Twenty five miles north of Manhattan is Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which opened in the spring of 2004. It is a restaurant set within the Stone Barns Centre for Food and Agriculture, a working 80 acre farm and educational facility. The restaurant sources most of its ingredients from the farm and from other nearby farms in the Hudson Valley. There is also a sister restaurant, Blue Hill, in Greenwich Village, which opened in 2000 and so preceded the rural Blue Hill.
The head chef and co-owner is Dan Barber. He has an unusual background for a chef, having graduated with a degree in English from Tufts University in 1992 and then being a farmer and family cook on the Blue Hill farm in Barrington, Massachusetts, prior to opening the Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan. The restaurant is on one side of a courtyard, next to a casual cafe with outside seating. The dining room is a large space with very high ceiling and well-spaced tables. There is no menu as such, you just choose the number of courses that you want to eat. Four courses were priced at $108, eight courses $148 And twelve courses $208. It transpired that there were several additional vegetable offerings prior to these courses.
The 41 page wine list had plenty of US wine and also a wide selection from France, but also skimmed around the world; there were few choices under $100. Karthäuserhof 'Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg' Spätlese 2004 was $75 for a wine that you can find in a shop for about $28, Jean Louis Chave Hermitage 2002 was $120 for a wine that costs that much in a shop, and Jean Louis Chave Hermitage 1989 was $425 for a wine that will set you back $296 to buy. We ordered Weinbach Cuvee Catherine l'Inedit Riesling 2002, which drank superbly today, rich and glorious. This was listed at $185, and is hard to find in a shop. There are some relative bargains amongst the grand wine e.g. a Romanee Conti La Tache was on the list here well below its retail price, and there are some old and rare vintages tucked away on the list.
At the beginning of the meal a lengthy series of raw vegetables was presented one after the other, starting with a sprig of fennel, whose only adornment was a little seasoning, and had good flavour. This was followed by a lettuce soup with a little pancetta (pleasant), then birch cookies with chocolate mint. Birch bark is baked in an oven for a few minutes to release its natural oils, then pulverized to powder and mixed with buckwheat flour, then added to mint chocolate cream. The result was powdery, grainy and tasted like you were eating powdered tree bark on your chocolate, rather as a doctor might add sugar to a tablet to make it palatable for a child. I think they could safely put this idea back into the pantry.
After this more vegetables arrived, grilled fava beans, "face bacon" (a sort of bacon tuile), then a nice salad of goat cheese, polenta and chocolate wheat crackers, the local goat cheese being excellent. This was followed by summer squash, sesame seeds and pancetta, a combination that worked well and was carefully seasoned. Miniature spring pea burgers were next (nice, though my dining companion preferred the beet burgers he had eaten on a prior visit). Then fried fish balls in a lettuce wrap were pleasant but no more than that.
At this point the courses of the menu began, after the lengthy sequence of nibbles. Until now I had found the vegetables and salad pleasant but unremarkable except where noted, perhaps around 15/20 level as an average, 16/20 at best. Things looked up with the next course, beet yoghurt with grape nuts, and a "beet sugar" of dehydrated beets. This was excellent, the texture of the "sugar" a nice texture contrast, the flavour of the yoghurt very good (17/20).
Peas with asparagus with saffron and almond was attractively presented on a large slate, with strands of embryonic egg yolk with almonds and hazelnuts made into a fine net, with very light texture. The peas and asparagus were very good but the star was the egg net, which was delicious and airily light (easily 18/20). The best dish of the meal was egg, zucchini and pork carbonara, the key being the superb egg, whose strikingly deep colour was matched by its wonderful flavour, while the pork was also excellent (19/20). There was further Berkshire pork next, with peas, lettuce and blood sausage with fava beans and grains, the pork again having very good flavour (17/20).
Desserts were not to the same level as the last few courses. Strawberry cannelloni was fine, but the strawberries did not have the kind of striking flavour that you find in the Mediterranean (15/20). A final dessert of cherries with chocolate was also pleasant but nothing remarkable (15/20).
I will make one comment on the flow of the meal. Naturally Blue Hill wishes to showcase its vegetables, and they were of good quality, but for me the seemingly endless sequence of vegetables went on for too long before anything involving actual cooking appeared on a plate. The vegetables were nice, but they did not have the dazzling flavour that the best vegetables in the Mediterranean and Japan possess. At Louis XV in Monaco there is an amuse bouche of vegetable crudités that seems very simple for a 3 star restaurant, but the raw vegetables are of such high quality that their flavour justifies it. Also, they appear as a single course, leading into the main meal. The vegetables at Blue Hill are good, but not of that level, so dish after dish of them becomes a little monotonous.
Potato and onion bread is prepared off-site in a New Jersey bakery and then finished in the kitchen, and had excellent texture with a particularly good crust (17/20). It was served with a trio of butters made on the farm. Two of the butters were identified by the server as being from specific cows ("Daisy and Sunlight" in this case) which seemed to me slightly too much information; I do not really need to know the nicknames of the animals whose products I am eating. Flashes of the Douglas Adams book "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe" came to me at this point in proceedings.
Overall this was a very good meal, whose level was raised considerably once the sequence of raw vegetables concluded and the cooking began. There were a couple of really excellent dishes in the meal, and the setting and service were charming throughout. The bill, with good wine, came to $285 a head (£182). Service was excellent throughout, attentive and friendly.