Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barnes needs no introduction, but if you want to get up to speed watch Season 1, Episode 2 of Netflix’s Chef’s Table or read the reviews by the NY Times, The Telegraph, or GQ. It’s currently ranked #12 in the world and the #2 restaurant in the US, only behind Eleven Madison Park, which, spoiler alert, we believe is a mistake.
Like most top 50 restaurants, Blue Hill is an exceptionally hard reservation to score, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. The reservations open up 60 days out, and literally they were all gone in seconds. I’ve scored reservations at Noma and Osteria Francescana, so it was a little surprising to see all the times gone so fast. I think part of the problem was that they were using Reserve, probably the worst of the big reservation systems on the market. However, last week Blue Hill switched to Tock, which is in my opinion the best system out right now.
A slight aside, but there has to be a better way for these top restaurants to do reservations. For the little guys like us, it’s extremely frustrating that it’s so hard to get a reservation, especially since it seems like people literally write computer programs to score these reservations right as they come out. I’d almost like to see a lottery system in place for a few tables, where a week or two out you could put your name in the lottery, putting everyone on the same playing field.
After a few minutes of trying we ended up getting a 10 p.m. reservation. A 10 p.m. reservation is bad enough, but Blue Hill at Stone Barnes is 30 miles north of the city, and the last train from Tarrytown, the closest train station, leaves at 1:00 a.m. This meant that in order to get back to the city after dinner we had to take an Uber. We were even debating renting a car, as we didn’t know what the Uber or cab situation would be like at that hour in Tarrytown. Luckily, there were ample Ubers available, and it only cost us about $45 to get back to the city. If you have a reservation this late, Uber is definitely the way to go.
The restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns is situated on Blue Hill Farms, an 80 acre farm and learning facility. Pulling into the facility, you feel like you’re approaching a palatial country estate in a Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy novel. The restaurant is located in a castle-like building with a large courtyard. The actual dining room was formerly a cow barn! It’s quite the setting for a meal, even pulling up in the darkness. Although we wish we could have seen the farm in daylight, arriving at night only added to the mystique and charm.
We arrived two hours early, hoping we could eat a littler earlier, but we ended up spending the time in the bar area, complete with cozy chairs and a fireplace. A few drinks make the time pass quickly, and before we knew it we were at our table, which was situated against the back wall and overlooked the entire dining room. It felt like we were sitting in a theater watching a grand show take place on a culinary stage.
At Blue Hill you only have one option, and that’s a $258 tasting menu, including a mandatory 20% “administrative fee.” Tipping is not expected or allowed. Now that they are using Tock, the $258 is paid at booking, so you’re just in for the ride and whatever drinks you order (wines or cocktails by the glass, or you could do the $168 wine pairing) as soon as your table is booked. Each month has a theme based on what’s happening on the farm during that month. We dined in March, and our theme was “charcoal.”
The menu always consists of between 20 and 40 dishes. Many of them small, some of them big. Of all the top tasting menus we’ve done, we left this one the most full.
The food here is meant to showcase the farm, local ingredients, and pure cooking. Barber is most famous for his work with scientists and breeders to produce better tasting, more sustainable products. On the night we went they were highlighting the Badger beet, which was a collaboration with a scientist at Wisconsin (hence the name Badger) to make a beet taste less earthy. If you’ve seen the Chef’s Table episode, you know that Barber is famous for his butternut squash that he bred with vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek.
Blue Hill isn’t trying to do molecular gastronomy, like a lot of the other top restaurants in the world. Their cooking techniques are not high tech (a chef told me they almost never use a sous vide), and you’re tasting the ingredients in their pure form. This is not to downplay the cooking or the wow-factor of the dishes, because they were some of the coolest dishes we’ve ever had. The creativity of Blue Hill’s cooking is second to none.
What really surprised us is that not only is the menu each day different, each table in the restaurant got different dishes depending upon the availability of ingredients. The table next to us got a potato ceviche which we never got, and we got a squash burrata which only a few tables got. Normally, if a restaurant of this caliber changes the menu daily, everyone at the restaurant gets that set menu that day. It is extremely difficult to produce such a varied menu by table. Not only do the chefs need to be spot on with everything, but the front of the house has to be synchronized and in-tune with what’s coming out, so they can be sure they’re delivering the proper meal to the proper table. It is so easy to screw this up, and the ingenuity and creativity that everyone on the team has to have to execute each seating is something we have never seen.
What we had on this night no one else will have again, although there are some staples that seem to stay on the menu, like the liver and chocolate and, of course, the Barber wheat bread. So, even though on your visit you’ll get a different menu, rest assured that you, dear readers, were there with us, especially since we’re always eating for more than two (more like two dozen, if we’re being honest).
Vegetables from the Farm
A classic. They serve fresh picked vegetables from Blue Hill on some nails. No one got tetanus, but if we did, it would have been an honor. A great first few bites.
Right after we finished the vegetables, then the fireworks started. It was small dish after small dish all in a row and on top of one another other. We couldn’t even take a picture before the next two were out. For the flower delivery, a chef runs out and says “Flower Delivery,” and hands us a cup and instructed us to each pick out one of these carrots to eat whole. You don’t know carrots until you’ve had one of these carrots.
Needles in a Haystack
How fun is this! There were two breadsticks in here to eat. Yvonne couldn’t find them, so I had to do her work for her. Typical.
Chufa Milk and Sassafras
At this point, so many things were coming out I lost track of what I was taking pictures of, so this is the only one I got of the chufa milk. Chufa is apparently mentioned in the Bible (sorry, I only read it in Hebrew and didn’t know what I was reading, so we’ll take Blue Hill’s word for it). This was one of my favorite dishes, as the milk was so tasty, especially with the shaved sassafras. It tasted like a better-than-you’ve-ever-had almond milk.
Fermented sweet potato and stone barns lonza
Olivia Wolff from Updog Kombucha is the only other person we know that’s been to Blue Hill, and this reminded me of her saying soppressata like a Jersey girl. Lonza is a distant cousin of soppressatta, two times removed.
Sweet Potato and Fermented Leaves
The sweet potato was warm and savory. This bite was fantastic, and one of the sleepers of the early dishes.
Bresaola and Lettuce
Another house cured meet, first cousin to soppressata and second cousin to the Lonza. So much was happening at this point that we were thoroughly overwhelmed in the most wonderful way. Each bite seemed to be better than the next.
Lion’s Mane Nuggets and honey mustard
It looked like a freaking Chick-fil-A chicken nugget, yet it tasted 100 times better and was made from a mushroom. This dish could bring peace to the Middle East, it’s that good. I pushed it away from Yvonne to clear room for another plate and she almost chopped my hand off to get more of the honey mustard.
The wintermelon that wanted to be a watermelon
Wintermelon is much closer to a squash than a watermelon, so the texture was much more meaty than a watermelon. This one we thought was one of the disappointing bites of the night. Also, we’re not sure if it’s a nod or plagiarism, but this is very similar to the name of a dish at Athens’ Funky Gourmet, “The Feta that Wished to be a Beetroot.”
Liver and Chocolate
Duck liver, you sexy, underused liver. This tasted more like foie gras to me than liver. The sweetness of the chocolate added a perfect balance.
We forgot to mention that so far each dish had been eaten by hand, with no utensils in sight. When this one came out I was a little skeptical, because cabbage sushi doesn’t inherently sound appealing, but boy, was I wrong. They literally tried to take the plate when there was a grain of rice left, and that was a mistake on their part. I was still eating that, bro!
Eight Row Flint Corn tamale and cardamom Leaves
We all know of Yvonne’s corn fear, but she braved this little bite of Blue Hill corn. This corn variety had almost gone extinct, because although it’s very flavorful (people describe it as complex and buttery), the variety does not produce a lot of cobs, so it fell out of favor with mass producers. Barber and a seed enthusiast helped revive the corn at Blue Hill 15 years ago, and it’s still used today in a variety of ways. So many ingredients at Blue Hill have a story like this, and it feels as though you’re eating a history of the American farmer and the renaissance of the humble seed, whose poster boy is Chef Barber.
Last Year’s Preserves
We were then brought a jar of pickled fruits and vegetables. Some of these foods we’d never eaten pickled, including squash, strawberries, and a special red pepper. These were on the sweeter side, and provided a nice transition before the larger dishes.
Koginut Burrata and Malted bread
It’s time for THE squash, the famous Barber mutant squash that has gone mainstream (it’s now served at Sweetgreen locations around the country). This had just hit the menu, and our server said this was the dish she was most excited to try. We ride hard for burrata in any form, so adding the special squash and their malted bread to the equation made this dish one of the best bites of the night.
Badger Beet and Beef
This is our first introduction to the Badger Beet, a beet designed to taste less earthy and be more palatable to the masses. We are weird and like the earthiness of beets to begin with, so we were predisposed to like this dish from the beginning. As you’ll notice, Blue Hill loves to serve sides of meat with their main dishes, as if to remind us that the vegetables are the real stars here.
Winter fruits and Vegetables with Diver Scallops
To me, this was a great scallop with some fruit. It was well-prepared, of course, and the fruit mixed into the scallops was cool, but it didn’t wow me. Moving on.
Red Pepper egg, Nash’s Rye, and Cheddar
A few dishes before this, a chef walks out and says that we are going to play a game. Some of the hens on the farm had been feed grains with red pepper, turning their yolks red. This was done in an effort to prove “you are what you eat.”
Two raw, shelled eggs were presented, and one had red yolk inside and one was regular. We were asked to pick an egg and brand it somehow with a Sharpie to show it was ours. I let Yvonne pick first, because i’m a gentlemen. She ended up picking the regular yellow egg, so I got to have the red pepper one. The flavor of this egg was so amazing, and the pairing with the rye and cheddar just blew me away.
This was the outstanding dish of the night for me and the one that I thought epitomized Blue Hill the best. If you didn’t know the story, you would think this is just an egg, but literally from the hen to the plate, every flavor was beautifully planned to the nth degree.
Whole wheat einkorn bread/
Whole Barber Wheat bread
At this point, we were asked if we’d like to go on an adventure. We were taken to the bread room, where all the bread is made not only for Stone Barns, but also their sister restaurant in NYC. We are told that not only do they make their own bread, they grind their own wheat. We were given a sampling of breads, including the famous Barber wheat.
Pheasant, Jerusalem artichoke and hazelnut
Okay so every picture I took of this dish is blurry, so you get a picture of an actual pheasant. Beautiful bird, eh? They brought out a dead one to show the table next to us, but I guess they thought we were too chicken (pheasant?) to handle the truth. This was our one meat dish, and I throughly enjoyed it. The Jerusalem artichoke and crunchy hazelnuts were great complements to the tender pheasant.
Bread and Butter
Our server brought the bread and butter to the table, finished churning the butter, and then plopped it onto the plate with a healthy pour of buttermilk, and said, go at it, young people. Go at it, we did. Is there anything better than freshly churned butter from Blue Hill? I don’t know if there is. Combine that with the Barber Wheat and you’ve got a great bread course. At this point in the meal, we are so full we could barely eat another bite, but we eventually finished it all because we aren’t quitters. Especially not when it comes to bread.
dry aged parsnip and carrot steak with blue hill farm beef
The main dish was a showcase of the farm’s vegetables, served with a side of beef steak. It was also served with “duck” chips, which were actually made from a root vegetable, though we can’t remember which one. Such a fun and unique dish that highlighted the magic that is Blue Hill.
The Stages of Maple Sap Reduction
Dessert time. Maple ice cream with a fermented maple jelly. Yvonne loved this one, but I didn’t care for it. To each their own.
Badger Flame Beet Pie
The beets are back! This time in pie form. It wasn’t too sweet and highlighted the flavors of the beet. It was right on the edge of being savory, yet it ended up being the perfect amount of dessert for this stage of the meal. A beautifully executed dish.
100% whole wheat chocolate cherry bread and milk jam
The last bite, and boy, was it a good one. The chocolate cherry bread was so moist it was basically like eating cake. Yvonne didn’t finish hers, and we should all judge her for this.
Before you are led into the dining room you are brought to the bar, which includes a fireplace and fully stocked bar. The cocktail menu is presented as a map, where each part of the farm is made into a drink with ingredients from that part of the farm. How fun is that?! They also make most of their glassware from ground bones from late Blue Hill animals, so nothing goes to waste.
They had three non-alcoholic cocktails, and I tried all three. My favorite was the Silos, which had corn, quinoa, clove, and cinnamon. It tasted earthy, and carried the sweetness of the corn, the spiciness of the cinnamon, and the crunch of the quinoa flakes. Such a complex and unique cocktail. Yvonne had pink champagne, and two cocktails, the Apiary and the Vegetable Field. The apiary was brought out in jar lined with bees wax which you poured yourself into a glass. The flavor I think best could be described as drinking a potion from the woods. The Vegetable Field was her favorite, with a rich fattiness from the tallow and the siren song of her go-to spirit, mezcal.
Once seated at the table, you are offered a wine pairing for $168 or you can do a la cart wine or cocktails. We elected for the a la cart option, as who can have a full wine pairing at our age at 10:00 p.m.?
The attire says coats and tied preferred, absolutely no shorts. To me, that says you need to wear a lime green cashmere sweater from Uniqlo, which is about as dressy as I get, unless it’s a funeral. I was the only guest on the property without a tie. At first this scared me, as I thought that the experience was going to be stuffy and too serious, but the meal couldn’t have felt less stuffy. The setting was magnificent, but you could tell that the place had a real sense of humor and playfulness - not only with the activities and games we played with the servers, but also the plating and presentation of the dishes. It’s what we hoped the experience at Osteria Francescana would be like – fancy yet friendly. When you go to a top restaurant, you want to have an experience you remember for a lifetime. You don’t want to feel like you’re visiting a museum of food. Blue Hill pulled off the perfect experience.
The service here, as one would expect, is top notch. When you are waiting to be sat in the lounge, one of the heads of service comes and asks you how you are doing and gets to know you for a few minutes. What they glean from you - why you are there, where you are from, etc - is communicated to the rest of the team who continue the conservation throughout the night. There is a frenetic energy to the service, very similar to Noma, where there is constant activity throughout the dining room. The servers sometimes line up with your dish, then notice it’s not quite the right time, and will circle the room like bees until it’s the perfect moment to drop off the next dish. They also would answer any question you had and not seem pissed off that you were asking it. There was no snobbiness or no snootiness - everyone seemed genuinely happy to be working at Blue Hill and supportive of the mission.
Case in point: normally at the end, they print out a menu for you to take home. Their printer was down, so we asked if they could email us one. Not only did they email us one the next day they were open, but they also overnighted us a printed menu on their letterhead. That’s going above and beyond.
Having dinner at 10 p.m. is insane and we’re still tired; I hope when I die my bones are ground up and made into Blue Hill bone china; We feel we made a lot of best friends in the servers at Blue Hill, and we hope the feeling is mutual; Bears, Badger beets, and Battlestar Galactica; When we get our palatial estate, our first pet will be a pheasant named Neville; Wearing a sweater to Blue Hill is definitely rich man/poor man scenario.
Rating: 5 out of 5 with 3 Michigan Pugs
Blue Hill is the best meal we’ve had in the US and nowhere else even comes close (we’re looking at you, Eleven Madison Park). The attention to detail, the creativity, setting, and overall experience are second to none (Okay, we still have Noma slightly ahead, but this was the first place we’ve been that gave it a run for its money). It’s tough to get to, but worth the visit. If you ever have the chance to dine at Blue Hill, it’s a can’t miss opportunity.