Hello, readers! The Culinary Diplomat really does still exist!* Join me on a renaissance of sorts with the soulful cuisine of New York City’s Blue Hill restaurant. It may be neither new nor undiscovered, but one visit revealed why the restaurant and its chef-founder, Dan Barber, achieved fame for this restaurant and its subsequent sister farmstead property, Blue Hill at Stone Barns (the latter of which ranks #12 on 2018’s World’s 50 Best restaurants).
If the name Blue Hill feels vaguely familiar, some may recognize it as featured on the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, a chef-centric documentary series spotlighting chefs and their culinary viewpoints from around the world. The series is a feast for the eyes, if not a bit repetitive if one attempts to binge it.
I recently came into the good fortune of a late-night dinner reservation made by my best friend at Blue Hill. It happened to be our second Michelin star visit of the day – yep, had to throw that one in there with the pretension of an old CD blog post. Walking down into its understated entrance on a quiet street just off of Washington Square Park, the decor and ambiance is clean, modern, and unremarkable, much like many a Michelin star. After a visit to Manhattan’s MoMA earlier that evening, it struck me that many of the world’s best restaurants treat decor as a peripheral element.
Just as the world’s famed art museums all look similar – the ash wood flooring and pristine white walls, the light fixtures that are nearly invisible, many a restaurant graced by the recognition of a Michelin guide are visually unmemorable. I certainly have had wonderful meals surrounded by striking views and stimulating decor, but some of the most revered spots are unassuming and visually underwhelming – until the first dish arrives. And that seems to be fully intentional, just as an art museum’s architecture should never detract or distract from the exhibits.
On this night’s reverent food museum tour, my friend and I both chose Blue Hill’s six-course farmer’s feast (and why would you not?). Over the two amuse bouches and six courses, we came to really appreciate the thoughtfulness and care of the ingredients sourced for each dish, from seed (or egg) to table. Locally sourced produce and farm-raised meats are Blue Hill’s focus. Each dish might have been visually striking in its presentation, but flashy culinary innovation and novelty are not the aim of Blue Hill. It’s not that you won’t see creativity and imagination in the cooking – a beloved root vegetable transformed into a steak-like umami bomb, or a delicate sorbet made from fresh dairy milk, but the dishes and presentation are subtly innovative. They entreat us to experience the farm, the good breeding and sustainable ecosystems designed to set these dishes apart, to say, that is the best damn beet I’ve ever tasted, or I never thought pork liver could be that graceful and complex. The end result is subtly stunning.
The sequential order of the courses seems almost an evolution from raw to complex, from the earth to more sophisticated culinary methods. Each table received for its opening act a “welcome to the farm” of sorts comprised of the daintiest of carrots – greens on, served with lard made from hogs raised at Blue Hill Farm. Watching my friend eat every bit of the carrot, top and all, like Bugs Bunny or her own Vitamix was oddly the funniest moment of the meal. Sorry – you had to be there. Next came a dual amuse bouche – thin, crunchy rings of unseasoned kohlrabi (earth) and tiny bites of what seemed to be mixed liver (pork and/or chicken) sandwiched between chocolate tuiles (animal) – at once rustic and rich.
Delicate lobster dumplings in a lobster broth (my allergic self received a vegetarian dish of pickled kohlrabi and ginger instead) were the first course of the farmer’s feast. That dish was followed by a rather visually unappetizing log of koginut squash rolled in a mix of coconut and cocoa, served with bread yogurt.
The koginut squash was shockingly good and could have replaced the final quince dessert at the end of the meal – more on that, later. I am an instant fan of koginut.
Ok, time for a pop culture/food stan aside. Have you ever heard of koginut squash? If you are a massive foodie and have no idea what I’m talking of (or assume I made an Individual-1 type misspelling) intending to write “kabocha”, you can read more about it – and its release into the ‘wild’ of mainstream cuisine at my favorite local (origin) salad chain, Sweetgreen — here. Koginut is the brainchild of Blue Hill’s Dan Farber and his innovative agricultural partnership with Cornell University, Row 7. At any rate, koginut squash is pretty tasty, and I see more of it in my future. I unwittingly ate it at Sweetgreen just today before writing this post, completely unaware of the connection. (Seriously, if you live in a U.S. region that has a local Sweetgreen, march yourself in and try the koginut fries. Immediately!)
The meal moved onto the mains: Blue Hill Farm beef cooked two ways (stewed and grilled) and served with Jerusalem artichokes and roast hazelnuts. I know it’s a bit picky, but I am always disappointed when dining at one of the world’s best restaurants serves a cut of meat with an inordinate amount of gristle (not a pleasant marbling of fat) – I’m looking at you, White Rabbit in Moscow. My enjoyment of the flavorful stewed meat was dampened by the fact that I had to discard half of the already small portion due to tough gristle. The single slice of grilled beef, however, was pleasantly marbled and served rare – allowing me to truly taste its grass-fed goodness.
So after that experience, my expectations were low for the next course, beet steak. But if you’ve been half awake and read this far, you might have noticed me praising said beet steak earlier. I cannot say it enough: this iteration was the best damn beet I ever tasted. I love beets. I have loved them since I was a child and have spoken about them ad nauseum on this very blog; however, nothing has come close to the care with which Blue Hill chose and roasted these beets. Their texture and caramelized meaty flavor lived up to the moniker of steak. (I can’t say the same for cauliflower ‘steak’, which is an insult to steaks wherever served). They were served with a very German-American seeming plate – a fresh take on German potato salad, a smooth and rich (if not salty) spinach, and a unique ketchup made from cabbage. It dawned on me that the order of the beef and beet courses was quite intentional – to prove even to carnivores that a beet steak might just taste better than the real thing. But what is the ‘real’ thing anyway…? I digress. I also need to make a comment about the bread and butter. It truly is the small details that make or break the restaurant. Recently, I had the privilege of eating at the world’s current #15 restaurant, and the bread was sub-par. That was not the case at Blue Hill: incredibly soft yet crusty whole wheat sourdough was the perfect base for a wonderfully creamy butter studded with toasted quinoa, sesame, and farro seeds. The toasted seeds elevated the bread and butter. I could have made a meal solely of that combination, and it has inspired me to try it at home.
Dessert, a usual high point for me, was good but not on my top list. The first course was the better of the two – a very light and palate-cleansing milk sorbet over Granny Smith apples and served with a torched wisp of soft merengue. The merengue was supremely executed, and the combination of three elements was memorable. The final course, a quince crumble with soft goat cheese, lacked something – tartness perhaps. It was only lightly sweet, but the quince was overwhelming and could use a spice and/or citrus squeeze to balance its faint bitterness.
I’m happy to say the meal, on the whole, was a truly wonderful expression of Northeast regional agriculture – a bit of farm in the big city. Just like my visit to MoMA earlier that day, I left Blue Hill with a greater appreciation of the agricultural and culinary arts. A good meal is the sum of its ingredients, a reflection of each part’s origin and sourcing journey, and certainly of the care in its preparation and combination with other ingredients. In Dan Farber’s culinary ethos, ‘farm to table’ cuisine is not merely knowing the backstory of one’s food (when, where, why, how), but an obsessive striving to breed, grow, and nurture the best version of that carrot, beet, or cow – and to then see that through to that best version transformed and served on the plate. This entire process requires an integrated and sustainable approach to food, which feeds a cycle of improving what we eat. When each element works together in harmony, that’s when we have that transformative culinary experience, and it certainly did at Blue Hill.
Now in that spirit, let’s go find some koginut squash, shall we?
*Some of you may receive your email notification email of this post and thought, oh right? Whatever happened to the CD? Well, I’m back, and you can see, back with a cleaner, updated frame for the site. It was difficult to keep posting when the look and feel of the site was fast becoming too dated. So I’m back, looking to stay true to my mission of sharing culture through the experience of place and food. I’ll look to keep the posts a bit more compact and clean. The focus will remain on food as representation of a culture, time, and place, a way for us all to experience and connect with a very specific context. And we are never sponsored – so you can rest assured that written perceptions here are not shaped by advertisers or restaurants pushing their mediocre products. Salud!