legacy Blanc de Noirs NV
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru NV
  • Roche Lacour Cremant de Limoux 2009
Weekday Wines
  • Weinhaus Ress KM501 Rheingau Dry Riesling 2009
  • d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab (Australia) 2010
  • La Petite Bellane Côte-du-Rhône Villages 2010
  • Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini (Greece) 2010
  • Le Coin Sauvignon Gris Bordeaux 2011
  • Principe Strozzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011
  • Fattoria Viticcio Chianti Classico 2009
  • Alambrado Gran Selección Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2010
  • Château Florie Aude Bordeaux 2010
  • Domaine du Mistral “Plan de Dieu” Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2011
Weekend Wines 
  • Domaine des Deux Roches “Chatenay” Saint-Véran 2009
  • Evening Land Pouilly-Fuissé 2009
  • Donnafugata “Tancredi” Sicily 2006
  • Fattoria Viticcio “Prunaio” Toscana 2006
  • Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007
  • Oddero Nebbiolo Langhe 2008
  • Dashe Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 2009
  • Owen Roe Syrah “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley 2009
  • Boekenhoutskloof “The Chocolate Block” Western Cape 2010
  • Domaine de Nalys “Les Dix Salmes” Châteaneuf-du-Pape 2010
Special Occasion Wines
  • Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne NV
  • Château Bel Air Lagrave Moulis en Medoc Cru Bourgeois 1989
  • Godmé Père et Fils Champagne Brut Grand Cru 1999
  • Podere Il Carnasciale “Il Caberlot” Toscana 1999
  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain “Rangen de Thann” Pinot Gris 2000
  • Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Ornellaia” Bolgheri Superiore 2006
  • Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004
  • Haut Roc Blanquant Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2005
  • Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005
  • Dominion Pingus “Flor de Pingus” Ribera del Duero 2009

Out of all these, the two most memorable wines of the year for me were the following (because of the wines themselves, as well as the company and setting):

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004 — at Brooklyn Fare

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005 — on Christmas Day (the wine was a birthday present from my brother, and its outfit a holiday gift from my wife)

So there you have it: 2012 in a nutshell. All the best for 2013, and let’s stay in (better) touch.

Happy belated New Year!

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Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Precious…Little

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
USA
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • 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

After having had a fantastic meal at the restaurant many years ago, our recent meal – which was a set 8-course menu for Valentine’s Day – proved to be a disappointment overall, firstly because the service was awkward; secondly because the portions were in general too small; thirdly because some of the dishes just didn’t work; and lastly, because it did not seem to stick to its raison d'être of providing a ‘farm-to-table’ dining experience. Having said this, a few of the individual courses were exceptional, demonstrating that there is talent & creativity in the kitchen – but we felt that the restaurant had slightly lost its way based on this particular visit. We do however remain loyal fans of the less formal café, which we frequent quite often.

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.

Beet Burgers (photo courtesy of http://thebeersessions.com)

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.

Some of the rustic food on offer at Blue Hill Café

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).

Savory Scone from Blue Hill Café

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.

A winter wonderland

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.

Mooove this way please, folks

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!]).

Mr. LF gets romantic

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

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.

For the lady: NV Pierre Mouncuit, Blancs de Blancs, Grand Cru, Oger Champagne / Por moi: 2006 Schramsberg Brut Rosé, Calistoga

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.

Amuse Bouche: Farro Crisps with (from left to right) Ricotta, Sweet Potato, Pâté, Speck & Butter

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.

Amuse Bouche: Grapefruit & Pomegranate Juice

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).

Course 1: Stone Barns Panther Soy Beans, Tofu, Oyster, American Sturgeon

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.

Course 2: Farm Eggs, Brioche, Pancetta, Spinach, Leeks

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.

Course 3: Greenhouse Greens, Winter Flavors & Textures

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).

Course 3: Winter Flavors & Textures Detail (Pickled Radishes, Eggs & Ham, Olive Tapenade)

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.

Potato & Onion Bread

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…?

Course 4: Maine Scallop & Sweet Shrimp, Curried Cauliflower, Grapes, Almonds

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.

Course 5: Bourbon Red Turkey Crépinette with Romaine Lettuce, Portobello Mushroom, Jerusalem Artichoke & Truffle Sauce

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.

Course 6: Grass-Fed Beef, Chickpeas, Watercress, Humus

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.

Single Estate Costa Rican Nararno Cattleya Coffee, Roasted at Irving Farm (Millerton, NY)

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.

Course 7: Blue Hill Farm Yogurt Sorbet, Granny Smith Apple & Celery Gelee, Noble Sour Vinegar

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.

Course 8: Chocolate Brioche, Granola Ice Cream, Milk Jam

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.

Petit Four: Vanilla Milkshake

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.

Petit Four: Chocolate Sandwich

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.

Spots & Stripes

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.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 6.5/10

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).

The Wine Pairing Labels

Wines Served in the Pairing

  1. 2006 Shramsberg Brut Rosé (Calistoga, CA) [not pictured]
  2. 2007 Vinatigo Gual (Canary Islands)
  3. 2001 August Kessler Riesling Trocken, ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ (Rheingau, Germany)
  4. 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux Meursault, ‘Les Terres Blances’ (Burgundy, France)
  5. 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ (Piedmont, Italy)
  6. 2001 Señorío de P.Peciña Rioja Reserva (Spain)
  7. 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*

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