Grant Achatz, Andoni Luis Aduriz, David Kinch, Paul Liebrandt, Daniel Patterson, Rene Redzepi, these are but a few names of chefs that have been linked to a style of cooking combining pristine ingredients, precise technique and profound creativity. Another is Daniel Barber, the chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County, New York, who has taken the farm to table movement to the uppermost echelon of fine dining. Set within a structure that was formerly a barn, but is more reminiscent of a manor, the restaurant and Barber's food combine rusticity and elegance in ways few can match.
This style of cooking has been described by the noted Catalan food writer, Pau Arenos as technoemotional, an accurate, albeit non-mellifluous term that has never really taken hold outside of Spain and more recently "reflective" cooking, more amorphous, but still accurately descriptive of the style.
A beacon for the sustainable farming movement, Dan Barber has become so well known and associated with it, that he was recently invited to address the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to speak on "Better Food for Better Health" and "Catalyzing a New Vision for Agriculture." Though Barber, has transcended the kitchen, he remains devoted to his craft and art. I recently had the opportunity to return to Blue Hill at Stone Barns for dinner with my brother, just after Barber's return from Davos.
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns the star of the show at any given time is the principle ingredient on the plate, often taken directly from the Stone Barns farm. Whether from the property or not, the product is always top quality and produced in a sustainable fashion. Though not strictly local, the bulk of the product used comes from as near to the restaurant as possible. Barber practices what he preaches and his restaurant has become a model, showcasing the deliciousness of sustainability.
Starting with a cocktail, a blood orange Margarita was well balanced and delicious and hit the spot. Food commenced with Barber's signature amuse of simple, perfect vegetables direct from the farm - salad without dressing and more importantly, salad without need or want of dressing. The ideal of baby carrots, pristine romaine and other vegetal elements at their peak of freshness makes an impression beyond one's reasonable expectations and redefines the genre. The same applied to vegetable crisps that followed, the beet burger after that and then a plate of canapes that included smoked apple with red sauerkraut, pickled eggs, cured goose breast with walnuts and farmhouse greens with parmiggiano. Salsify wrapped in house cured pancetta and deep-fried in buckwheat was presented Alinea-like on sticks. It was marvelous.
Barber's hand was no less deft when it came to bread, seafood, meats and pasta. Bread service, a little unusually, came with lard and honey for a topping. Great stuff! It also came with cottage cheese with black pepper, in addition to butter and several combined salts. The house made charcuterie was simply superb, especially the mortadella and coppa, both of which deserve special mention. Maine shellfish with spinach and potatoes from the farm was an exercise in finesse and flavor with the spinach providing bright green color and balance to the sweet, lovingly cooked shellfish. The clams, in particular, stood out as being just barely cooked and still full of all their wonderful, briny flavor and texture.Blue Hill at Stone barns is justly proud of their eggs. I still recall the first time I ate there was also the first time I ever had a an egg perfectly cooked with solid whites, a runny yolk and a coating of fried batter. That was a great dish. This time, the eggs were used differently, but still effectively. They were used without the fried coating. They were served in a poached fashion in a spectacular plating along with locally cultivated mushrooms, quinoa from Penn-Yan, N.Y. and minutina from the farm. Breakfast-like, combining egg and cereal, this was subtle and elegant. The fennel-frond like minutina added a lovely haunting note to the dish.
Eggs were also used in pasta, a Meyer lemon and embryonic egg pasta with black trumpet mushrooms. "Embryonic eggs" are taken from the chicken before the formation of the white and the shell. These were folded into the pasta like a mature egg. In addition, they are cured for a couple of days in salt and sugar. left to dry in cheese cloth for a couple of weeks until they resemble a hard cheese. This egg "cheese" was then grated over the pasta. Slightly acidic on the palate, this delicious dish did something that is very difficult to do - put a new spin on pasta.
The next course was the one that defined the evening and to me, at least, defines the culinary genius of Chef Dan Barber. We were presented with an item that appeared to be some sort of meat or ham, though it was unlike any meat or ham I had ever seen before. Flattened and slightly elongated, clearly roasted with beautiful exterior browning, we were told that it was a parsnip, a very, very large parsnip that had just been harvested after having been planted the previous March. Almost one year in the ground, this massive parsnip was left in the cold ground to encourage the root to convert its natural starches into sugar to help prevent freezing. To assist even further development of the root's sugars and their caramelization, Barber roasted the parsnips under the weight of bricks. Once presented to us, the roasted parsnips were returned to the kitchen to emerge just a short time later fully transformed. Furthering their pork-like impression, the parsnips re-emerged in a form that, to me, resembled a strip of suckling pig meat under a rich porcine gravy. Served alongside the parsnip was a red cabbage ketchup. As sweet as the parsnip was, the dish, thanks largely to the "gravy" was very much a savory dish. Unfortunately, I never did get what the "gravy" was comprised of. It tasted of pork or even turkey, rich and meaty with plenty of umami, but could this dish really have been served with anything but vegetable components? To me, this dish was a sterling example of a trompe l'oiel style of cooking. It was a veritable faux pork dish. This parsnip was superlative in every way - delicious, beautiful and down right mind-boggling and fun. It was Barber at his absolute best, taking an ordinarily mundane ingredient and without any overt tricks transforming it into something truly remarkable. I could not imagine a parsnip being presented as a parsnip being any more enjoyable than this was.
With the parsnip a very difficult act to follow, the next course, Hudson Valley Venison with salsify and hazelnut puree, Belgian endive and "golden frills" from the garden did its best, which was quite delicious indeed. The venison was served both roasted and as sausage. The golden frills added a little mustard like element. This dish finished the savory portion of our meal.
The dessert portion of the meal commenced quite successfully with a dessert amuse, palate cleanser that consisted of pink grapefruit with Campari, sugar and Blue Hill Farm's cow's milk yogurt. The next dessert wasn't as successful. Golden delicious apples with Fricke(?) cracker and rosemary ice cream was more appealing in concept than it was on the palate. It had a nice combination of textures and combined, the three elements were good, better than they were individually. However, the dish didn't sing. The flavors were generally flat with the rosemary ice cream being the most enjoyable component. This was the only disappointing dish of the meal. The enjoyment of the dish was not enhanced by the wine with which it was paired.
Wine service was generally excellent and well-matched to the food, though there was one selection that had my brother and I scratching our heads. A 1996 Savenniere "demi-sec" was bone-dry, with not a hint of sweetness. Paired with the apple, ice cream and cracker neither the dessert nor the wine played to the others strengths. Not previously familiar with this wine, we spoke to the sommelier, who handled our discussion with aplomb.
We didn't end on that note though. We received one more dessert, based upon the farm's summer produce. We were shown pickled raspberries that were to be incorporated into the dessert. They were incorporated beautifully int a dessert that helped us forget the lackluster one that we had just finished. In addition we were served a 1927 Solera Pedro Jimenez from Alvear that was more in tune with what we were expecting. The Alvear went beautiful with the dessert we were brought, a Sacher Tort as well as preserved apricots from Red Apple Orchards and pickled raspberry sorbet. These were marvelous.
Danny Meyer gets accolades (deservedly so) for the level of service at his restaurants, but the service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was no less wonderful. They are able to adopt an approach that combines the best of both American and European service styles. Warm, informative and accommodating, they are also efficient and elegant while remaining at an appropriate distance. It is service that makes one comfortable and at ease, while also feeling pampered.
This was a meal worth reflecting on. I'm not sure if that is the idea behind the etiology of the term "reflective cuisine," but it fits. Food that is delicious, but from the soul of the chef, reflecting his or her personality and creativity while also respecting the integrity of ingredients is certainly worthy of contemplation and reflection. But like with Adria, Roca and Dufresne, the food of Dan Barber is not without whimsy.That combination along with Barber's dedication to top quality food raised and grown responsibly continues to make this restaurant a winner to me.