Farmers in the Kitchen, Chefs in the Field

IMG_4028I have eaten borscht in St. Petersburg, Russia. Having had borscht, a peasant dish with beets at its core, makes me no foodie. However, a beet focused, 29 dish experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, brought me back momentarily to a grand hotel where we sipped on vodka and tasted our first borscht. In fact, I have eaten the native foods of exactly 28 countries, from incredible seafood in Mykonos, Greece to the rotisserie street chicken found everywhere in Paris. I’ve eaten from north to south in Italy and have dined at street cafes at 11pm in Barcelona on hand crafted tapas and indigenous Iberian hams. I once attended a luau where the food was baked on the active, volcanic rock beach side in Capri. I’ve eaten in places like Berlin, Germany, Monte Carlo, Monaco, the island of Malta, throughout Scandinavia and on most Caribbean islands. In Manhattan, I’ve been to every noted restaurant from Le Bernadin to Daniel to Eleven Madison Park and no meal compared to the one I will share here, to a restaurant with no menu. 

New York Magazine, in its 2008 review of the restaurant, called Blue Hill at Stone Barns “the most important restaurant in America.” I think it is representative of New York’s exceptionalism; that it can pack out its house, night after night, with reservations months in advance requiring a credit card to hold your place.  Manhattanites make regular pilgrimages up to what I can unequivocally refer to as “the country,” yet it’s fewer than 30 miles from the center of the world. The experience is a primal one, eating literally from fancy little pots of dirt, cutting your own herbs with garden scissors in the middle of a high-end dining room. The farm is brought to you, quite literally, and during one course, we are brought to the farm.

I think what is so significant and perhaps revolutionary of this restaurant is that the farmers are in the kitchen and the chefs in the field. The concept is among the original “farm to table” formats, except you are truly feet from the farm, with cows in view from the dining room. The farmers dictate what can be served that very day and hence there is no ability to publish a menu in a reasonably timely fashion. The chefs are equally in tune with the farm and field and are truly given creative license, never serving all the same creations to two tables.

Driving up to the Stone Barn, you are greeted by a huge field of free roaming chickens, grazing in the beautiful, open air. I wasn’t completely prepared for this encounter, only supposing that the farm would be off in some distant view. This is a heartwarming site, especially in comparison to conventional chicken coops that crowd their hens and suffocate them in ammonia fumes. It spoke volumes to the humane, ethical treatment of the animals on this farm. IMG_3959

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking past the front entrance, the structure is a magical stone building situated on several acres of the Rockefeller Estate in Westchester County.

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The dining room is reminiscent of what I’d like to think of as Martha Stewart’s house: elegant and well appointed, but with a New England sensibility, and cold.  The arresting centerpiece reminds me of a Four Season’s lobby.

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The cocktail list is as interesting and ingredient-rich as the food. I had a muddled strawberry and gin cocktail. Other cocktails involved egg whites, almond milk, pistachios, herbs, and spices.

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Every table has a striking floral arrangement, only one of many individual table centerpieces we’d experience for the evening.

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And then there’s the food. For $208 per person, one gets what is referred to as a “Grazing, Pecking and Rooting,” a 12 course tasting menu which actually amounted to 29 individual plates. It was a 4 and a half hour multi-sensory experience with an exciting change of venue half way through.

1. The first course is a grazing on the day’s fresh vegetables straight from the garden, strung out on a wood block with dozens of nails capturing the vegetables, reminiscent perhaps of an outdoor fence. After a few bites, I at once appreciated the flavors of the farm and also worried, for $208, if this would be indicative of the volume of food we would eat. We joked about a fast food drive through being a necessity after a meal like this, but we would soon be proven wrong.

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2. Second, each guest received a single white radish served in a cone; again a gentle, ethereal reminder that the food has come from the very grounds we are visiting. It was crisp and robust in flavor.

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3. A rutabaga leaf, fried and covered in fragrant beet dust.

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4. Beet jerky, mimicking the texture of a fruit leather, served on a beautiful, rustic slate slab.

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5. Crisp wax beans with an emulsion of the yolk of a quail egg.

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6. Roasted carrots on sesame crackers.

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7. Phytoplankton and “micro craw fish” served on a bed of river rocks and water, reminding us of pond life.

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8. Pistou of peas served with wheat grass and fresh live herbs, potted in soil and accompanied by garden sheers.

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9. Dew of first maple, unrefined and unprocessed, served in shot glasses.

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10. Mandolin sliced beets over vinegared rice, to approximate a sushi presentation.

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11. A copper branch sculpture with fried kale and cabbage leaves.

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12. A petrified wood log, more than two feet long, with sweet potato and caviar, mussel in tart, and creme fraiche and bacon in an onion tart.

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13. Beet burger sliders with wasabi cream.

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14. Pork pate with dark chocolate shards.

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15. Beet “tartar” cart.

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Beet tartar was served with a fresh quail egg and scratch-made crackers.

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16. White fish tart with borscht and caviar in cream.

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17. Beet bolognese over polenta in a granite bowl.

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18. On the way to our alternate venue.

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We were brought, half way through the meal, to a barn which was once used as a cow manure storage shed, I kid you not. It was converted to a private dining facility covered in dried herbs, dried roses, and fresh potted hyacinth and tulips, and beautiful candles. It smelled incredibly floral and herbal, further enhancing a meal that is a multi-sensory experience.

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We were served fresh ricotta cheese from grass fed cows, curds and whey still naturally separating, strained for us right at our table in a white terracotta pot.

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It was served with fresh baked bread and escarole.

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19. Kohlrabi, also known as a German turnip, sliced thinly to mimic tortillas.

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Kohlrabi was served along side a lazy Susan of fresh herbs, corned beef, creme fraiche, lobster scented salt, fermented corn, creamed broccoli which approximated guacamole, and a white fish reminiscent of yellow tail.

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20. Country bread was then served with fresh butter, pig lard and carrot salt.

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21. Celery root “strings” with a  pasta-like texture underneath a chicken egg with thick-cut bacon and parmesan cheese.

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22.Three styles of pig: loin, sausage and pork belly with toasted barley and onion strings.

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23. Venison with spinach, potato, onion and rutabaga puree.

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24. Alpine cheese wheel, carved table side, with mini baguettes with quince jam and pumpkin seeds.

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25.Carrot Cake, which brought us full-circle back to the very first bite, which was the carrot “on the farm fence.” We were here to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday. Consistent with the restaurant’s understated ideal, the cake was presented with little fanfare!

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26-28.A trio of honey themed deserts in nested glass bowls. These were brought out by five waiters who theatrically arranged them on the table in the silhouette of a honeycomb. One was ice cream, one was panna cotta and the third was a vanilla cake.

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29. Atop the honeycomb is a wood “bridge” of confections nested in dried herbs and hay. The “nest” was fragrant, reminiscent of nettle and dill. The chocolate truffles created a spring garden of chocolate ladybugs with jellied centers, marshmallow earthworms, marbled chocolate eggs with cream centers, and pistachio pillows.

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The Stone Barns experience: watch this video and think differently about the food you eat and where it should come from! http://vimeo.com/15222791 It was truly an experience I will never forget!

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