Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

So, it has now been over two weeks since I had my favorite meal ever, and the memories of that night are still as fresh and delectable as every morsel that I ate there. On the most gorgeous of Spring afternoons, DrRuckus and I went to Tarrytown, NY to experience the perfection that is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I am not sure exactly how to express how incredible this place is. Even one of my favorite food bloggers of all time made a cartoon after he first visited.

Growing up in northern New Jersey and spending a great deal of time in Vermont, I had no idea that idyllic, lush rolling hills and farmland exists right there, mere miles outside of NYC. Yet, it does! Located 30 miles from the city is the Stone Barn Center for Food and agriculture and this is the farm from which much of the food served at the restaurants (there is one in the city too) is grown.

We had just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and so heading to this farm to tour it and then really experience a "farm to table" meal was truly exciting for us. We walked around the farm, saw the happy and healthy animals, and acres of greenhouses and gardens where the herbs and vegetables for our dinner were growing.

After touring the farm, and admiring all of their techniques as well as the fruits of their labors, we wandered around the courtyard that is the heart of the Stone Barn Center. There is a great deal going on there, including frequent farmer's markets and a cafe, as well as many educational opportunities. Finally, it was time for our reservation!

We sat outside and admired the view, while indulging in a wild ramp margarita. (It was Cinqo de Mayo!) It was possibly the best margarita ever, out there, soaking up the scene.

Then, we entered the incredible space that is the restaurant. I have never been in such a beautiful room. High ceilings, exposed beams, rough hewn floors - it is stunning and warm. The centerpoint is a huge table overflowing with flowers and edibles. When we sat down, they presented us with a list of items from which the meal was be drawn, rather than a menu. The gracious staff then asked specific questions about our preferences. We chose the 8 course tasting and told them that we would eat anything that they brought us, that if they thought it was worthy of being served, we would lap it up. "Even offal?" YES. You make it, we eat it! They seemed glad that we were adventurous, but we overheard other diners expressing very specific preferences and all were taken into account. Vegetarians are obviously no problem, but some people had difficult allergies or aversions. A woman seated next to us actually told the server, "I LOVE caviar" and this was accommodated. (Why didn't I think of that?)

We found a bottle of an old favorite wine, a Riesling from the Finger Lakes, and settled in to enjoy the ride. We started with a presentation of fresh baby vegetables on tiny spikes, so creative, so simple, so delightfully fresh and beautiful. From there, we enjoyed 7(!!!!) other courses of amuses bouches before even beginning our 8 course tasting. Because they change it every night, and customize for every guest, I won't go into each course but will just list some highlights. One of the amuses was a pork liver pate sandwiched between caramelized chocolate and was so surprising, fun and delicious! We had a brioche made from heirloom red grains and ostrich eggs and topped with fresh, warm ricotta made from cows that had been feasting on the sweetest grasses of the spring. We had face bacon as an amuse and a trio of porky goodness (belly, loin and leg). The meat from the healthy, happy pigs that we had seen just hours before tasted like nothing I had ever had before. Our final savory course was goat with a sauce made from a variety of herbs that they brought to the table for us to touch and smell before being cooked into liquid gold. The timing, the service, the presentation, and the array of tastes were all spot on. But, the fact that each of 15 (7 amuses and 8 tasting) courses was wonderful is mind blowing!

If you haven't been to this restaurant, it should be on your bucket list. I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Our Foodie Tour of NY/NJ

We recently returned from two fabulous weeks back "home" in New Jersey and spent lots of quality time with our families and some time (not enough, no never enough) in our favorite place, NYC. We had so much to celebrate, from my parents' 35th anniversary, DrRuckus's birthday, a good friend's bridal shower, my MIL's 60th birthday, and just the fact that we were there, in the springtime, with the people we love! Ladybug is getting so big and really loved playing with her family and all of the doggies. She also fell madly in love with the beach and I can't wait to bring her back this summer. Z-Man shares our passion for the area and is becoming a true expert on NYC transit. He and Grandpa spent two days in the city, one day just riding around and the other taking the 4 train to Yankee stadium to catch a game. He also went to his first Broadway show with his aunts and Grandma, though it wasn't as much of a hit for him as just being in Time Square. I am so glad that my kids have the opportunity to really get to know the places we call home.

So, of course, I had planned many of our meals and nights out, and there were some definite high points. We also had some great surprise finds that just thrilled and delighted us. It has been a while since I did a total foodie post, but bear with me, I have so much to share:

Lately my family is living a very Michael Pollan approved lifestyle. We try to "Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants" and have discovered so many new flavors, textures and recipes by eating this way and participating in a CSA. We eat very healthfully and my kids love their veggies. However, my amendment to these food rules, is that when I out to someplace really special (which, being me, I will have researched to death and all but guaranteed that it will be great), all bets are off and I am going to enjoy the specialties of the house.

DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies in Robbinsville, NJ. This place was so good that we went twice! We went on the first night of our trip and loved it so much that we decided to drag the whole family down there to get there at 4 p.m. when it opened to celebrate Mother's Day. Tomato pie is to traditional New York pizza as, well, Chicago style is to New York pizza. These pies have ultra thin, crisp crusts with a layer of cheese and then toppings and sweet tomatoes. We had the red pie with white clams both times and it was divine. The clams were all chopped up and added a briny savoriness to the pie that I loved. We also had the housemade sausage and sweet pepper pie and, while more traditional, it was ultra flavorful and delicious. They also do a fantastic antipasti plate and different fresh and creative salads every day. Both times we were lucky to have their heavenly heirloom tomato salad which will only get better as those Jersey tomatoes really start to come into season. Believe me friends in north Jersey, it is worth the drive to Robbinsville to have this pizza.

The Bent Spoon in Princeton, NJ: I am about to make a very bold statement. This ice cream shop makes the best ice creams and sorbets (dark chocolate!!!) I have EVER had, including at Berthillon in Paris. I know!!!!!! Palmer Square in Princeton is so adorable and lovely, and this little hippie ice cream place makes me want to live there and never leave. They are Pollan-ites themselves, sourcing their ingredients locally, supporting local farms, making everything fresh, creating so many incredible flavors every day. We went, we sampled the flavors, we chose, we ate, we sampled some more and then we got seconds! I loved this place so much, I even got a tee shirt. It makes my beloved Arctic Zero stand out like the nerdy wannabe cousin of ice cream that it is.

Chef Vola's in Atlantic City, NJ: This was our second time at this fabulous Italian restaurant in Atlantic City and was the place we chose to celebrate my MIL's 60th birthday. It was just as good this time as last time, maybe even better because with more people, we got to sample more dishes. I usually think that portions like this are ridiculous, but here those enormous plates just part of the fun. And, everything is so tasty that you can't help but eat the whole thing (yes, DrRuckus did finish his entire 2 pound veal chop parmigiana!) Making a reservation is a pain and the setting is strange, but they know how to please their customers. I even made reservations to celebrate my birthday there a few weeks from now!

Colicchio and Sons in NYC: After a 3 star review in the Times and being a big fan of Colicchio and his other restaurants, we thought that this place would be a slam dunk to celebrate my parents' 35th anniversary. It is in a lovely space right under the Highline and aims to be a contender for destination dining in New York. (Well, it is, for suckers like me who feed into the celebrity nonsense I guess.) It was okay, there were some high points, but I wouldn't go back. Best parts of the meal were the crispy chicken skin on my sister's chicken dish and an incredible cheese from my cheese course that came from Stowe, VT (love you Stowey) and tasted exactly like it.

Union Square Cafe, NYC: We met some good friends for lunch at USC and had a great meal there. It is just one of those places that is always solid, always tasty, always delightful. Their "greenmarket lunch" on the weekends is reliably fresh and wonderful with ingredients purchased right up the street at the weekend greenmarket. I had a delicious fresh veggie and pasta dish with a farm fresh egg on top and truffles shaved over it. Heavenly. DrRuckus had a very tasty burger. We got to catch up with friends in a relaxed atmosphere. Not bad for lunch! And, afterwards, we went around the corner to Baked by Melissa, an tiny shop that sells adorable mini cupcakes. What fun! They have great flavors, the cupcakes are filled and frosted, and you can sample a whole bunch of flavors without any guilt. Why didn't I think of that?

Degustation, NYC: One night DrRuckus and I were heading into the city to meet friends for dinner but we weren't sure where to meet them. We headed downtown without a destination and then the other couple had to cancel on us last minute. We were in the East Village and I turned to my trusty friend, Yelp. Lo and Behold, there was a restaurant two blocks away with a very solid 4.5 star rating that I had never heard of. Yay! We found parking (karma) and walked over. We didn't have a reservation, but it was early and it was Monday and we were seated around a sushi bar for one of the coolest meals of our lives. This place was made for foodies and we loved every second of it! All 16 patrons are seated around a sushi bar where 4 chefs are preparing "tapas" with a french/molecular gastronomy bent. They offer tapas by the plate or in 5 or 10 course tasting menus. You know me well enough by now to know what we chose! At $80 for 10 courses (plus a plate of 3 amazing amuses), it was a bargain! Each plate, each taste, imparted new delights. It was made even more special by the fact that we were sitting up close, watching these artists create each of our plates and present them like masterpieces. The entire meal was like watching a cross between a ballet and an episode of Top Chef, except that I got to taste it all. Each dish was intricate and interesting and yet harmonious. I must say, though, that the highlight was the bruleed brioche pudding for dessert. I am still dreaming of that . . .

After such an amazing meal, we walked around the very happening East Village for a while and decided that the only thing that could top off such a great meal would be a massage. "Hey!" we said, "This is New York. We can definitely get a massage at 11 p.m. in this city." So, with trusty Yelp on my iPhone, I found a place in Chinatown called "Foot Heaven" that promised to be legit, high quality and open. Off we went and had pretty amazing reflexology massages at that late hour. Only in New York!

The ultimate high point of our trip was the afternoon and evening that we spent touring and dining at Blue Hill at Stone Barn. It was so amazing though, it will get its own post.