Food and travel are part of the same timeless equation, of course, although as New Yorkers, we tend to forget it. Besieged on every street corner (and in every new skyscraper shopping mall) by pizza stands and enotecas and cutting-edge sushi bars, we rarely have to exert ourselves to find a decent meal. A really good meal we can conjure up from the pages of Zagat or the listings of any number of Websites or magazines. But what about a really great meal? When jaded New Yorkers regale me with tales of their truly fabulous dining adventures (jaded New Yorkers are always regaling me with tales of their truly fabulous dining adventures), the event usually takes place in Chengdu or San Francisco, or some other far-flung destination. That’s what travel does: It lifts us out of the humdrum and provides a sense of escape, discovery, and novelty. Throw in a good meal or two, and the whole experience takes on a rosy, heightened quality, which only grows in the imagination when we return home and begin ceaselessly nattering to all our friends about it.
Which is more or less what I did, in my muted, bemused way, following my first visit to the new restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, on the old Rockefeller estate, 30 miles up the Hudson River, in Pocantico Hills, New York. A drive up the Saw Mill isn’t much as trips go, but when you’re leaving behind a sweltering, clamorous city, the effect of a little greenery can be startling. The drive took 40 minutes (book a nine o’clock table and you’ll avoid the traffic), and when we arrived, dusk was falling and the air smelled of freshly mown hay and traces of chocolate. The barns, which are modeled after structures in Normandy, were built in the twenties as a way of educating young Rockefellers about agriculture. They have impressive stone silos, and tall eves that are strafed, in the evenings, by flocks of swallows. The restaurant itself is located in the old dairy barn, which has been renovated into a polished, welcoming space, with lofty metal rafters, cream-colored walls, and high windows offering long views of the countryside.
“Chef Barber takes pains to showcase ingredients instead of obliterating them with heat and sauce.”
When the Rockefellers decided to turn their old barns into a dining destination, they had the patrician good sense to enlist Dan Barber and his brother, David, co-owners of Blue Hill, a favorite restaurant among members of the precious slow-food set. The Barbers grew up on the Upper East Side (Dan is the chef, his brother the businessman), but they are card-carrying Greenmarketeers. So while Blue Hill (it’s named for the Barbers’ family farm in the Berkshires) specializes in “seasonal cuisine,” its new suburban cousin is supposed to be the real thing: a self-sufficient agro-restaurant replete with its own state-of-the-art, Rockefeller-built greenhouse, its own flock of hyperorganic chickens, its own collection of prize Berkshire hogs and even a few sheep. The herb garden is on display in neatly labeled rows when you walk from your car on the way to dinner, and if you feel so moved, you can go pay a call on the hogs, which are kept in a movable pen on a little rise behind the barns, under a stand of oak trees.
The menu at Stone Barns is a mildly confusing document, divided into fussy, bucolic-sounding categories (Farm Eggs, From the Pastures, etc.), from which you’re supposed to construct a meal of two ($46) to four courses ($66). Whatever you do, be sure to focus on what’s in season. In farm country, of course, seasons are measured in weeks, not months, and I had the good fortune to dine in the middle of the three-week summer pea season. This meant crisp, sweet, sugar snap peas served cold (with sea salt and olive oil) as a simple hors d’oeuvre, peas mashed into a superior green garden gazpacho, and peas pounded into a kind of cool, melting cannelloni filled with little deposits of lobster salad. Sweet peas (along with asparagus and spring onions) enlivened the gently poached piece of wild salmon I enjoyed one evening, as well as the excellent fillet of red snapper, which was flavored with a tangy, crunchy, caper-almond sauce.
Chef Barber is a practitioner of the art of gentle cooking. He’s a master at poaching and braising, and he takes pains to showcase ingredients instead of obliterating them with too much heat and sauce. Sometimes this kind of food can veer into blandness, but in the proper hands it’s an education in primary flavors. If you tire of peas, you can tuck into the asparagus, which comes in myriad forms (juiced in a potent wheatgrasslike concoction, or speared on sticks, wrapped in pancetta and sesame seeds), and the salads, the best of which is made with bibb and romaine lettuce and a vinaigrette loaded with bits of pancetta, with a warm breadcrumb-covered egg on top. The restaurant’s hogs aren’t yet fully grown (when they are, two will be slaughtered weekly), which may explain why my plate of bacon and pork loin lacked a certain flavorful porkiness. The baby lamb (also imported, for now) was deeply flavorful, however, as was the chicken (home-grown), which comes in roulade form (with creamed turnip greens) or as a simple sliced breast. The chicken breast is gently poached, of course, as is the duck breast, which is served over a pile of soft, sweet sautéed carrots.
If you visit Stone Barns on weekends, you can sample the brunch, which seems a little haphazard at this stage (languid service, no pancakes, not enough eggs), then wander down to the greenhouse, where you may encounter the chef himself puttering around in a floppy peasant hat. Or you can just hunker down in the dining room and peruse the fine wine list with its big-city prices, or the excellent desserts. There’s a delicate cannelloni-like shell made of strawberries stuffed with crème fraîche, and warm little croquettes of chocolate stacked over fresh sliced cherries. There’s a mini strawberry coupe containing a wedge of lemon cake plus many pleasing forms of strawberry (preserves and granité, among others), and a bowl of cooling rhubarb soup with a minty spoonful of fromage blanc sorbet floating on top. Devour them in a few quick bites, if you must, or do what I did and eat them slowly while you ruminate on the pleasures of the country life.