Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Blue Valentine

If you don't know about it already, then it's a well-kept secret. And that's how I wanted it to be for my plan to surprise Ale for her birthday weekend, the one it conveniently shared with Valentine's Day. (Killin' two birds with one stone - I like it already.) The place is Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sister to its NYC counterpart of the same name (sans at Stone Barns, obviously). To tell you dining here is a treat doesn't even begin to express the superlative nature of everything that is this restaurant experience on a barn. Yes, a real barn! How could a barn be within a New Yorker's grasp you ask? Just put it on acres and acres, in the middle of a wooded expanse, found by a narrow road, in a tiny town called Tarrytown in upstate NY. And who says we've got no green? All you have to do is find it.

Bakery vendor at the indoor farmer's market
One Zipcar, two gussied-up girls, and 45 minutes later, we skipped (literally) onto the Stone Barns grounds. The idea behind the menu at this fine eatery is to use local, fresh ingredients from their farms, resulting in an ever-changing, seasonal menu. (Lucky us, this day their Hay Barn boasted a local farmer's market, which we perused for a bit, albeit with much restraint.) The Sunday brunches consist of a no-ordering, prix-fixed smorgasbord of "Farmer's Feast" combinations. This particular brunch was extra-special/extra-expensive because it was the Valentine's Day menu: a.k.a. their free-pass to hike up the fare for the fare. So please leave your overalls and mud boots at the door. Instead imagine the systematically choreographed waitstaff, in full-out French style shirt and tie (some with jackets even, oooh), gliding this way and that - at your service madames and monsieurs. Upon arrival we were greeted by, not one, not two, but three freshly suited men, with glistening smiles, eager to show us to our table - a perfectly isolated two-top by the sun-drenched window (after I quickly nixed a booth next to a couple with a baby; I don't do children on a regular basis, much less on a fancy-shmancy day, okay?).
Window seats!

My view of the restaurant
Sultry sake to the left, bubbly beet to the right
Let's get to the good stuff. What's a better brunch starter than bubbly, right? Well we didn't just start it, we continued it all the way through via a beautiful French bottle of Champagne. But first the pre-bubbly show boomed with two creative cocktails, both perfectly balanced and so different: an effervescently pleasant beet vodka-infused mimosa with tarragon and orange, and a serious but refreshing sake-centric mix with noilly prat rouge vermouth, chamomile infused vodka and q tonic. If we weren't prepared to gorge before, we were now certainly ready to begin the taste-bud journey of an 8-course meal - which really turned into 11 if you count the spectacularly crusty but doughy potato-onion bread (more on this later) and its delightful plate of accompaniments, plus the extra, candled-dessert we got as surprise for Ale's birthday.

Eggs as they should be
The first course centered around their home-grown soybeans, with tofu, oysters and caviar: perfectly slippery with licks of the salty ocean, well-complemented by the firmness of the beans and tofu. Next, one of my favorite dishes hit the table: an egg-crate presentation of soft-boiled eggs with fantastic mini-brioche sticks for the dippin'. Add to that the compartmentalized accouterments of sauteed leeks, pancetta, and spinach, and you've got an assembly of goodness. Up next was a bit of skimpy fodder, if you ask me. We can forget the filler field greens bowled modestly with random garden veggies (maybe cucumber and radish?). I don't even have photographic reference. Skip and move on. And move on we did: stuff was gettin' serious. Cut to my meaty Maine scallop in a curried pool of cauliflower, grapes and almonds. The sweet shrimp was  minced with herbs and conspicuously blanketed the top of the grilled scallop; I could not find where that flavor was coming from at first. But then I found ya, sneaky shrimp! (As an aside, I think at about this time we had cleared our first loaf of heavenly home-made bread, using any liquid as a soaking excuse, and a second, if not more heavenly, loaf swiftly replaced it. Bonus service points.)
Succulent scallop

Balls o' turkey
Mmmmmeat
One strong step forward, and now meek step back with what the menu proclaims are bourbon red turkey crepinettes. Yeah, fancy for turkey meatballs. Three little ducks, er turkeys, in a row, each (hardly) exerting an effort of varying flavor merely by what it was clothed in: one senselessly wrapped in a Romaine leaf, one with a portobello sliver (the best of the three), and one with an artichoke slice. In this case, a meatball's a meatball's a meatball - no way around it and no way to "crepinette" it. I would have expected the differentiating ingredients to be more thoughtfully integrated into the meatball instead of as a side - and an aside, for that matter. Surprisingly, the puddle of truffle compote for dipping didn't have any redeeming qualities, as anything "truffle" usually can get away with murder. Redemption was indeed found in the grand finale of the main course presentation, grass-fed beef, just the way I like it: medium rare and nearly mooing. Set those thick slices in a pond of hummus, watercress and flavored oils, punctuated with chick peas rightfully echoing the hummus. Tender, juicy and slick - a bold conclusion to the line-up of varied courses.

Chocolatey bounty of brioche
Surprise dessert: choc full o' choc
Change gears to three sweet treats. One, a fresh dessert of house yogurt sorbet, finessed with a granny smith apple and celery gelee and cut with noble sour vinegar: simultaneously creamy and buoyant (no picture). But the winner was the chocolate brioche with granola ice cream and milk jam. The molten brioche sopped up the silky but crunchy ice cream. Salty and sweet triumphs everytime. Now, telling you that the extra surprise dessert was all about chocolate would be an understatement: a thick, richly dense chocolate cake waxed with a generous layer of chocolate ganache, and garnished with chocolate sticks. Did I mention chocolate? Yeah, good thing we are both lovers of this dark devil. Wrap it up with two shots of espresso and you've just had yourself a full dining experience. Oh speaking of wrapping, we loved the bread so much (and apparently expressed it to the point of exhaustion) that our server sent us home with a hefty half-loaf to go. Now that's what I call attention to detail! Extra bonus points for you, server lady. I don't think I've been more ecstatic about a doggy bag.

Because our brunch concluded before sundown, we took the opportunity before we left the premises to tour the expansive barns, visiting the animals (awkwardly aware that they literally provided our meal) and admittedly barely-there fauna and veggies (it was the middle of February). But we made the earnest promise to return in the spring/summer months, as it's the perfect break-from-the-city day trip. Especially since you don't have to drop all your dimes at the restaurant, as they do have a casual cafe with equally yummy treats and picnic-style seating. But the Blue Hill experience was definitely fantastic enough for a repeat visit, even if it's to the location closer to home. My Valentine's day had Blue written all over it and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Plentifully sparse herbs in their greenhouse
Casual cafe


A glorious sunset overlooking the barn's main grounds