This review, originally published on September 23, 2014, was updated on October 7, 2016 with annotations by Bill Addison and Editor in Chief Amanda Kludt to reflect a recent experience.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a restaurant dedicated to connection — and reconnection — with the land, and it lobs out one opportunity after another for patrons to feel a personal bond. It begins obviously enough with the bucolic setting, about 45 minutes outside New York City. The property’s driveway meanders through the grounds of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, established ten years ago on what was previously part of the Rockefeller Estate. Ducks or chickens may waddle by; the fields in warm weather look almost extraterrestrial in their greenness. Arrive early, perhaps with a change of shoes, for a closer look at the gardens and greenhouses and pastures.
Inside the restaurant (once the namesake barn, built in the 1930s to facilitate a dairy farm), a centerpiece of plants and branches that is druidic in scope draws the eye. It mirrors the hillside and clusters of dense foliage out the windows. And as soon as the meal begins, diners feel the dirt under their nails — metaphorically if not quite literally.
No edible soil comes out of the kitchen, hallelujah. But every course in some way brings the mind back to nature. That certainly includes the meats and produce, much of which come from the property or from the Massachusetts farm operated by Stone Barn’s executive chef and co-owner Dan Barber. The presentations, too, constantly evoke the countryside: Unadorned vegetables or a veal bone filled with herbed beef heart arrive impaled on spiky instruments that resemble farm tools. A mini-trellis threaded with "weeds" appears alongside a planter of radiant tomatoes still on the vine. The accompaniments: tarragon pesto and garden shears. Barber, the country’s most articulate chef on matters of sustainability, glorifies every part of the animal. Pork eye socketMy favorite surprise animal part this time: deboned and puffed chicken feet, crunchy and airy like avian chicharrones. - BA (its texture surprisingly friendly) may come on a plate shared with a rib and jowl meat.
Skeptical first timers could at first find all this back-to-the-land hoopla a tad twee. The opening parade of raw vegetablesThis time the opening parade included a truly spectacular romaine/iceberg lettuce hybrid, perfectly salted. - AK, and the excellent charcuterie that often accompanied them, were charming and delicious enough. But I didn’t fully drink the Stone Barns Kool-Aid until I sipped Barber’s cantaloupe tearsNo cantaloupe tears this time, though we did have charentais melon wrapped in coppa that was nearly as wonderful. - BA. Glasses of the liquid came halfway through the meal, paired with coppa — lush, striated shoulder meat from the farm’s 900-pound pigs — as a riff on the Italian classic of ham and melon. The kitchen selects the most fragrant cantaloupes, roasts and purees them, and then lets the juice slowly drip through cheesecloth overnight. Its taste hurled me back to my Maryland childhood, when my mother would buy cantaloupes from a man who grew produce and sold it from the back of his pickup truck in the summer. The fruit was heavy, and so ripe it bordered on fermented. Consuming it, like the Stone Barns nectar, felt thrilling in a way that was almost animalistic.
Every course in some way brings the mind back to nature.
This is the restaurant’s ace, then: Barber’s mastery as a chef ultimately overrides any glints of preciousness. The dapper staffWe asked sommelier Charles Puglia to recommend one bottle of wine to see us through much of the meal. He brought us an obscure-ish Italian white — a 2012 Timorasso 'Derthona' from Vigneti Massa — that was rich and minerally and just right, as was the $65 price. - BA aids in the enchantment. Currently, there is only one tasting menu (though no actual document is presented) that Barber calls "Grazing, Pecking, Rooting." It can last for three to five hoursThis visit clocked in around five and a half hours, which can be punishing, even with the trips to the manure shed and the herb garden. - AK
and include 20 to 40 courses. In an approach that deepens the connection theme, the servers communicate with the kitchen to tailor each table’s dinner individually. If they sense that diners want less small bites and more substantial plates, they make adjustments. Open-minded gluttons can find themselves in the restaurant past midnight.
To stretch the legs, guests are often escorted to another part of the grounds for a course or two. We’d been at the table for around two hours, chowing through ever more satisfying creations: eggplant charred over house-made charcoal (using lobster shells, among other skeletal remnants) and yogurt deriving its almond flavor from apricot pits; ham, on a craggy cracker, that melted the moment it hit the tongue; a witty riff on the corn dog that entailed battered pieces of cob, from a breed of miniature corn that a farmer cultivates especially for Barber.
Then a server asked if we were ready for an adventure. He led us outside to the small outpost known as the "manure shed" and described the building’s features: A bin containing the sweetest smelling compost possible holds a temperature between 60 and 65 degrees Celsius. The kitchen uses it as an oven, cooking sealed vegetables slowly, and heat is also siphoned off from the bin and stored in coils that operate a circulator bath often used to poach eggs. Another staffer brought out a lazy Susan with sliced butterfish, cured logs of ham hock, a vase of herbs, an impressively rich take on guacamole made from artichokes, and sour cream. It was DIY taco timeOn this visit we were given a lesson in potato breeding in the shed, followed by a lovely potato course. I found that this visit, more than any others, focused more on the specialized farming and plant breeding that they do here and elsewhere for the restaurant. - AK — with slices from a large kohlrabi (lacking any of the sulfur notes that often waft from the vegetable) subbing for tortillas. A fun, ephemeral shift in location and cuisine.
At the table, Barber bounded out quickly to introduce the bread courseOur stop in the bakery, built since our last meal there, was my favorite part of the evening. Barber will reshape our notion of breads with the wheat strains he’s developing and the baking techniques he’s perfecting. One of three breads we tried was entirely whole wheat but feathery light; another was dense and molasses-like. All incredible. - BA. Wheat is one of his current preoccupations, and he’s been working with farmers in Seattle to grow a strain bred for flavor that also produces almost four times the yield of an average wheat crop. The bread we had was a cousin to the Seattle wheat (the long-awaited variety will debut in the restaurant this week) and it was already a slice of toast that could outpace all others in taste, nutty and ancient.
After marinated tomatoes with burrata ice cream, Oreos fashioned from buckwheat cookies, and blueberry jellies with dried peaches and berries This 2016 visit was actually the first time I was overly impressed with the desserts here. First, warm loaves of chocolate bread. Then ice cream made from different stages of cow's milk (colostrum to caramel), followed by a flurry of toppings (honeycomb granola) and the last of this summer's fruits arrayed on a huge chunk of fresh honeycomb. , we finally had to steel ourselves for the trek back to New York. By then I understood why the reputation of Blue Hill at Stone Barns has grown ever more celestialOur Eater group left exhausted but also elated. Stone Barns continues to be one of the most enthralling fine-dining experiences in the country, consistent in its devotion to odd, wonderful vegetables and no-waste animal cookery but always changing itself, always improving. Book a reservation now. - BA over its ten years. The focus on connection is about more than the farm and the meal. It’s also about the restaurant and its customers. Stone Barns has the theatrics of other fine dining pantheons, but its sincerity and sense of place also encourage a deeper intimacy. The experience leaves you curious and invested — and longing to return.
Cost: The restaurant serves a “Grazing, Pecking, Rooting” menu for $238 per person.
Sample dishes: The staff tailors every meal to the guest’s interests and appetites. It can include 20 to 40 courses, many that involve a few bites or less. Dinner covers the full length of the food chain, but freshly harvested vegetables and cured meats factor heavily.
What to drink: The wine list is democratic in its scope and price ranges. There is a tempting selection of saisons, the gamut of spirits, and a rundown of Madeiras that dates back to 1863. Pick your liquid passion. The wine pairing ($158 per person) zigzags through New and Old World wines and probably a few other surprises. The beverage list itself is democratic in its scope and price ranges. There is a tempting selection of saisons, the gamut of spirits, and a rundown of Madeiras that dates back to 1863. Note, though, for those driving back to the city, the restaurant also offers an impressive array of non-alcoholic drinks, including house-made kombuchas, fresh fruit lassis, and a breadth of top-of-the-line teas.
Bonus tip: In the age of casualization, Stone Barns champions formality at dinner; jackets and ties are preferred for gentlemen. Also, the restaurant is about a 45-minute drive from New York City. Double that, minimum, when driving out of Gotham during rush hour. (It makes the drive back to the city seem especially swift by comparison.) A 35-minute train ride from Grand Central Station plus 10 minutes in a taxi may be more relaxing.