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Eeek…I had never eaten at Blue Hill!
Neither in the city, nor in Pocantico, NY.
That’s right, the bastion of haute barnyard, local, organic, seasonal cuisine has alluded me for years, even as my curiosity has been stoked by the Amateur Gourmet’s outlandish praise and the proclamations by a guy I dated last year that the place was the only East coast rival to the food at Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse,where, for the record, I once had what I still consider the best meal of my life.
I was intrigued, but the right occasion to make my way upstate to Blue Hill at Stone Barns had never presented itself…until my girlfriends presented it to me for my birthday! They planned a pilgrimage (supposed to be a surprise, but the choice of Metrazur, at Grand Central, for our pre-dinner cocktail, was a dead giveaway). We donned furs, corsets and chandelier earrings for the trip on Metro North and caused quite a stir amongst the commuters when the champagne we’d sipped under GC’s starry ceiling, caused us to get a little giggly on the way to Tarrytown. We were loud, gasping laughter as Sara told raunchy stories and recited lines from the Sex and the City episode where Carrie and Samantha take a train to San Francisco and Carrie gets a huge zit. We took a lot of photos and got scolded by the train conductor, who told us “be quiet ladies!’ Like a middle school hall monitor. But I didn’t care. We were celebrating my belated birthday and reveling in all being together for the whole night!
When we arrived in Tarrytown, Sara offered to ride up front in the cab we took from the station to the restaurant. She was patient as she got an earful from the driver, a really crusty, but endearing, character, much more enthralled with our little group than the stern conductor had been. He bid us farewell at the entrance to the barn’s courtyard, through which you have to walk to enter the restaurant, and I had my first regret, namely that our 9:30 dinner reservation meant that we’d missed being able to see the property in the daylight. They’ve started serving brunch (Bill and Hillary ate there on Easter, according to one of the servers, who we befriended at the end of the evening), so now you can tour the estate on a weekend day.
The look of the restaurant is very refined. Stark, I’d say, with low lighting and a lot of taupe and beige accents. A lot of stone, appropriately. The dining room is dominated by exposed wood ceiling planks and a huge center table adorned with a vase of cut branches. The servers look sharp, all in dark suits, and they sound knowledgeable…I think. I could barely hear them since they hardly spoke above a whisper. This gives the place the air of a grand, stone chapel, erected to honor slow food. This is both pleasing and a little self-conciously pretentious, which is how I felt about my meal overall.
What I never doubted was the quality or the origin or the “wholeness” of the food we ate, and this is the greatest gift of Blue Hill. The feel of authenticity and respect for food and land is evident in every bite. And for a “fancy” restaurant (which, frankly, are rarely my favorites), this makes for a distinctive meal. You can spend a lot of money on a meal in this city with origins much less than pure and pleasing to land and creature. So I applaud the mandate of Blue Hill, even if the meal was more intellectually pleasing than sensually, viscerally, passionately gluttonous in a way that really makes my head spin…using my tongue to suck juice running down my own chin from ripped pieces of porchetta at Il Bucco, sopping up the last of the butter sauce by chasing the sheep’s cheese gnudi around the plate at The Spotted Pig, digging out of the mini Mason jar the last of the salty, yolky, ruby-colored steak tartare and slathering it on perfectly toasted garlic bread at Country…) Blue Hill is sophisticated and refined and the dishes were polished and pleasing. I resented a note of condescension from our server when we opted to order only the 4-course meal, rather than the Chef’s tasting menu—we weren’t even getting started until 10pm and we had to take the train home, remember? But I look forward to trying that experience in the future, which was described as an event in which the chef would come to the table and talk to us about our food preferences and then construct a tasting menu for each individual at the table! The suggestion blew my mind; I’ve never heard of a tasting menu tailored for the individuals at the table. What we did eat—including a filet of wahoo for Celest, grass-fed beef for Erin, Berkshire pork for Sara, and mustard green ravioli with pork cracklins’ for me, not to mention baby beet salad, roasted lamb, sautéed ramps, gnocchi, and a surprise dessert of fried banana slices, served with peanut butter mousse, raw honey, and yes folks, more pork cracklins’!–was pretty delicious and the portions were extremely generous (we all went home with treats for Sunday lunch).
But “extraordinary” is a difficult marker in my book, usually reserved for culinary experiences that defy my expectations, confound me with unthought of tastes, textures, pairings or renderings. While the night was beautiful and irreplaceable due to the laughter of my girlfriends and the smoothness of the wine, it was kinda exactly what I expected from Blue Hill—high-minded, high quality. Which was, turns out, low “wow” factor.