The ultimate authority on farm-to-table cooking since 2000, Blue Hill is still a paradigm of sustainable food values. While you might be hard-pressed to find company below the age of 40 in the tiny, low-ceilinged space, you will enjoy a garden of Eden full of lovingly cultivated flavors unlike anywhere else.
While the phrase "farm-to-table" too often evokes a conscious branding intended to attract those self-proclaimed, millenial foodies who want to feel good about whatever they’re eating, its origins are in fact much more genuine, and much more authentic. The modern notion of farm-to-table cooking is usually traced back to sunny California in the 1960s and 70s, when chefs like Alice Waters were turning to organic, local foods in response to the great mechanization of agribusiness. But like so many great movements in any discipline, the popularization of the trend brought about a vanishing of the values that inspired it in the first place.
So today, whenever I see a dish described only as "whatever our farmer brings today," my eyes roll into the back of my head and I convulse and die, praying that it’s just a campy joke. Indeed, most restaurants that have come to embrace these locavore semantics do so with such a heavy-handed gusto and nostalgia that I almost expect to see an angelic farmer floating around the restaurant with an ethereal, golden halo, sprinkling barley and pepita seeds on every diner.
Thankfully, Blue Hill exists to remind us that this resurrection of farm-to-table is a farce, and the beauty and values of its earliest, former self can still be found in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse.
Here, with either a constantly changing 4-course Daily Menu for $85 (dessert is on a separate menu, but included), or a multi-course Farmer’s Feast tasting menu for $98, chef Dan Barber reminds us that true farm-to-table cooking is about knowing every ingredient from the beginning to the end of its life, and showcasing the peculiarities of its seasonality.
On a recent dinner in late spring, Mr. Barber was showcasing asparagus in at least two dishes, a first course of Pencil Asparagus with preserved apricots, pistachio, and milk curd for a creamy finish, and in a second course of Stone Barns Pullet Egg with asparagus, morels, and ramps. Flavors are fresh but deeply intense, more powerful than you would expect from a dish with such clean focus.
The Stuffed Ramps with vegetable pulp, malted grains, and a bit of carrot mustard on the side also had the bewitching effect of making me feel like I had entered Mr. Barber’s own private garden, so delicately was the dish tended and plated, draped with blossoms and foam. But inside was a satisfying depth of flavor that balanced the spiciness and nuttiness of grains with a wholesome richness. The Stone Barns Celtuce, a type of lettuce with a thick, earthy stem, was topped with smoked farmer’s cheese and chopped peanuts and pine nuts, sitting against a vibrant sauce made from mache lettuce, also known for its nutty tones. It is an elegantly refined and nuanced dish that is as bright as a candy Jolly Rancher and yet more satisfying and savory than any vegetable imaginable.
The main course on a recent evening was the Stone Barns Berkshire Pig with a curried flowering kale that was stunningly juicy, though the sauce was rather expected and a piece of fat was unfortunately too chewy. Dessert was an incredible surprise, however, particularly for a person who never enjoys ordering it. The toasted peppercorn and rhubarb ice cream and cheesecake carried the Edenic themes of freshness and intense bounty to the very end of the meal, proving that when a chef like Dan Barber is at the helm, farm-to-table dining is just as truthful and alive as ever.