This is my last birthday-related post, I promise (well, this year, anyway)…
When you’re a freelancer, money is always an issue. One month might be overflowing with business, and the next month a drought descends. And when you’re married to a freelancer as well, the uncertainty doubles. S and I live a rewarding, fairly frugal, life, and we’re quite happy with the state of things, but if there’s one thing I miss it’s three- and four-star restaurants. In my previous life as a publishing executive, eating at the hottest—best—places was by far my favorite perk. People took me out several times a month, and a sizable salary meant that I could take myself out, too. But for the last three years, I’ve done much more reading about, fantasizing about, fine restaurants than actually dining in them. Honestly I don’t miss it all that much—now that I have the time to cook, I find preparing my own food to be much more satisfying, and when I don’t feel like cooking New York City is crammed with places to eat really, really well without spending a fortune. But for special occasions a special place is called for, and that means choosing carefully. If you’re only going to visit one or two top-caliber restaurants a year, better make sure you know what you’re in for.
For my birthday dinner I wanted to try someplace I hadn’t been. L’Impero was an immediate finalist, but when I perused their menu online I didn’t salivate over more than one or two things. Alain Ducasse: too fussy. Per Se and the rest of the Time Warner Mall food court: call me crazy, but I felt like it would be more about saying I’d been there than actually enjoying my meal. About a month before my birthday, I decided on Blue Hill at Stone Barns. An offshoot of a highly-regarded Greenwich Village restaurant, it’s a restaurant and agricultural center, using the old stone buildings of a former Rockefeller farm. The menu changes daily, based on what they’re harvesting in their greenhouse or slaughtering in their flocks. What they don’t grow on the farm is purchased locally, as much as possible. I’d heard mostly very good things about it, it seemed to have little of the snobbery of so many “fine” restaurants in New York, and it was about an hour north of the city, which would make it more than a meal—it would be an adventure. S made a 9:00 reservation.
Sure enough, the trip out of town did lend the evening an air of excitement, following directions down dark country roads, past big houses and mysterious gated estates until we caught a glimpse of a complex nestled into a valley where the trees sparkled with thousands of small white lights. Before we saw the sign, I knew we had arrived.
Just turning down the driveway signaled that we’d entered a realm we were unaccustomed to—there were few lights or signs, and poorly-marked speed bumps large enough to strand our earnest little Saturn (I suppose they’re meant to slow down the big expensive SUVs, but really—they were the size of small mountains). We blew past the valet parking attendants without realizing who they were—we thought they were two guests, since the sign said something like “Blue Hill Drop-Off” rather than “Valet Parking.” But the walk from the lower lot gave us time to get excited anew, and as we rushed up the path in the brisk northern night I skipped and hummed with happiness.
To get to the restaurant, you pass through a peaked-roofed passageway between two old stone buildings and enter a courtyard, with the brightly-lit, bustling kitchen visible in a line of windows directly across the way.
S and I stood in the courtyard for a moment, marveling at the beautiful old buildings, the cobblestones under our feet, the crisp moonlit sky overhead. It was like being in another country, and extremely romantic. But that wasn’t our only reason for standing still: We weren’t sure which of the many possibilities was the restaurant itself. At last, we noticed a very small sign on the right side of the courtyard, and went in. If we weren’t already certain that this was no New York City restaurant, once we passed through the door it was absolutely clear. Outside the city, restaurants have room to spread out. Just the vestibule with coat-check was larger than our apartment’s bathroom. Past that was a bar and waiting lounge, with mod leather chairs and a sofa, rough-hewn though luxurious wooden benches, a fireplace, and gorgeous lamps with shades made of glowing wood veneer. The front desk was in yet another room beyond the bar, so we went there first to check in. Our table wasn’t ready. Back to the lounge.
Fifteen minutes later, we were escorted into the main dining room, a huge space with a vaulted ceiling trussed by iron girders, lovely circular banquettes for larger parties and gleaming wooden booths for smaller ones, and a huge farmhouse table taking up a good third of the remaining floor. This table was used for staging, not dining, which struck us as a luxury very few restaurants in the city could afford. Our table, which was next to it, was a fourtop with no other tables within hearing distance—there was that much room. The effect was oddly isolating, rather than intimate. Looking around at the other groups, it seemed that conversation was stilted at many of them. This could’ve been a result of uncomfortable family holiday get-togethers, of course, but it also felt like there was some energy in the room that stiffened everyone.
Throughout the meal, service was impeccable. Six different servers, status denoted by uniform, visited our table over the course of the evening. Their ballet at the farmhouse table—dipping and feinting around each other to pull silverware from drawers, fetch a pitcher of ice water, or arrange drinks on a silver tray became the equivalent of a floor show. Three managerial men: one who looked astonishingly like Billy Joel, complete with goatee and deeply-receding hairline, another with a suave and distracting red velvet jacket, and the third with a Paul Stuart-esque shirt open-collared under his suit, strode efficiently around the room. When one striped-shirted runner pounced to re-fold S’s napkin the instant he left for the men’s room, it nearly reached the point of overkill, but somehow it never went quite that far.
And now, on to the good part…the food. Two notes, first: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’ve developed a bizarre allergy to wine over the last year and S was driving, so we abstained. In the end I’m glad we did, since the bill could easily have doubled. And as for my food photos, they’re pretty terrible. I tried my darnedest to fix them with Photoshop Elements, per Sam at Becks & Posh’s recommendation, but I haven’t had a chance to really practice with it yet. Apologies!
The menu is organized into four categories of food, rather than courses: From the Field, Foraged Mushrooms, Our Pasture, and Hudson Valley Pastures. Diners can order two, three, or four savory courses for a prix fixe, in any order. The kitchen sizes the plates according to how many courses are in a meal, and in which order they’re being served. Our waitress was helpful without being pushy, informing us of how everything worked and answering all our questions efficiently. Soon after we’d placed our orders, two amuses arrived. The first was a warm chickpea soup with aleppo pepper, served in tall flute shot glasses, which was pretty spectacular—I never would’ve imagined that so much flavor could come from so humble a bean. Second was goat cheese and chives in a parmesan cup topped by a candied walnut—don’t kill me but I’m not a cheese-fan so I didn’t taste it. S ate both of ours. He loved them, though he did think the richness of the goat cheese meant that one would’ve been enough. By this point, we were really looking forward to our meal.
We had three savory courses ($62) each, in this order:
Mushroom Tartelette (Foraged Mushrooms), described as “local wild mushrooms, walnuts and fingerling potatoes.” It turned out to be sliced portobellos laid over chunky mashed potatoes, with a small salad of greens and other mushrooms alongside. The walnuts were in a puree between the mushrooms and potatoes, the waitress said as she presented the dish, but I couldn’t taste them to save my life. It was beautifully and precisely presented, delicious but not WOW. I liked S’s salad much better…
Baby Romaine Lettuce (From the Field), with a panko-breaded and flash-fried egg, pine nuts, and warm pancetta vinaigrette. This was the WOW dish of the evening, by far. The egg yolks were the yellowest, yolkiest things I’d ever seen, just this side of runny, and the vinaigrette was out of this world. We were quite excited by it, and hopeful that it was an indication of more excitement to come.
Poached Chicken Breast (Our Pasture), with “farro and roasted carnival and cabocha squash.” This was lovely, silken-textured chicken with chewy grains and a lively sauce—with soy or something like it, to richen and deepen it (and make it slightly too-salty). But after a few bites I got a little bored—each mouthful tasted the same, and I couldn’t discern any specific chicken or squash flavors. I’m not sure I would’ve been happy with this in an entree size.
Homemade Cavatelli (Our Pasture) with guanciale and broccoli. This was another beautiful, but not spectacular dish. The cavatelli had a nice flavor and texture—nearly too al dente—but the guanciale tasted very much like the pancetta in the salad, and though the broccoli had been cut into the tiniest, cutest little florets I’ve ever seen, the whole thing didn’t quite hold together as a dish.
Wild Striped Bass (Foraged Mushrooms), with “hen of the wood mushroom, caramelized cauliflower, almond and caper vinaigrette.” Here was the big disappointment—I was really looking forward to this, loved every aspect of it in the menu description, and the waitress had raved when I wavered between it and the Cod. Ultimately, it was fine, but the fish was underdone—call me a philistine, but I’m not a fan of raw, tough fish. Perhaps it was intentional, perhaps the kitchen screwed it up, but I left a hunk of flesh behind on the plate. I was surprised that nobody asked if there was a problem (which makes me suspect it was, in fact, intentionally undercooked). As for the other components, the capers didn’t add the punch I expected, the almonds were visible but added no flavor, and the cauliflower was little more than fine. The mushrooms were the best part, earthy and slightly crispy.
As a counterpoint: the night before we ate at Frank on Second Avenue & Fifth Street. I ordered the seared cod special for $14.95, and licked the plate.
Crescent Duck (Hudson Valley Pastures), with “romaine, stew of napoli carrots with toasted spices, fromage blanc spaetzle.” Another almost-winner. S loved the duck, said he’d never enjoyed it prepared to that texture before (soft, rather than crispy) but in this case it worked. The vegetables were lovely, perfectly cooked, and the spaetzle, served in its own small iron pot, was browned and tangy from the fromage blanc.
But the sauce, which blanketed the duck and vegetables, struck me as a little too one-note. It was an orangey-brown, and I couldn’t identify a single element beyond salt. It tasted surprisingly similar to the sauce on my poached chicken breast, in fact. The end result was underwhelming.
We shared the Warm Chocolate Bread Pudding, with “caramel ice cream and pine nuts,” and it, too, disappointed just a bit. It was a good-sized square of the pudding, served with a quenelle-shaped scoop of ice cream on top. S said it looked like dog poop from a purebred raised on a diet of truffles. There were a couple of pleasing textural surprises: the pudding had a creme-brulee-like sugar shell, which added a nice jolt, and the pine nuts were somehow hidden underneath or inside the pudding, in a small pile in the center. We’d forgotten they were mentioned in the menu, so coming across a nutty interruption partway through was a clever bonus. But flavorwise, we weren’t as happy. While the pudding looked nearly black (which could’ve been the dim lighting), it had surprisingly little fudginess to it. If I’d been served this blindfolded, I’m not sure I would’ve identified it as a chocolate-based dessert. And the caramel ice cream, of which normally I’m a great fan, was made from an overcooked caramel, veering towards burnt and acrid. We didn’t finish it.
A lovely little send-off came with the coffee: chocolate-covered almonds, which were delicious and perfect.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but in the end it struck me as a place striving for four-starness but just missing. The service, the setting, and the presentation were all there, but the food itself: not so much. I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t a wonderful birthday dinner—it was, without a doubt. It’s just that for nearly $200 without wine, it wasn’t the transporting experience it should’ve been. Would we go back? At one point during dinner S and I talked about the likelihood of us ever being comfortable enough to go here casually, on a double-date with another couple, without it being a Special Occasion. If we do reach that level, sure, we’d go back. But if it’s one of maybe two or three “fancy” dinners a year? Not a chance.
Psss! Have you voted for the 2004 Food Blog Awards yet? Words to Eat By is up for best new blog.