You know how Jeremy Piven always kicks butt? Whether he's saying "bitches, man" in Say Anything, or showing up as the Versace salesman in Rush Hour 2, I am just happy when Piven is part of a film. He's not necessarily my favorite actor. In fact, I often forget about him even though he probably would be a better sidekick than most the people cast in most of the movies I watch. Of course, then there is Ari in Entourage. As Ari, Piven is doing a thing so perfect he joins the ranks of people like Nicholson as the Joker or Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena (those rare moments when the right actor gets the right role and there is a certain perfection).
Dan Barber is the Jeremy Piven of New York restaurants. There, well respected, always doing solid work and interchangeable with a couple of other people at his level. Dan is one of the reigning kings of in-season, indigenous product and definitely performs at the top of this echelon. Dan's Ari is spring; in spring, Chef Barber's performance is transcendent.
So when Pichon, Helmet, Mispooz, Wife, and I needed a place to celebrate Ringwald's birthday in mid-April, Blue Hill seemed an obvious choice. Blue Hill, on Washington Place just west of Washington Square Park, is probably the most unassuming restaurant in New York. Down a couple of steps under an awning hardly marked in any way, you open a glass door, walk through a velvet curtain, and are standing in a basement; a well lit, somber rectangle of a room with no windows anywhere in front of you. It seems to accept there was not much that could be done with the space so little was. It is comfortable and humble. Touches as simple as channeling the lights into the low ceiling and running a strip of mirror behind the bench seating that rings the room do a good job of overcoming some of the limitations of being in the bottom of a townhouse, without going so far as to point it out.
The focus of Blue Hill has always been on the food, and Mr. Barber has created a bit of local celebrity for himself in the world of letting-the-food-speak-for-itself, and is the Times' go to guy for articles on farmers by a chef, so we thought it best to leave the menu up to him and his star ingredients. When I booked the reservation I asked Franco, the GM (in the interest of disclosure, on one of my forays into the dining scene Franco was forced to fire me, rehire me, and then fire me again all in about 2 months. I bear him no ill will and he obviously bears me none as this dinner proves), to arrange us a tasting menu of the chef's choosing with paired wines. Here is what showed up:
Turnip soup, Basil Sorbet, Olive Oil Cake with Arugula Pesto, Fried Ravioli with Stone Barns Greens and Ricotta, and Arcuri Garlic Tuile: there was nothing here we didn't like. The group's favorite was the ravioli but I would be lying if I said we contemplated these bites. All of them were gone in about 4 minutes. You will see, though, that our spring tasting menu had already well covered most of the flavors of New York State in spring.
Ferona Beets with Lime Sorbet: sweet, light, and definitely beets. Although they lacked the topsoil flavors I have come to expect in beets, the texture was the interesting part as theirs was the texture of the flesh of an aloe plant.
Stone barns Greens Soup with Lime Marshmallow: can I just say yum and leave it at that? Really just about the freshness of spring greens, then the bit of marshmallow hit the tongue making it seem even fresher.
Pairing: these were all served with a round of Cava sent with Franco's compliments to Ringwald on her birthday (he was absent).
SPRING VEGETABLE SALAD GREENS FROM OUR FARM, RAW AND MARINATED PISTACIOS AND MUSHROOMS GELÉE undisputedly the most impressive course of the evening. There were maybe 15 components to this salad between various greens, beets, cauliflower, pickled sunchokes, carrots, marinated carrots, cauliflower, roasted root veggies, oils, and mushroom gelée. Each element had its own preparation; each was independent yet all came together with a harmony to be an extraordinary celebration of the little things that start growing this time of year.
Paired: '04 Maximin Grunhauser Riesling Kabinett, from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer perceptibly sweet for a Kabinett, it had the light acidity to make it seem springy as the salad.
GRILLED HAMACHI SPAGETTI SQUASH AND APPLE CELERY BROTH some of the most exact grill marks I have ever seen adorned the fish and brought that light, bitter touch of singed fish flesh to a dish that involved light sweetness (apples), light astringency (celery), and light body (spaghetti squash), with the clean ocean flavor of the raw center of the fresh fish.
Paired: '04 Movia, "Gredic" Furlanski Tokaj from Brda in Slovenia Friullian Tocai is a great white with cured meats but I don't feel this one was well paired to this dish. It had heavy woodnotes and was earthy for a Tocai and for this dish.
POACHED HAKE ZUCCHINI, QUINOA AND FIRST OF THE SEASON RAMPS the fish was a perfect texture, tight on its surface while being flakey and pliant through its interior. This was set atop a pool of buttery sauce permeated with the garlic-leek aroma of young ramps and studded with chewy little bits of sprouted quinoa. There was also seared, diced zucchini and wilted greens. This was the dish that caused us to remark on how deft they were with salt. Salt was one of the major components of this dish, working in accord with these flavors, taking a front seat but pushing nothing back.
Paired: '02 Ronco Del Gnemiz Chardonay Colli Orieantali Del Friuli Italy made a very short distance from Movia in Slovenia, this again seemed to be a mineraly, wood-influenced white that would have been better-suited to fricco or a well-salted, smoked leg of pork than this dish.
THIS MORNING'S FARM EGG PARSNIP PUREE, STONE BARNS GREENS AND LARDO AND MUSHROOM BROTH slow poached, the egg had an even texture through the white and the yolk and, when broken and stirred in to the broth, it brought a luxuriance to the earthy flavors of the soup. The best part of this dish was that the Lardo which had been slightly roasted in some way and tasted of walnuts. We asked and were told that no walnuts or walnut oil played any part in the dish, leaving us to assume that the pig had been on a walnut-heavy diet prior to slaughter. This small component of this dish was captivating enough to merit all of Dan's time working with local farms and farmers.
Pairing: '03 Sean H. Thackrey "Pleiades XIV" Old Vines from California A big, leathery, smoky, super-extracted red, it seemed out-sized to the dish. Clearly a wine with a wine maker's hand heavily involved, it seemed disparate to a dish that seemed so much about terroir.
BERKSHIRE PORK BRAISED BABY POTATOES, CRANBERRY MARMALADE, AND BRUSSELS SPROUT LEAVES what's better than well-prepared pork loin? The small piece of roasted bacon next to it. The little nugget potatoes were dense and deeply flavored, with the light crunch of the fresh little cabbages bringing a lightness to the dish.
Pairing: '00 Altesimo Brunello Di Montalcino Tuscany Italy well balanced, bright red fruit with supple tannin, it stood very well next to the dish.
STEAMED CHEESECAKE CANDIED KUMQUATS pretty straightforward light, airy cheesecake with a bit of sweet/bitter kumquat.
Pairng: '02 Helmut Gangl Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese, from Austria sweet, with enough defining acid to keep it from being cloying, it was reminiscent of golden raisins, peaches, and a little sweat.
The dishes were all winners across the board; the wines were three good and three that were more out of sync with the well-achieved mission of the meal than bad. Interesting wines with interesting pedigrees by interesting makers, they seemed a little over-worked next to food that was so much about the beauty of what happens when nature is guided by a light, confident touch.
The ingredients called "Stone Barns" come from the Blue Hill project in Westchester that is a fine dining restaurant on a working Farm. When it was started, I had a fear that one of the greats of the neighborhood would slide as its chef was distracted by a new project, a new kitchen, and the life of a farmer. Happily quite contrarily, the addition of Stone Barns seems to be providing even finer and fresher produce to the Village.
Dan Barber was in the restaurant and stopped by our table at the close of the meal to say hi. It was nice to see that on his surface he has settled nicely into the guise of a farmer -- thinner than I remember him from when his pictures first started appearing in the papers eight or so years ago, with a touch of gray well suiting a quietly confident man sure of what he does. Maybe I am just getting poetic about a guy that can make such a meal, but this was a meal with that power.
I love that Blue Hill is close and accessible, but the reality is that in summer and winter it is simply as good as most its competition and I let it slide down my list of places to get to. In autumn, it takes a small lead and stands in a small group of the greats. Then, in the spring, I remember the humble little giant tucked around the corner on Washington Place. Few achieve this level of excellence. Get in before it goes back to just being super.