clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Prophet of the Soil

Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns is the best restaurant in America

Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Your meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns doesn’t begin with a menu; it starts with a conversation. You’ll notice a little booklet with your place setting, but it doesn’t reveal much about what the kitchen has planned — it lists the weeks of the year, and corresponding foods likely to be in season. No matter. Your server arrives to warmly pose questions like: How adventurous are you feeling this evening? Are there any foods you especially enjoy or dislike? What time would you prefer to finish dining? This last is a serious inquiry: given free rein, the kitchen is happy to serve you a meal that will last over five hours.

Soon, a procession of vegetables will begin, earthy treasures so alive with flavor that they’re almost confounding, and your time at the table will start rushing by in a blur. A delicious, capricious, extraordinary blur.

There are plenty of restaurants that, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, create unforgettable experiences for their guests. But this restaurant, set on a working farm tucked among rolling hills 30 miles north of Manhattan, is the best restaurant in America because it is more than a restaurant. Under the guidance of Dan Barber, its executive chef, co-owner, and chief philosopher, it is an experiment, a laboratory, a learning center, and a model for the future of agriculture.

It's to Stone Barns’s credit as an agent of hospitality that diners can choose to engage in these didactic aspects of the place as much or as little as they desire. But this engine — with no less lofty a motivation than revolutionizing our nation’s entire food chain — drives Barber, his team, his kitchen, and his tireless research into farming methods. It informs every gorgeous plate of food that comes out of the gleaming kitchen. I always leave Stone Barns exhilarated and sated, filled with inspiration in the same way I feel after seeing a mind-blowing concert or finishing a powerful book.

Fish heads and spines smoke over an outdoor grill (left); Barber holds up a loaf of levain bread

How is it that artists and craftsmen can most profoundly affect culture? They master their chosen medium, and then they push themselves past its established wisdom to something new and immediate. They express the stuff of life in audacious ways that stir the imagination, provoking reaction and emotion. Miles Davis broke open new jazz vistas by relentlessly experimenting with other modern musical styles. Allen Ginsberg wrote "Howl" in a dialect borne from the soul-wrenching insufficiencies of traditional poetic syntax. Zaha Hadid defied staid architecture critics to design buildings around the globe that hurtled forward our ideas about structural fluidity and geometry.

Barber is no less a revolutionary, confronting big-minded creative challenges from the perspective of a cook, a writer, and a scholar, at a time in history when food and its relationship to — well, to everything, has become an indelible part of our culture.

He’s been given the greenest pastures as a framework for his culinary coup. The restaurant — originally an offshoot of Barber’s Manhattan restaurant, Blue Hill, a lovely place which has born with good cheer a near-complete eclipse by its younger sibling upstate — is the centerpiece of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a non-profit organization dedicated to innovation and instruction around farming. The 80-acre property was once part of a Rockefeller estate; the building that became Barber’s cathedral-like dining room formerly housed the farm’s dairy operation.

In the dozen years since the restaurant’s inception, Barber has become a prophet of the soil, working obsessively not only with regional growers but with animal and vegetable breeders, all of them devoted equally to sustainability, land preservation, and the pursuit of superior flavor. This literal from-the-ground-up approach informs every aspect of Barber’s career. His wonderful 2015 book, The Third Plate, details his search for farmers who share his vision for the future of food in America. At the Manhattan Blue Hill, Barber’s experimentation with eliminating food waste has resulted in an astonishingly terrific "vegetable pulp bacon cheeseburger" served at the bar. (Barber co-owns both Blue Hills, named for a family farm in Massachusetts, with his brother David and sister-in-law Laureen.)

A chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns holds up a cauliflower (in its own papillote), poached in ham hock broth

You can understand the ethos of Barber’s operation by reading his books, watching his TED Talks, and dropping by his Greenwich Village outpost. But for the most thorough and deeply pleasurable immersion into his world, you have to make the trek to Stone Barns. The travel itself builds anticipation: on the train or in a car, the city falls away, mile by mile, until finally you turn down the farm’s long, winding driveway, where the surrounding lushness tunes your mind and senses for the feast ahead.

The point is to not really maintain a running tally of dishes, but to let the waves of flavors and textures wash over you.

Barber’s decision to adapt a menu-free style for the restaurant arose out of necessity: The constant juggle of just-harvested ingredients made it frustrating for Barber to plan tasting menus, even ones that changed daily. And with so many usable cuts of meat available from a single animal, he didn’t want to, say, butcher twenty-five lambs a week to feed all his diners chops. But Barber also perceived a growing openness among his customers. "The audience seemed increasingly interested in treating a restaurant not only as a place of escape, but also a place of connection," he told me. "That connection begins before the plate and extends beyond it." On any given night at Stone Barns, no two tables will experience exactly the same meal.

With the conversation that takes place as soon as you sit down, the front-of-house staff — a relentlessly enthusiastic and unstuffy crew, as knowledgeable about the culinary uses of tobacco leaves and they are with wine and tea pairings — establishes a real sense of connection between restaurant and diner. Servers keep their antennae alert at all times, reading the mood of the table. If you’re jibing with the doctrine, they’ll regale you with details and ditties about every morsel you’re eating; if they notice eyes glazing over, they’ll ease up on the rhetoric. Most importantly, they facilitate a trust that allows Barber to simply do his thing.

This past September, for example, dinner began with one of the few constants at Stone Barns: a presentation of "vegetables from the field" (tiny, popping tomatoes; the smallest, sweetest turnips and carrots; crisp tangles of lettuce hearts) served raw, impaled on spikes and shimmering with the lightest gloss of vinaigrette. The staging, to first-timers, can come off a little goofy or pretentious; I remember my own initial skepticism. Then you start eating, and the effect is almost spiritual. Rarely do the foods we eat taste as close to the moment as the jewels that Barber serves.

The entrance to the Stone Barns Center in late fall (left); a dish of Sweet Lightning squash and sea urchin

I tried to keep track of what came next, but finally I just let myself be swept along by the meal’s thrilling progression. There was a stream of one-bite wonders: tiny bulbs of kohlrabi to be swiped through pickled pesto and blueberry sauces; deboned chicken feet, fried and puffed to resemble chicharrones; crunchy edible dahlias, disguised as a centerpiece floral arrangement; mini-sandwiches of foie gras and chocolate; pastrami made from pig heart. Then slightly more substantial plates: a beet "pizza" on a crackery, oblong crust; a hearty version of Bolognese made from zucchini stems. On and on, through a multi-hour succession of nearly three dozen dishes, culminating in a final spread of summertime fruits — some raw, some grilled, all exquisite.

The point, I think, is to not really maintain a running tally of dishes, but to let the waves of flavors and textures wash over you. The ones I savored reappeared in my memory for months, vivid flashes from a particularly affecting dream.

On any given night at Stone Barns, no two tables will experience exactly the same meal.

If you’re inclined, the staff at some point in the evening will escort you for a course or two in another setting — perhaps the kitchen, or the patio, or the famous manure shed, converted into a flower-strewn fantasia of an agrarian dining room. There, the low, steady heat from a bin of decomposing compost doubles as an oven for slowly cooking tightly-sealed packets of vegetables or eggs.

These shifts in location play into my absolute favorite aspect of dining at Stone Barns: the subtle choose-your-own-adventure thread that the staff coordinates on the fly. For instance, our server’s eyebrows shot up when I offhandedly mentioned interest in the restaurant’s bread program. For years, Barber has been working with farmers and scientists to develop wheat strains that can produce both profitable yields and sweeter, more complex flavors.

A dish of Badger Flame Beets, roasted and raw (left); the dining room at Stone Barns used to be a cow dairy

Soon my tablemates and I were roused from our table and whisked off to the restaurant’s bakery, where Barber himself emerged. He guided us through samples of three different types of bread made from three different wheats, discussing their flavors, textures, and their variations in growing practices. There was talk of disease resistance and endosperm. The standout, a cocoa-colored loaf with a molasses richness, is a type of bread Barber has named "200% whole wheat." It’s made using flour milled from a wheat cultivar developed just for him called Barber II, plus an equal amount of pure bran from similar strains. Barber talked about wanting the bakery to be a place of relentless experimentation and ingenuity, where guests might taste failed bread experiments by way of comparison. I tasted only success.

The restaurant is an experiment, a laboratory, a learning center, and a model for the future of agriculture.

But that wasn’t the end of the wheat leitmotif. After our sojourn to the bakery, thematic dishes now weaved through our meal like points in a narrative: chicken that was roasted in a sourdough starter appeared, as did cucumbers in malted yogurt and a sip of beer brewed from rotation grains. After the concluding fruit bonanza, in lieu of petit fours, the kitchen sent out a loaf of warm chocolate bread that we giddily ripped apart with our hands — a fitting ending, since we’d eaten so much of dinner with our fingers. For another group, Barber might have spontaneously spun a comparable storyline out of squash, or tomatoes, or milk, or corn. The ingredients are his characters, the vessels of pleasure through which we might better understand not only the earth, but also the people who nurture the land, and maybe ourselves.

Eating at Stone Barns is an investment, in both time and money: the improvisational "Pecking, Rooting, Grazing" menu currently costs $239 per person, a number that with tax, tip, and drinks can easily run closer to $500. I have the outrageous luck to hold a job that sends me to write about the country’s most extravagant restaurants. But personally, if I were to save up for a year to spend big on just one meal — one celebratory, let’s-go-all-in experience — I would use my stockpile for dinner at Stone Barns. (Or maybe Sunday lunch; concluding a five-hour meal at midnight can, admittedly, be exhausting.) The sense of place and time Barber conjures through food is as life-affirming as it is gratifying. Dining here doesn’t just defy our assumptions of what a restaurant can and should be, it elevates them. It can even change how we view the world.

This story is part of Eater's special package on The Best Restaurants in America.
Read the full list of
38 restaurants that defined dining in 2016.

The Best New Restaurants 2016 | The Best Restaurants in America 2015 | The Best Restaurants in America 2014


Bill Addison is Eater's restaurant editor, roving the country uncovering the country's essential places to eat, culminating in an annual list of The Best Restaurants in America. Read all his columns in the archive.
Photos by Daniel Krieger
Editor: Helen Rosner
Header photo: Dan Barber stands outside at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Best New Restaurants

The 12 Best New Restaurants in America

Guides

New England's 38 Essential Restaurants

Guides

The South's 38 Essential Restaurants

View all stories in America's Essential Restaurants

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day