But recently, I had the pleasure of dining at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which blows all of those places away. This is more than just a 5-star meal. It's a 5-star experience.
My friend Dana shares my love for food and adventure and recently suggested this spot. Apparently it's a favorite of the Obama's, and it's easy to see why.
It's the epitome of Farm to Table dining, considering you're enjoying your meal AT an actual farm in the Pocantico Hills of New York.
There is no menu in the traditional sense. Once seated in the bright and airy dining room, there is a "field and pasture journal" at your place setting. When opened to whichever month you happen to be visiting, you are presented with the inspiration for what you will be eating based on the things available from the farm (or from the family farm in Massachusetts). Chef Dan Barber utilizes a variety of different sources to present your meal including a green house, traditional fields, forest, pasture, farm, and cellar.
There is just one dining option: "Grazing, Pecking & Rooting." You will be served 30+ plates and tastes during your 3 hour meal, and it won't always be the same exact things as the table sitting next to you. At some point, you will take a little "field trip" to enjoy one of your courses in another part of the farm or restaurant, and you will leave happy, full, and armed with a little more knowledge of what it takes to operate such an intricate establishment.
The dining room itself is stunning. We visited during lunch on Sunday, which I highly recommend because it will be the only meal of the day you'll need. The decorations are rustic and simple, which perfectly match the space... which is a refurbished barn.
The cocktail list is in line with the food, which is to say it's inspired by the seasons and produce available at the time of your visit. Dana ordered the "Rockwood Hall," which was bourbon, lemon, egg white and mulled wine. I went with the "Blue Hill Horchata," which combined scotch, triple sec, malted grain, almond and cinnamon syrup. Both were a perfect start to our amazing meal.
From left to right: fresh, in season vegetables dressed in a light lemon vinaigrette and sea salt and served playfully on a spiked board, alongside some baby fennel coated in the same dressing served on a piece of wood. Next came carrot "jerkey" and parsnip seaweed "candy," both fun vegetable plays on other food items. Then there was pickled ramps, topped with a farm egg sauce, which is served table-side from an actual egg shell. There was a liver mousse sandwiched with chocolate (upper right), pig's heart pastrami (lower left), and a seeded cracker topped with maple and sweet potato. There was mussel "pie" garnished with pickled seaweed, and speck sandwiches, served with delicate crackers painted with vegetable juice. The beet "burgers" were dainty and delicious.
I should also mention that none of the amuse bouches are served with utensils of any sort, many are served on stones or pieces of wood, and some dishes are interactive, which adds to the fun of the meal. One of them included a charcoal mayonnaise served with scissors and potted pea shoots. You are instructed to snip off some of the shoots and drag them through the mayo. They also brought out a chicharone around the same time and Dana decided to also dip it in the mayo. I followed suit and our waiter came over and said, "I don't think I've ever seen anyone dip a chicharone in mayo, but I love it!" Needless to say, we were trend setters because the table next to us did the same thing. (Who doesn't like fat dipped in fat??)
Also... behind the mayo in that photo is lichen (moss) dusted with cured venison. I can confidently say I've never been served moss at a restaurant, but I happily popped the little morsel in my mouth and enjoyed it as I did most every other dish on that cool March afternoon.
Education is a big part of your meal here, and as we were sipping on our plum and ginger spritzers, our host, John, brought over large jars of pickled plum and ginger to explain their preservation process at the farm. Basically, this ensures that even if you visit in the winter, you will still get to experience flavors from other seasons due to their pickling and preserving throughout the year.
Perhaps the highlight of the meal is the "field trip," where you are taken to a different part of the restaurant. We experienced ours during our first course (after our 15 amuse bouches). We were led through the kitchen to a large butcher block table, where we stood and dined while we witnessed the chefs construct the dishes we had just enjoyed. Later, a table next to us was handed their coats and taken outside where a chef was grilling gourmet hot dogs, and others ate part of their meal in the compost shed. (Sounds gross, but I saw photos on Instagram, and it looked beautiful).
While in the kitchen, we were presented with: coppa on corn flatbread (upper left), and farmers cheese with a salt crusted pear and pickled green strawberry. There was trout with fermented cucumber on a rye cracker (upper right), and mokum carrots roasted in hay (bottom left). Inside a wooden bowl was a dollop walnut cream topped with a savory granola. The strained yogurt was topped with tsai tsai and pine nuts (bottom right). We were also served a first flow of maple to sip on (not pictured).
Next up: the bread course. I chuckled to myself when I read a review on Yelp complaining that you didn't get any bread until the middle of the meal. Seriously, people? This is not the type of place you need to fill up on bread. And here, even the bread is a piece of art. The brioche is made from whole wheat grown right on the farm, and served with a greens marmalade and house made ricotta cheese. The bread was soft and hearty and perfect.
From here, the courses started to grow in size and flavor, as well as the presence of protein. The "Farmhouse Tacos" are served on a lazy susan that included: herbs, corned beef, parsnip guacamole, chard, seared shrimp, grilled salt, smashed shelling beans, preserved corn, crema and a mini bottle of watermelon hot sauce. Instead of tortillas, we received with thinly shaved kohlrabi rounds.
Again... this was more of the interactive eating I was talking about, and also another educational aspect of our meal. Before the tacos were served, John brought out a giant kohlrabi to show us just exactly what we would be eating. It was fun to make your own tacos and experiment with the different flavors so creatively presented before you.
What came next was probably my favorite dish of the day. Again educating us on how the food is prepared (and adding some theatrics in the process), John brought out a giant pan which contained a salt-crusted pig's head that had been slow cooking for hours. My jaw literally dropped, as I at first thought he was serving us the whole thing (I've had something similar at Cannibal in NYC). But no, silly me, he was just giving us a little preview of what was coming out next. The plated pig was gorgeous, but it tasted even better. Three pieces of the incredibly tender pork were served with roasted apples and fennel. Definitely a melt-in-your mouth moment I'll never forget.
Next was a piece of potato onion bread served with local butter, lard and parsnip salt. I wasn't a huge fan of the lard, but I tried it just to be a good sport, and again appreciated the tail to snout use of everything on the farm. Our final meat dish was venison served with rutabaga mash and pistachios. Just like everything else before it, the venison was perfectly cooked and the flavors melded together effortlessly, highlighting the seasonal produce.
Finally... dessert! I'm not a huge sweets person (so sue me) and neither is Dana. However, the dessert here was more my style because it wasn't overly sweet, and it incorporated some savory elements as well. Up first was a beet sorbet served over creme fraiche with puff rye and freeze dried strawberries (top left). That was followed by a warm, roasted sweet potato served alongside frozen smoked whey, which was an interesting play on hot and cold (bottom left). Next, we were presented with a rootbeer float and "s'mores," (middle) which were served on a stick with marshmallow wrapped around chocolate and served on charcoal. Finally, an elevated wooden platter with chocolate farm eggs, mini chocolate tarts and apple slices.
What I loved most about Blue Hill at Stone Barns is that you walk away with a newfound appreciation for ingredients and how they can be presented and manipulated. We were full, but not uncomfortable, and I felt the meal, while expensive, was worth every penny ($198 to be exact). I would absolutely return (hopefully in a different season), and 100-percent recommend it to anyone with an adventurous palate and appreciation for true farm-to-table dining.