"Farm-to-table" seems to be a hot buzzphrase in the food world right now but if you're looking for the real deal, it doesn't get more legit than Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In fact, the restaurant, voted one of Food & Wine's top 10 life-changing eateries, might more accurately be described as "table-on-farm", considering that many of the freshly-plucked veggies and aromatic herbs that star on their menu come from just a few yards away. We recently visited this truly unique sustainable food destination to nosh on one of award-winning chef Dan Barber's famous "farmer's feasts." Read on see to a sampling of what we ate - from a homemade melt-in-your-mouth parsnip steak to soft-shell crab with phytoplankton mayo to a colorful wall of crispy and sweet homemade veggie chips.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is located in Pocantico Hills, New York, about 30 miles away from New York City. It may seem like a trek but there’s no shortage of eager folks willing to travel the distance – if you’re hoping to get a reservation on a weekend, be sure to call months in advance because tables fill up fast.
This wasn’t our first trip to Stone Barns – c’mon, you know we’re farm junkies – but the ambiance inside Blue Hill is worlds away from anything we’ve felt on the farm that surrounds it. Fortressed away inside actual stone walls (you’ll notice your phone reception will drop), the interior of the restaurant is an elegant interpretation of a rustic farmhouse dining room. We took a seat in a muted grey velvet banquette overlooking a window dripping with purple lilacs and the occasional honeybee. In the center of the room, a hanging forest of miniature trees dangles peacefully over a massive wooden table. Although we were a group of four, no less than three, and at times many more, staff persons were at our side making sure our dining experience was a pleasant one. Of the twelve courses we tried, most were served in a synchronized manner with one waiter per person setting down each dish in unison with the others.
Each person that dines at Blue Hill is given a four season field and pasture journal illustrating the bounties of the field, the pasture and forest, the greenhouse, the farm and the cellar for every month of the year. If you’re lucky, you’ll also receive a tiny black pencil so you can take notes about your meal in the space at the back of the journal. The book, though made of simple, recycled paper, seems like a small treasure in the hands of diners as they chronicle all that they learn and feel while nibbling on fresh baby veggies, tangy beet yogurt and spinach marmalade. The last page of the journal shows a rough, hand-drawn sketch of the Blue Hill dairy barn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Drawn by farm manager Sean Stanton, the diagram even shows the names of the cows that the cheeses served at Blue Hill come from. “Reba, Faith, Dame, Rosa, Maybell, Georgia, Tulip, Sunshine, Bee…” it lists.
Blue Hill is certainly renowned for its food (don’t forget to flip through our gallery for a photo journal of all of the incredibly fresh and creatively-executed dishes we ate), but what really makes the experience unique, even from other world-class restaurants, is the connection you feel to the ingredients after learning where they come from and the sustainable thought process behind their production. Our waiter acted more like a tour guide and teacher than a server, explaining Chef Dan Barber’s philosophy of making locally-grown veggies the star of the meal and using meat more like a garnish or side. To illustrate his points, he even set down props – from giant goose eggs to over-ripened parsnips to homemade charcoal – on our table. How many other restaurants share with their patrons the details of how their bread is made (their interns grind the grains that go into it) or their plan to breed geese that naturally gorge themselves to avoid the cruel way foie gras is usually procured? At the end of the night, both our bellies and minds were stuffed full of goodness.
Many people have written positive reviews of Blue Hill at Stone Barns so you don’t need to take our word about how worthwhile it is to dine there. It’s obvious that the cuisine is otherworldly, but what stood out most to us was the exceptional job that Chef Barber has done of showing people how delicious and satisfying vegetables can be, even in the absence of meat or with very little meat. There’s a misconception out there that you’re either a vegetarian or a meat-eater and there’s really no middle ground, but in reality, reducing your consumption of meat even a little and filling your plate with more vegetables can make a significant difference in your health as well as your impact on the earth – a point that we think Chef Barber masterfully demonstrates with his dishes.
We highly recommend visiting Blue Hill at Stone Barns with an open mind and empty belly. The menu changes daily to focus on the freshest available ingredients, but for a mouthwatering look at some of the dishes you might be treated to if you visit soon, click through our photo gallery.
Photos © Yuka Yoneda