[Pigging by Wilfrid: March 17, 2008]
Henri Soulé, famed proprietor of Le Pavillon, thought that "all the fancy international crowd would follow him if he moved to the Hamptons, and he was right."
Thus Craig Claibourne on Soulé's "very fancy, very elegant" L.I. outpost, The Hedges.
(Why thirteen nails in the block of wood? In case they need to serve carrots for a table of thirteen?)
If Dan Barber thought that the local New York, and indeed the international, foodie crowd would risk manure on their leather-soled loafers to eat his food in the Pocantico Hills above Tarrytown, well he was right too.
In fact, BHSB soon became as tough to reserve as almost any Manhattan hotspot: calling up to two months ahead is no bad idea. As it happens, I was invited to preview the restaurant when it opened almost three years ago. I couldn't make it, and the weeks and months passed, and everyone told me how the food was so much better than the original Blue Hills on Washington Place, how lovely the scenery was, how easy it was to get there.
And still I didn't go. Two reasons. The first I explored at ample length in my review of the Washington Place Blue Hill last October. While I had found Dan an exceedingly articulate and likeable advocate for his style of cooking - minimal interference between the land and the plate - it just wasn't for me. He relied heavily on the proposition that New York State has great natural ingredients. Too many dishes lacked sparkle, and the texture of the food too often resolved into indeterminate slow-cooked tenderness.
In the wake of chef changes described in that earlier review, I am now over those objections. Dan Barber's Greenwich Village outlet is a very good restaurant indeed these days, spotlighting ingredients from the Barbers own farm.
It was time for me to get over my second problem: going upstate to a farm to eat. Call me barbaric, but one condition from which I have never suffered is a nostalgia for the soil. I was raised on the eastern cusp of London and Essex, and have lived all my adult life as near the center of a city as possible. My reaction to hearing about the splendor of the scenery around Stone Barns is to recall Francis Bacon's horror of Switzerland: "All those views!"
Just as I have never found the experience of eating a small, salty slider (hello, Shake Shack) to be enhanced by sitting on a wooden chair, fighting off the pigeons, I likewise didn't expect my enjoyment of dinner to be honed by that most inhuman of phenomena, a truly dark night sky.
Well, serves me right, because I made the trip to the Pocantico Hills in pissing rain on the nastiest night of the month, got wet feet and couldn't see a damn thing. Until I located the entrance to the restaurant.
Talk about "very fancy, very elegant". This I did not expect. I expected old stone walls, straw on the floor, perhaps a roaring fire. In fact, someone (with plenty of money to invest) has dropped a huge, high-ceilinged, swanky, Michelin several-star style restaurant into the middle of a working farm.
Just past the smart bar, the scale of the room, the arched ceiling, is breathtaking, as are the sheer numbers of staff. Especially captains. A lot of dark suits go into the serving of a meal here.
The "Farmer's Feast"kicks off with a procession of small bites. The crucified carrots are emblems of the Barber ethos, snatched from the soil, served pristine (actually, I thought they'd been slicked with something citrussy) - yay, raw carrots. Nice, not a culinary breakthrough, and the presentation made me feel a bit like Bugs Bunny. The other small tastes reveal some work, though: the farm's own soft, rich butter, its own ricotta, and some colorful "salts" - I liked the green arugula powder; there was carrot too - all passed in small bowls for you to mix and match with the crusty bread.
Salsify showed up as good, crisp tempura, trapped on the long spikes which have become as indispensable to haute presentation in 2008 as a table-side chafing dish was in 1908. Little pancetta crisps on the side, swallows of squash soup...
Then another dashing presentation: tiny "beet burgers" on a pedestal. The so-called "Farmer's Feast" is, of course, essentially a menu surprise, the chef's choice of dishes. A captain asked about dietary restrictions, and the meal proceeded from there. Not that I didn't overhear other captains sell the concept in the most extravagant terms. The chef would tailor the meal precisely to your likes and dislikes; he would send the dishes out as small tasting portions, or as full-size portions if you were hungry (really?).
Come on, it's chef Barber's greatest hits tailored to the seasons. I also overheard some remarkable wine descriptions: "It's got tannins, acid..." Really. There is an imprecise correlation between quantity of dark suits here and level of food-wine expertise.
The fresh farm egg is a menu fixture, on this occasioned panko-crusted; at Blue Hills Washington Square this week, they are serving it nude.
A comparatively hefty serving of kampachi was well set off by an acidic, citrus sauce. The two meat courses each derived from the fattier parts of the farm mammals: a rectangle of pork belly served in a quite over-the-top black dish the size and shape of an inverted bowler hat: you had to sit up and reach over the rim to find the food. Lamb's neck came with quinoa. The Cornas lived up to these dishes. I am sure there is something worthy, if only I could put my finger on it, about raising your own creatures for the slaughter, but the truth is that meat from New York farms by and large is not strongly flavored. The Blue Hill pork is mild, sweet, but for a big mouthful of pig which tastes of pig, look elsewhere. My attention was diverted, however, by the question of what becomes of the rest of the beast. There's a lot of meat on a pig, for example, even a dinky, dainty heirloom porker. Racks of chops, the legs, the shoulders. I suppose chef Barber might braise a butt for the staff dinner, but even so. A large dining room (turns the tables at least twice, by the way) munching little squares of pork belly doesn't account for anything. Is there Blue Hill pork and lamb in the supermarket, under a different name? In a spirit of enquiry, I headed to Washington Place later in the week, to see if I could find the rest of my pig. I ate another of the fresh eggs, which loses nothing in flavor through it's short journey into town.
I found only the loin, neatly sliced and served over crunchy sprout leaves. The red paste puzzled me at first: some kind of thick cranberry sauce? It was mineral, but fruity too. It turned out to be a red cabbage, fully cooked with fruity garnishes, then reduced to a rich smear. I am still wondering where the pig's legs go. The world of Dan Barber and welcome to it: a combination of sincere, land-loving toil - farming is in his blood - and the high kitchen artifice which makes the former palatable to a well-heeled Manhattan-global clientele. Nothing could be further from a farmyard kitchen than the kitchen at Blue Hill Stone Barns. The setting and service strive for a high level of sophistication (the latter doesn't always achieve it). The well-wrought food is as happily, and more easily, sampled in Greenwich Village. The myth is not.
Note: Craig Claibourne on The Hedges, quoted from Alan Richman's book Fork It Over, page 36.
Note 2: Through no fault of the restaurant, a mad dash through the rain to catch an appropriate train back to town meant an express sampling of desserts. Hardly a basis for writing about them. Both the Blue Hills can be relished right here.