On the long driveway looping its way into Stone Barns, you hit a speed bump. It’s time to slow down.
You come here to taste vegetables picked just that morning, assuming their true forms in unconventional combinations, elevated beyond anything you’d find in a supermarket.
Thirty-two miles outside New York City, the “foodie destination” Blue Hill at Stone Barns takes the farm-to-table concept to a new level. It’s a world-class restaurant situated on acres of farmland where produce and the very idea of food are constantly being reinvented.
Here’s what it’s like to tour the Stone Barns farm and eat a 10-course meal at the legendary Blue Hill restaurant.
Sitting on 7.5 acres of farmland, 23 acres of pasture, and 40 acres of woodlands in Pocantico Hills, New York, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a living laboratory.
Philanthropy operations manager Maggie Nolin, who led the tour of the grounds the day we visited, said that Blue Hill doesn't have the neat rows of a conventional farm. 'That's the whole point. We're farming in harmony with nature here,' she said.
They practice the 'three C's': crop rotation, cover crops, and compost, to keep the soil as healthy as possible. The roughly 20 people who regularly work the land here grow over 500 varieties of fruits and vegetables -- everything from apples to zucchini.
They meticulously manage every bit of land. This may look like a regular forest, but it's actually filled with foods you can forage, like mushrooms and sassafras.
This wildflower patch feeds the bees, whose hives you can see in the coloured boxes in the back left. The bees, in turn, pollinate the plants. Everything is about symbiosis here.
The farm raises chickens, sheep, pigs, and turkeys. The chickens' 'egg-mobiles,' an open-source design Stone Barns invented, can be moved daily by one person.
When asked about the expense of growing food with this much management and rigour, Nolin said their philosophy wasn't to replicate their exact approach in other climates, but to take the heart of their idea and apply it locally elsewhere. 'Cheap food is very expensive,' she said. 'We're just not seeing the cost.'
Time to eat! We started with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the patio. We were there for a private event, so every meal might not come with a cocktail hour beforehand. I chose a blueberry daiquiri (bottom right) made with fresh mint and both light and dark rums.
It brightened up the small bites: sesame crackers with zucchini marmalade and tomatoes (bottom left), and deep-fried potato balls with lemon and mushroom sauces (top).
Servers just kept coming around with more tapas -- zucchini with pancetta and sesame seeds (top right), polenta topped with ragu (top left), and caviar tarts (bottom). I learned I don't like caviar.
The staff is very attentive to food allergies and dietary needs. One diner was vegan, so they brought him a special plate of hors d'oeuvres.
Inside we go for the main event. The bright dining room was filled with flowers, metal beams, and white tablecloths. Back when the building was used for the farm, this space used to be the milking barn.
Here was the tasting menu for the day. A meal is $258 per person for just the food, or $426 each if you add on the wine pairing. A 20% tip is also added to your bill, bringing the total up to a whopping $511 per person for food and drinks.
We started with items that didn't appear on the menu. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon radishes simply dressed with olive oil and salt and pepper were skewered on these boards. Tiny mushroom burgers offered a sweet bite, and the quail egg -- with more caviar atop a filo nest -- had a pleasant crunch followed by a burst of pure egg flavour.
The first course entailed tomatoes and fennel with a tomato foam and creamy goat cheese, paired extremely well with the crisp Corsican rosé. The dish was an ode to tomatoes, which had just started being harvested.
Chef Adam Kaye said we couldn't have chosen a better 'slice of the calendar' to come. Since so many vegetables were in season, it was 'almost too easy' to make a menu. He said the farmers attend kitchen menu meetings, and the cooks spend at least one morning a week on the farm.
'The onus is on us as chefs to find ways for the farmers to maximise the potential of the land,' Kaye said.
The second course was Maine lobster with what they called corn and shellfish chowder. The lobster was meaty and perfectly cooked (as to be expected), but the soup was more like a creamy sauce with corn in it. It was served on more of a plate than a bowl, making it difficult to eat.
One thing Blue Hill excels at is attention to detail. They served hot dishes in heated stone bowls and plates to keep the food warm. The servers also made sure wine glasses were never even close to empty.
I loved watching the team serve each table. They would gather around with each course, setting half of the dishes down in perfect harmony, and then serving the other half. It's that meticulousness that makes it feel so special.
The third course was a ricotta-filled gnocchi with mushrooms in a tomato sauce, topped with nutty parmesan that balanced the dish. I asked if there were roasted red peppers in the sauce, too, and the servers took the time to ask the chef and tell me it was simply tomatoes.
Time for the meat: lamb belly and loin with an incredibly flavorful eggplant purée. The belly, reminiscent of the pork belly that's so popular these days, was satisfyingly chewy and crunchy, while the loin was a masterful medium rare. The two played well off each other.
For the fifth course, bursting blueberries topped corn they had turned into a kind of pudding. I liked how this was a transition between dinner and dessert -- not too sweet, simply using the natural sweetness in the produce to carry the flavours. This glass of Eiswein from Austria was honey, syrupy goodness. I had two glasses.
Even the coffee at the end of the meal had its own Blue Hill touch. The milk came in an old-fashioned milk jug, and the sugar was in misshapen cubes. At this point, I was very, very full.
But there's more food coming! The sixth course was milk crepes with macerated strawberries, plums, and tangerines. They made the crepes by frying reduced milk in a pan, and it somehow turned into a thin pancake. (I suspect magic.)
The milk crepe was too nutty for my taste, but the berries, ice cream, and panna cotta were divine. Their caramel goodness was right up my alley.
I thought we were done! Finally, there were cherries, sugared peach gummies, and the creamiest honey chocolate truffles I've ever eaten. Four hours of eating, complete.
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