Leaves of Grass
We're on the slow train out of Grand Central, the Hudson on our side, as New York, New York transitions gradually from downtown into upstate. As long as people have travelled by and alongside rivers the temptation has been to cast journeys like this as voyages back in time, to the source; away from the urban and modern and towards the rural, the preindustrial, history itself. But we’re on the way to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, perhaps the most avant-garde restaurant in the world – not necessarily in the techniques and presentations employed to bring food to your table, but in its anticipation of, and total commitment to, a future almost entirely absent animal flesh.
In twenty-five years, you will not be able to buy meat at a supermarket. If that scans as mere opinion to you, rather than a rational interpretation of the damage done to our health (and the planet’s) by Big Animal Husbandry, fine. But I’m siding with Dan Barber, and his conviction that the only practical solution is to raise the quality of everything we eat, and accept that this may entail eating less of the stuff we currently and thoughtlessly consume the most.
The menu at Blue Hill is a manifesto outlining how this might work in practice. Depending on what and how you’re counting, we get through somewhere between 14 and 30 different courses during our dinner, and in only one of them does animal protein feature as a main event in the traditional sense (and even in that case – a very Francophone cross-section of pheasant – the zingy wild garlic ravioli alongside are far more interesting). Meat instead appears as an accent – venison bringing a ferrous tang to beetroot; unctuous tallow providing body and sense-memory to a root vegetable "steak" – or as a single, fleeting mouthful from a cut taken from anywhere in the proverbial five quarters, almost as a provocation: if you’re cool with pig liver and chocolate, how about pig heart pastrami?
At its best, Barber’s style of cooking is breathtaking, with a delicacy of touch and mastery of balance that leaves you reeling: I can still taste the sweetness and acidity of a miniature beetroot tarte fine; I can think of no better refreshment on a hot day than the chilled winter melon soup they serve tableside, direct out of a giant gourd. This is just one in a series of presentations that are interesting, not gimmicky: the tone in general is friendly, breezy, diverting; it serves to break up what in other restaurants can be a monotonous slog (we are even served one course away from the table, in a converted manure shed – an odd choice of location for a breath of fresh air). After an initial flurry of single bites, that soup kicks off a series of interstitial small plates that not only embody but also entirely validate Barber’s philosophy: asparagus (raw) with caviar and ham hock, asparagus (cooked, this time, and buttered) with salted egg yolk and rhubarblike chunks of knotweed, an outstanding potato salad dressed in a riff on tartar sauce, and a tiny taco made of kohlrabi stuffed with pork and swordfish, miniature hot sauce bottle alongside. At moments like this, it all coheres; nothing could make more sense.
But I knew Barber as the writer of The Third Plate before I knew him as a chef; on a couple of occasions the more didactic tone of the book intrudes, encroaching on pure enjoyment. We’re probably there at an awkward time of year, seasonality-wise: not so immersed in winter that Barber can dial up the butter and carbs, not so far into summer that nature can take over, pumping out high Brix content produce indiscriminately. But the absence of a safety net of fat and caramelised protein in several courses means that the produce is left to stand alone, which it doesn’t always do to great success: the celebrated opening act of impaled mini-vegetables (radishes, chard, lettuce) is merely fine; a sole baby carrot served fronds-on is actually pretty wan; a torture rack of literal weeds with seaweed pesto is leafy greens on leafy greens but tastes counterintuitively anaemic. A 100% wholewheat pizza – another play on fast food to go with the taco and a cutesy beetburger – is worthy in conception, but fairly austere in the eating (I’m far more taken by the bowl of warm, fresh ricotta alongside).
And at other points, it feels like Barber is making the compromises necessary to bait tyre-manufacturers, Netflix producers, San Pellegrino's ethically bankrupt friends-with-benefits. Something called Needle in the Haystack has a cool name but is pretty meh to experience, a few thin cheese straws in a mass of... well, you get it (I think this passes for wit among the travelling foodie set; more importantly, perhaps, it’s an undeniably arresting presentation, worthy of a swelling-sountracked Chef's Table moneyshot). The slab of pheasant feels out of place, but is presumably there for the gouty joyless Michelin tourists who don't feel they've had a proper tea unless they've been able to fuck up a prime cut with a Laguiole knife. A similar curse of the fine dinings afflicts the final pudding, a shapeless malted barley foam under an overkill of dark chocolate sauce; it’s a perplexing turn away from the preceding thoughtfulness and finesse that’s brought into sharp contrast by the very last thing we eat, a couple of slices from two perfect apples, dragged through a comb of hyperlocal honey.
I’ve never really bought into the tasting-menu-as-symphony metaphor: it implies something continuous about your experience; it doesn’t do justice to the discrete nature of eating however many distinct courses (maybe it’s better, if no less affected, to think in terms of an Elizabethan play, with scenes and acts and a whole lot of expository dialogue). However you choose to conceptualise it, though, there is no denying the sheer logistical-aesthetic achievement of somewhere like Blue Hills, and along with that, the impossibility of crafting a multi-multi-course menu that will appeal equally to everyone at every stage. In order not to bore, you’ve got to vary the tone; in varying the tone, you risk alienating the people you’d otherwise have bored. To state that there are moments that don’t work as well as others for me is not to argue that the cooking is bad, or that they wouldn’t work well for you – this stuff is hard to get Goldilocks-right for everyone, is all I’m saying.
Blue Hills doesn’t have to pitch a perfect game every night to make its point successfully: for me, it was the run of winter melon soup through to kohlrabi taco that made me recognise the potential of Barber’s approach. I do worry a little, though, about ideology running up against the need to give pleasure; about the experience the customer wants running up against the ability to stimulate in that customer a more profound sense of reflection. The stone barns that house the kitchen and dining room are sturdy, proofed against the seasons; the hills that surround it change with the sun and rain and wind. Dinner at Blue Hills necessarily represents a delicate dance between permanence and transience: a menu that shifts daily for a clientele with uniformly and unstintingly high expectations, arguing something in the moment that has the potential to shape the way we eat for the next fifty years.
There’s a lot on your Third Plate, basically. But that, for me, is the point of places like this: as much the boring pragmatic part of me wonders whether Barber’s agenda might be better served in parcelling it up more sympathetically – a wider series of wastED-ucational pop-ups on one hand, a more straightforwardly hedonic Stone Barns on the other – I would prefer just to wonder at what he has created already. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is not just the most avant-garde restaurant on earth; it is the most personal one, too. It is a monument to ambition, to obsession, to courage and conviction; to humanism and everything that humans can achieve. It contains multitudes, driving home like nowhere else I’ve ever been how insane a thing it is to open a high stakes restaurant, and how important it is that there are people willing to do it, even (especially) in 2017. It makes you realise that there are good people in the world, people who care, who want to give something their best shot and are OK to shrug it off if, in reaching for perfection, they don’t quite get there, because the trying was what mattered.
To eat at Blue Hill is not just to gain a glimpse of the future; it is – all too briefly – to make you optimistic for it, too.